In Sept 2021, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland said it had produced a brew that smelled and tasted like ordinary coffee – all without growing a single coffee plant. Instead, the coffee was grown in a lab from cell cultures in a bioreactor, or steel vessels filled with a nutrient-rich broth.

"The experience of drinking the very first cup was exciting,” VTT Research Team Leader Dr. Heiko Rischer said in a media release. “I estimate we are only four years away from ramping up production and having regulatory approval in place.”

The impetus for an alternative way to make coffee is similar to that for meat and seafood – growing world demand that’s taxing the earth’s productive resources. The global coffee market was worth $102 billion in 2020, according to Mordor Intelligence. The market – whole bean, ground coffee, instant and pods and capsules – is marked by fierce competition and innovation.

WEB Coffee produced in bioreactor through cellular agriculture 4
VTT Research team

Rising coffee production and consumption worldwide has sparked concerns of deforestation as well as river pollution from processing run-offs. Traditionally, coffee was grown under the shade of trees but as demand skyrocketed, coffee farmers began cutting down trees to create rows of higher-yield coffee. In future, scientists warn that climate change could also lead to shrinking areas for coffee cultivation, particularly high-end varieties in countries like Ethiopia. Hence the search for an alternative cup of java.

VTT’s Rischer said in the media statement that more research on processing and formulation lies ahead, as well as regulatory approval. “That said,” he added, “we have now proved that lab-grown coffee can be a reality.”

Scientists already know they can grow animal and plant biomass in labs. But the process tends to be laborious and expensive and still tends to evoke a “Frankenfood” vibe among eaters. The first lab-grown meat - chicken nuggets made by a Silicon Valley company called Eat Just, was approved for sale at the end of 2020 in Singapore – and hasn’t really taken off anywhere else since. Coffee won’t have that baggage. But the big test will be whether VTT or whoever commercializes lab-grown coffee can eventually meet a price point that consumers can swallow – on a daily basis.

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