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The rescue of specialty coffee

The discovery of a lifetime has been made and the future of coffee seems to be in great hands. In many professionals’ eyes, specialty coffee appears to be saved. A plant named stenophylla will most likely play a huge role in shaping the future of coffee.

But how is this possible?

Daniel Sarmu, an agricultural researcher, travelled to the high and humid Kambui Hills. This area is located around 200 miles southeast of Sierra Leone’s capital.

Sarmu and two researchers from the UK’s Kew Royal Botanic Gardens were on a quest. They were searching for Sierra Leone’s long-lost stenophylla coffee in 2018. Specialty coffee like stenophylla has once been popular all around the world, but a civil war ended its reign. The plant has been seen sporadically in Guinea and the Ivory Coast throughout the year but the rare species of the West African coffee plant had not been spotted in the wild there since 1954.

Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone’s highland coffee has been rediscovered. This raised hopes that the unusual crop may be farmed and produced professionally. Thus reviving the country’s ailing coffee sector. Bringing it back after it was ravaged by 11 years of civil conflict. Sarmu said that coffee has the potential to transform the narrative for the farmers.

That’s great news. But why is it? Well, because coffee crops are facing a lot of difficulties, it seems that the trend is only going upwards.

The problem along the way

Latin America is a fantastic region to grow coffee. Five of the world’s top ten coffee producers are located in the region, including Brazil, which ranks first, and Colombia, which is known for its high-quality beans. And there’s a lot of demand for those beans. The growing middle class in Asia is driving up coffee consumption and placing pressure on Latin American producers to produce more.

brazilian coffee beans and stenophylla coffee

Farmers in the area have long seen coffee as a viable source of income. In today’s Latin America, the coffee business employs about 14 million people. Climate change, pests, and falling coffee prices have combined in recent years to create a perfect storm that threatens the livelihoods of millions of coffee farmers and their families.

Small farmers, particularly those with less than two hectares of land, are the worst hit. The return on their investment has been continuously falling, prompting people to switch to other crops or give up completely, relocating to cities or even moving abroad.

farmer

No one else could be to blame for these alterations. The future of coffee appears to be uncertain, if not grim, due to climate change.

The pattern is obvious. It may become irreversible if we do not act promptly. According to climate change scientists, global temperatures will continue to climb this century, rising by 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius in the warmest months. Scientists also predict that rain and drought will last longer and be more intense, making farming even more difficult.

Lots of rain

Coffee plants require precise temperature, light, and humidity conditions to develop well, and these requirements are best satisfied in Latin America’s so-called coffee belt, which encompasses nations between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.

nicaragua plantation

This, however, is likely to alter. By 2050, rising temperatures will lower the area suitable for coffee production by up to 50%. Meanwhile, certain regions that aren’t good for growing coffee might turn into coffee hospitals. That might happen in Nicaragua, where researchers predict that by mid-century, the ideal height for coffee growth would have risen from 1,200 meters to 1,600 meters above sea level.

Coffee plantation above sea level

Fortunately, this new, “miracle plant” has been discovered and now, hopes are up for the future of coffee.

A “new” plant that has been rediscovered

The study team took samples for testing after uncovering a natural garden. Roughly 15 stenophylla plants were growing in the hills. It was established in a new study that stenophylla coffee is of great quality and flavour. And it has similarities to even the best Arabica beans.

Stenophylla plant

It seems that the specialty coffee market would be extremely interested in the new coffee species. And they could buyers could also pay very high rates for it. This is what Jeremy Haggar, an agroecologist said.

Stenophylla: Coffee that can withstand high temperatures

Stenophylla grows naturally in hot-tropical environments at low elevations. Barely 400 meters above sea level. And is endemic to Guinea, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast.

Stenophylla beans

The authors of the research set out to investigate. They looked into different essential environmental needs. They discovered that stenophylla grows and crops in comparable climates to robusta. But with a higher mean annual temperature requirement of 24.90°C. 1.90°C more than robusta and a significant 6.2–6.8°C higher than arabica.

Drought tolerance has also been found for Stenophylla coffee. However further research is needed on this.

It is commonly recognized that the beloved arabica coffee is being damaged by climate change. And thus the results of the study are really intriguing. According to what Dr Justin Moat said. A scientist at RBG Kew led the climate analysis in the publication.

The research reveals that stenophylla coffee thrives at far higher temperatures than arabica. Offering the kind of significant variations that are required for one thing and one thing only: the coffee industry to remain viable in the face of climate change.

Farmers in the coffee plantation

This is great news for Sierra Leone, which is leading the stenophylla resurgence. Yet, there is still a long way to go before this unique bean reaches our coffee mugs. The wild plant must be domesticated and researched further. This is needed in order to create better growth and management tactics. Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest countries. And adding a high-value market will help the country’s agricultural industry.

Sierra Leone view

75% of the population work in this field. Sarmu thinks one of the main obstacles is a lack of financing. But he’s determined to see stenophylla in Sierra Leone’s coffee estates once more.

Stenophylla: The flavour evaluation

There had been no recorded sensory information for stenophylla for over a century. This is due to its scarcity in culture and rarity in the wild. Hence it was critical that these species be adequately evaluated.

In the summer of 2020, an experienced tasting team at Union Hand-Roasted Coffee in London evaluated stenophylla. They did so by obtaining a tiny sample from partners in Sierra Leone. The panel gave the coffee an 80.25 specialty score. The score was based on the Specialty Coffee Association’s methodology. And noted arabica-like attributes.

Taste wheel

A coffee must score 80 points or more to be classified as specialty. Arabica is now the sole specialty coffee species, according to Jeremy Torz of Union Coffee. And so this score was surprising and exceptional. Particularly from such a tiny sample.

Following the initial taste in London, the judges got a second, much larger sample of stenophylla. This time from Ivory Coast. The team analyzed the sample at CIRAD’s sensorial analysis laboratory in Montpellier. And then coffee specialists from JDE, Nespresso, and Belco evaluated it shortly after. The Ivory Coast stenophylla was blind tested by the 15-member panel. Other species were also examined. Two arabica samples (one good quality and one low grade), and one high-quality robusta sample.

Stenophylla coffee analysis

The judges praised stenophylla’s inherent sweetness, medium-high acidity, fruitiness, and decent body. They also added that it had a nuanced flavour profile (i.e. its texture; the way it feels in the mouth).

  • 81% of the judges replied yes when asked whether the stenophylla sample was an arabica. Compared to 98% and 44% for the two arabica samples, and 7% for the robusta sample.
  • 47% of the judges classified the sample as something new. Despite stenophylla’s high ‘arabica-like’ score. Indicating that the rediscovered coffee has a commercial niche.

These results give the first genuine sensory evaluation for stenophylla coffee. From it, they are able to validate historical tales of a superior flavour. According to Dr Delphine Mieulet, a scientist at CIRAD who oversaw the tasting.

Stenophylla

The sensory study of stenophylla reveals a rich and distinctive flavour profile. It was so special that the judges unanimously agreed was worth investigating. This new species should give everyone a sense of optimism.

Stenophylla: A highly sought-after coffee

It wasn’t always the case that “Coffea stenophylla” was in short supply. There are really 124 different types of coffee out there. While experts claim that arabica and robusta make up 99% of the coffee we drink today. There used to be a lot more variety in coffee kinds, and Sierra Leone’s highland coffee was much sought after.

In the 1890s, stenophylla coffee was the market leader, according to Daniel Sarmu. It was the French’s favourite coffee, and it was traded often until the 1920s. The British, on the other hand, brought robusta coffee to Sierra Leone in the 1950s. Robusta is a higher-yielding plant with a lesser-quality reputation. Farmers began replacing the old native crop since both coffees sold for the same price. Stenophylla was forgotten over time.

Coffee farmers working

Coffee was vital to Sierra Leone’s economy at the time. Even more important than cocoa, which is today one of the country’s main exports. Sierra Leone used to export up to 25,000 tons of coffee every year until 1991.

The home of stenophylla coffee

However, conflict in neighbouring Liberia, headed by Charles Taylor, extended to Sierra Leone in that year. And so it sparked an 11-year civil war. Farmers abandoned their crops, and the coffee business vanished, according to Sarmu.

New coffee culture has emerged

Many of Sierra Leone’s agricultural industries had to start again, right after the civil war ended in 2002. But the coffee industry never recovered. Yearly exports plummeted to roughly 2,000 metric tons last year. Ethiopia, the continent’s leading grower exported 234,000 metric tons.

Drying coffee beans

Sierra Leone has not created its own distinct coffee culture, unlike several other coffee-producing countries. On their daily journeys, people may be seen sipping instant coffee from international brands like Nescafe, rather than consuming domestic items. But this tradition is beginning to shift, according to Hannah Tarawally, proprietor of Coffee Courier and a cafe in the country’s capital, Freetown.

Freetown aerial view

As stated by her, before, none of her friends drank her local coffee. But now she introduced them to it, they can see and taste the difference. She believes this will bring changes for Sierra Leoneans and they will begin to use their own local goods.

Tarawally began hand-roasting her own beans in 2015, claiming to be one of the country’s first. Salone Coffee, her brand, currently sells in Liberia, and she expects to break into the European market shortly. Coffee Courier established its first café in Freetown in 2020. Being one of the country’s first specialized coffee shops and signalling a shift in views toward locally produced goods.

Tarawally isn’t the only craft brewer establishing a home market. Aromatic Coffee, a stand in a Freetown market, was one of the city’s first coffee shops, while Nina’s Coffee, a Freetown coffee shop, roasts its beans by hand.

When it becomes commercially accessible, the newfound stenophylla coffee might help to improve Sierra Leone’s developing coffee sector; which Tarawally believes would include all Sierra Leoneans.

“We must not just target a worldwide market, but also our own country,” Tarawally argues. “In Sierra Leone, we need to target the layman who can drink coffee and make it a part of us all.”

What comes next?

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists Coffea stenophylla as ‘Vulnerable’. Indicating that immediate action is needed to ensure the species survival in the wild.

To properly assess its potential as a climate-resilient, high-value crop species, and breeding resource, including claims of drought tolerance and resistance to coffee leaf rot – more research is needed. The four institutes involved in the study plan to plant stenophylla seedlings in Sierra Leone and Reunion Island (CIRAD) this year in order to begin evaluating the plant’s agronomic potential under a variety of environmental conditions.

Stenophylla coffee plantation

These discoveries open the door for cultivating high-quality coffee in warmer areas. And might be part of the answer to guaranteeing a climate-resilient coffee sector. According to David Behrends, Managing Partner and Head of Trading at Sucafina.

But everyone is confident that stenophylla coffee will become a flagship export crop for Sierra Leone. Generating wealth creation for the country’s coffee growers. It would be fantastic if this coffee was reintroduced as part of their cultural legacy.

Also, it seems that being so resilient to climate change could also save the specialty coffee industry.

Here’s another excellent article that expands on the climate change topic: Does low-elevation high-quality coffee threaten the rainforest?

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