When visiting coffee plantations, fincas, and farms around the world, many growers don’t know which variety of coffee they are growing. Similar to the Indica/Sativa debate surrounding cannabis, many Central American coffee growers simply know whether their seed is descended from Typica, Geisha, or Bourbon varieties.

Coffee production contributes to the income of some 12.5 million, value per annum households around the world. The coffee industry as a whole is estimated to generate some USD$ 74 billion. However, for a long period of time, little attention has been given to cultivated coffee varieties.

Being considered a commodity, only coffee species were clearly identified: Coffea arabica producing Arabica coffee and C. canephora producing the coffee known as Conillon when produced in Brazil and Robusta anywhere else in the world. However, during the last decade, focus on coffee varieties has gained interest.

According to Montagnon et al in their study which you can read in full for free here., three main reasons explain this new interest in coffee varieties:

  • The rust disease (Hemileia vastatrix) crisis in Latin America in early 2012, which shed light on both the vulnerability of farmers growing rust-susceptible, low-yielding varieties, and the vulnerability of the coffee supply in general
  • the growing evidence for the impact of climate change on the future of coffee growing and the inability of current varieties to cope with higher abiotic stress such as extreme drought or heat
  • the growth of the specialty coffee market searching for top aromatic quality niches, often related to specific varieties. The most iconic example of the value-generation possibilities of specialty-market-bound specific varieties is the Gesha variety, which in 2018 hit a new world record auction price of 803 USD/lb when the commodity price was 1.11 USD/lb

The study provides insight into the inbred lineages of coffee plants around the globe using a DNA fingerprinting method. This essentially means researchers identify unique genetic sequences that link a random coffee genome to its predecessors. Their predecessors (ie: Gesha, Typica, Bourbon) have been sequenced and are now used as “reference genomes” by which you can compare the genome of the coffee plant in your hand.

This method has been tested on over 2,500 coffee samples through the World Coffee Research organization with varying levels of certainty. For example, coffee plants related to Gesha showed a level of confidence somewhere around 40% whereas Marsellesa varieties can be identified with a 90% confidence.

This technique will allow the coffee sector to verify market claims and create a more controlled and reliable industry. Farmers will know with some level of certainty which variety of coffee they are cultivating.

Numerous studies have also noted that certain regions throughout Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa have less access to improved cocoa varieties. Many of these regions are still growing varieties of cocoa since the 1950s whereas wealthier countries have access to disease/pest-resistant varieties. Although this could be linked to low income, another huge factor is that seed exchange in these regions isn’t reliable. 

Nurseries, farmers, green coffee buyers, and roasters are able to use the World Coffee Research DNA fingerprinting method for $130/sample. This can be green leaf tissue, green beans, or even roasted beans although this is likely to somewhat degrade the quality of DNA.

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