A new brew: Evaluating the flavor of roasted, lab-grown coffee cells

It might soon be time to enjoy lab-grown coffee made from cultured plant cells, but questions linger about whether these beverages capture the complex flavors of traditional coffee beans. A recent study in ACS’ Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that certain familiar aromas and tastes of regular coffee might be replicated by roasting and brewing coffee cell cultures.

Coffee stands as one of the world’s favorite drinks, with an estimated production of 23 billion pounds of beans projected for the 2023–24 growing season by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Yet, coffee farming faces threats due to a warming climate since coffee plants thrive only under specific temperatures and altitudes. Scientists have been exploring lab-grown coffee plant cells as an alternative to traditional beans since the 1970s. However, little research has been conducted to assess how these lab-grown products match up in taste and smell compared to conventionally grown beans. To investigate this, Hieko Rischer and colleagues studied the impact of roasting coffee plant cells on their flavor and the resulting beverage.

Initially, the team cultured cells from chopped Coffea arabica leaves in a lab bioreactor. These cells were later freeze-dried, finely powdered, and roasted under varying conditions. Longer roasting times yielded colors akin to dark roast coffee beans, an essential aspect for flavor. Moreover, the current lab-grown powders contained twice the caffeine of previous bioreactor coffee products, although their levels were significantly lower than those found in farmed beans. The researchers brewed beverages using the roasted cell cultures and dark roast C. arabica beans, serving them to trained taste-testers. The conclusions drawn were as follows:

Tasters identified similar levels of bitterness and sourness in both lab-grown and conventional drinks. The new brews exhibited more roasted, burnt sugar, and smoky aromas. Although some Maillard reaction products, like guaiacol and various pyrazines responsible for coffee’s unique flavor, were absent in the cell-based drinks, other Maillard reaction products were present. Overall, while roasting cultured cells managed to recreate some tastes and smells found in typical bean-based coffee, the researchers highlight the necessity for further exploration of processing techniques to enhance the flavor profile of this alternative to conventionally grown coffee.

The study was supported by funding from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, Ltd.

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