Image credit: www.worldcoffeeresearch.org
While there are many different coffee strains grown around the world, generally they fall into 2 different categories, Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is the most prominent in the speciality coffee market due to high quality of its flavour and aroma, however it’s much more susceptible to disease and is generally more difficult to grow. In contrast, Robusta coffee is usually more bitter, however it’s a much hardier crop and therefore much easier to produce.
As we mentioned in a previous blog post, climate change has been having a big effect on the production of Arabica coffee, which could result in coffee shortages that would be a huge blow to the speciality coffee market. In order to combat this, coffee growers have started to produce new, hybrid coffee strains to try to keep up with the demand for high quality beans around the world.
What’s the benefit of hybrid coffee?
The main problem with Arabica coffee is that it isn’t very genetically diverse, which means that issues such as disease and climate change will have a much more drastic effect on global crop yield. Without some form of intervention, Arabica coffee strains could potentially become extinct entirely.
Traditional strains of coffee have either occurred naturally or have been cultivated by the coffee farmers, however new hybrid strains have been cross-bred in laboratories specifically to show desired traits in the plants such as crop size, quality, appearance and hardiness. These hybrids (referred to as F1 hybrids) can therefore enable coffee farmers to produce more high quality coffee beans, allowing them to keep up with the huge demands from markets such as Europe and the US.
Will hybrid coffee replace Arabica?
Surely if these hybrids are going to allow coffee growers to increase their annual harvest they will just replace traditional Arabica beans right? Well, not necessarily. It’s still very early days for these new strains of coffee, and while early results are very encouraging, it doesn’t look like they will be replacing our favourite Arabica beans any time soon. At the moment these hybrids have only been tested in Central American plantations, but plans are in place to test across Africa and Asia as well.
There are so many different factors that go into the flavour of a coffee, such as altitude, temperature, ripening speed etc. Until we know more about how these strains can be produced on a large scale, it’s difficult to predict how widely used they will be. Who knows how these new plants would fare with mass production, and whether or not the commercial markets will embrace them at all?
How will this effect coffee around the world?
As climate change continues to make growing Arabica more and more difficult, our lattes and flat whites are likely to increase in price too. Assuming crop yields for the traditional Arabica strains continue to drop, the only options are either to allow the quality of coffee to slip by using more Robusta in commercial blends, or to try to strengthen the Arabica bean production using these hybrid strains. Either way the coffee industry around the world is going to have to keep up with these changes in production.
Depending on how much it ends up costing to produce and import the new hybrid strains, this could actually have a positive effect on the quality of international coffee, at least in countries such as the US, the UK and Japan, where speciality coffee is widely embraced. Perhaps it will just create a much larger divide between high and low-mid quality beans in high street coffee shops, and who knows what effect that would have on the overall popularity of coffee across the international markets? Only time will tell!