Forgotten coffee species grown at Kew Gardens in bid to save drink from climate change

Forgotten coffee species grown at Kew Gardens have been tasted by scientists and hot drink experts for the first time in a bid to save the drink from climate change.

At the moment, we mostly just sip from two species, arabica and robusta, which comprise more than 99 per cent of all coffee production.

However, there are more than 120 other species that have been identified within the Coffea genus, and many of these could be delicious to drink – and more resilient to climate change.

By 2050, scientists predict that as much as 60 per cent of the land used for coffee cultivation could be affected by climate change.

Working with CIRAD, the French agricultural research centre, scientists from the West London-based facility cultivated and roasted coffee beans from three different ‘forgotten’ plants.

They were then tasted by experts from Nespresso, Starbucks and l’Arbre à Café, to work out the sensory profile of each, and whether they stand up to their more popular counterparts.

Experts said the coffee had potential, with one of the blends having a sweet, elderflower undertone, and the others hailed as "amazing" results.

The results will be published in a new study conducted by the scientists at Kew, and will be out later this year.

Benoît Bertrand, the Deputy Director at CIRAD, said the scientists chose Coffea stenophylla because the climate in the Ivory Coast where it grows is warmer than where Arabica thrives, meaning it could survive warming temperatures.

He said: “Stenophylla was commercialised a century ago, but production was limited. The species was [disregarded] by breeders and agronomists for unknown reasons.” However, sources from before the year 1920 claim that its quality is “exceptional”.

The second species chosen by CIRAD is Coffea brevipes, from West Africa. “We don’t know [much about] brevipes,” Mr Bertrand explained. “Botanists have collected this species, [but] there is little [research] on the possibilities for cultivation and its potential use in breeding programmes. 

The final species is Coffea congensis, which was originally found in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The species can grow as high as seven metres tall.

“[We already know that] you can cross congensis with canephora (robusta) to obtain seeds and new hybrids,” Benoît explains.

Congensis has a poorer yield than robusta plants, but a more desirable flavour profile, according to a Brazilian journal published in 1979.

However, it is important to note that at that time, sensory tests were considerably less rigorous than those that are conducted today, and judges were not as well-trained. It is therefore necessary to conduct another sensory analysis according to stricter modern standards.