The future of speciality coffee

It was hard to listen to the various presentations at the SCAA Symposium this year without thinking about what it would mean in real terms for quality coffee in the future.
I don’t profess to make particularly accurate predictions (the various annual efforts on here stand as testament to that). However, based on the various talks I would make the following guesses:

A shift in production away from diversity

Currently about 60% of the world’s coffee comes from just 4 different producing countries. I hadn’t realise the distribution was stacked that way, but these are countries that are able to apply new technologies relatively easily that will allow even greater yields without expanding the area given up to grow coffee.

My prediction (in between 10 and 20 years) would be that 60% from 4 becomes 80% from those 4 countries. Right now there is a lot of incentive to grow coffee in Brazil. Not only are prices high but exchange rates make their currency even more valuable. This will spur greater investment and a significant bump in yield. The majority of this coffee will be poor to average. Variety/genetic research will focus on palatability of product, rather than excellence.

Coffee is chased up the mountain

Climate change means that coffee growing at current altitudes will be decreasingly possible and rewarding. Farmers at lower altitudes will likely switch crop to something more stable and less affected by disease and temperature (palm oil etc). Those that can grow coffee higher up, where temperatures remain cooler, will continue to do so. However, this reduction in planted area for coffee (as well as a hopeful focus on quality in order to make a sustainable living) will make coffee grown at altitude increasingly expensive.

Climate change figures (esp likely temp changes) seemed to vary at Symposium, but I hope Dr Peter Baker’s presentation will be made available as it was both informative and compelling. No one seems to be arguing the base fact that less land will be viable for speciality coffee in the future.

Diversity in speciality coffee

Throughout Central America, some of South America and East Africa I expect to see less total coffee being produced – especially less speciality coffee. This will drive up prices further but I think we’ll see some truly exceptional stuff as we learn more about producing higher cup quality on purpose. (Looking to the GCQRI on that one….)

If you retail coffee then start thinking about how you’ll see it when it doubles in price. I think it will, and will be sustainable there too. The gap between speciality and commodity will widen significantly. I think genuine speciality (some would say high-end speciality) will also break away from the broad church that we cover with the term “speciality coffee” today.


We’re going to see GMOs in coffee. I don’t like it, you probably don’t like it, nobody wants to talk about it, but I think these will likely appear first in the big 4 producing countries where there is greater need for economic stability from the coffee trade.

I hope that speciality works contrary to this to start to mine the genetic diversity in nature to see if we can’t find what we need there.

In summary

I don’t think fantastic coffee is going to disappear despite the challenges it faces. It is going to become increasingly scarce and its cost of production on top means that we’ll see a much bigger divide between C-market (which will likely drop back) and Speciality. You’ll have to fight to find it and buy it.

Whether you can plan that far ahead about how to be effective in a market that different, I don’t know. It is certainly worth some thought.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone else who was at Symposium, or who is interested in this sort of thing, about how wrong they think I am!

50 Comments The future of speciality coffee

  1. tonx

    GMO coffee is a pretty long haul project given the timescale for the plant itself and the complexity of the thing. I’m not at all close to an expert (beyond dating geneticists) but I think there might be a big element of snake oil in the overstated promises of GMO. certainly exploring the strengths, weaknesses, and diversity of existing varieties through the lens of genetics is a worthy activity but I wonder if the promise of franken-varietals is being oversold in the interest of sucking in grant money for established labs and institutions?

    you have any insights on this from attending symposium?

  2. Colleen Anunu

    First, to quell the notion of franken-varietals, I do believe James was referring to Dr. Schilling’s posit that there are two possible solutions for addressing the problem of increasing temperatures in coffee growing regions:

    1) Change the environment in which the coffee is grown… which refers to increasing altitude or moving to different latitudes.

    2) Change the genetics of coffee to produce more heat tolerant varietals… to which he briefly mentioned, though did not discuss, the F1 Hydrus (?) varietal. I’d be very interested if anyone could explain this varietal to me.

    If I’m just projecting, let me know, but I *think* this is to what he was referring since this was the only session that I attended in which the concern of changing genetics was discussed.

  3. James Hoffmann

    GMOs were conspicuous by their absence as a topic for discussion at Symposium. There is definitely an interest in exploiting genetics to achieve goal. Of course stuff like cross breeding is a much more acceptable way of introducing foreign DNA than the scary looking lab stuff. I’d be very surprised if this research isn’t underway at somewhere like Nestle or elsewhere.

  4. Ben

    The nice thing about coffee, unlike many other plants, is that they don’t cross pollinate (I think…is that right?) So, if my neighboring farm is using GMO’s, I don’t have to worry about his plants pollinating my plants and producing GMO hybrids. Especially given that GMO plants are proprietary, and, therefore, I would now be selling produce from plants I no longer have the right to own. Messy business, them GMOs.

    James, do you think it’s possible coffee could follow the wine world? Better production gear, better harvesting/processing practices, and better plant/growing research becoming more common thus yielding higher quality product in higher quantities at a range of prices…?

  5. Peter G

    I agree that we need more discussion on GMOs in Coffee, and that we have avoided talking about it.

    There is certainly an instinctive anti-GMO reaction. Most people here have it. But why?

    Are you sure that GMOs are bad? Really sure? How come? Do we know what we are talking about here?

    For example: Ben refers to “GMO Hybrids”. Not to pick on Ben, but that is a contradiction: a plant is either the product of Genetic Modification or Hybridization (which uses sexual reproduction as the gene transfer mechanism).

    Of course, that’s not what he meant: he was talking about the ability for a company to copyright a variety as intellectual property. But this happens now, with both traditional hybrids and GMOs.

    Let me ask some rhetorical questions:

    If a lab created a hybrid that was disease and pest resistant, highly productive, used little fertilizer, tasted like SL28, and offered the plant free to any farmer anywhere, would you oppose it? Why?

    If that lab instead created a variety through genetic modification techniques, and had the same properties, would you oppose it? Why?

    Do you believe that traditional varieties (heirlooms) are better? Why?

    Do you know what varieties are hybrids and which are not?

    Could you recognize the difference between a lab using sexual means of gene transfer from one using recombinant DNA? What is the difference?

    I think that GMO is a hot-button word. The fact is that the study of coffee genetics is one that promises the highest rewards in coffee development in the next decade. This research will allow us to use what we learn to develop new varieties, either through hybridization or genetic modification. Kinda doesn’t matter which, really. Are we sure we want to maintain a staunchly “NO GMO” position, even before we start?

    Peter G

  6. Nick Watson

    I think he kind of implied that in the article. I remember reading in a recent magazine (a tea industry mag I think, over a month ago so don’t quote me.) about a woman with experience in designing ergonomic picking gear for apples trying to do the same for south american coffee farmers. Seems like if we’re going to make this a viable career for farmers and catch the interest of future generations (thus sustain levels coffee production) the gear is going to have to evolve.

  7. Nick Watson

    Change is scary, so is new technology and things people don’t understand. The early 2000s backlash against GMO produce is probably having a huge effect here. I don’t think we’ll have to worry about coffee-plantmen overlords either way.

  8. Nick Watson

    Change is scary, so is new technology and things people don’t understand. The early 2000s backlash against GMO produce is probably having a huge effect here. I don’t think we’ll have to worry about coffee-plantmen overlords either way.

  9. Colleen Anunu


    I apologize in advance for getting off of the initial topic and not speaking to speculations about lack of diversity in world supply, maybe because that wasn’t MY primary concern when leaving Symposium, or Houston for that matter, (not that it isn’t an important consideration). I do, however, want to speak in regards to your summary:

    “Whether you can plan that far ahead about how to be effective in a market that different, I don’t
    know. It is certainly worth some thought.”

    Yes, it is worth the thought. In fact, it is THE thought. If you don’t think it’s worth the thought then this entire industry is built like a house of cards. To me, this was the reason why Shauna stressed multiple times: Do we know what we’re doing? Do we know what we’re talking about? Are we just full of shit? Ok, maybe that last point was a bit of a rephrasal, but you get the picture. Who are we? What do we do? Why do we do it? Why not? It’s about thinking critically about our responsibility as purveyors of not only quality, but of value.

    I believe that Ric set the framework for assessing for the future of Specialty coffee, and our position within it, very well with the following points:

    1) What Specialty Coffee Must Be
    a – Specialty coffee must be a valuable activity for all
    b – Specialty coffee must be a reasonable investment
    c – Specialty coffee must be a valuable and rewarding customer experience

    2) What We Must Do
    a – We must invest in the supply chain
    b – We must influence our financial institutions’ assessment of risk
    c – We must add value to the customer experience

    Wow! I mean, we tend to say these often enough, but do we ever really think just how LOADED these propositions are? Still, even for a small business they are certainly not unapproachable, no?

    Personally, I don’t believe that the Future of Specialty Coffee can be narrowed to the ability and position of where the raw material coffees are produced, because if we aren’t asking ourselves how these 6 points above effect us deeply to the core, then it doesn’t really matter, now does it? Sure, I stay vigilant of the raw materials question, keeping it in the absolute forefront of my periphery, but I find it very important to take a macro or abstract view of the Future of Specialty Coffee to include the identification of where value comes from in the first place, where the transference of that value (and risk) takes place, to what extent that Value is generated or transmogrified by the current owner of the concept, how is it received and what the resulting reciprocation is. Understanding our negotiations of these stressing points, and exactly how they influence the final message in the form of a quality coffee experience is really the end game… not a sweet, sparkling cuppa.

    I understand and completely agree with your assessment, James, that ‘educating the consumer’ is an arrogant statement, and that consumers are just-not-that-interested in knowing who it is that we are and what it is that we do. They don’t necessarily need to. Perhaps this is where your idea of experience underwritten by empathy, or the “power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings” really (truly) becomes the new paradigm of coffee.

    Of course, this is only one approach to addressing ‘coffee-as-complex-commodity’

  10. Ben

    Hey Peter,

    This isn’t me picking on you either!

    GMO hybrid = a plant that has been genetically modified in a lab that has THEN sexually reproduced with another, genetically distinct plant. It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and! For example, if we introduce a gene from a virus into a coffee varietal of the canephora species (which cross-pollinates) through the use of recombinant DNA, we would now call that a GMO. If that GMO then gets planted and cross pollinates with a non GMO canephora plant, we now have a GMO hybrid: a plant produced through hybridization from at least one GMO parent plant.

    I wouldn’t say GMOs are to be avoided since, as you said, genetics offers a lot of potential in the future. Cautions should be had with GMO coffee plants though many such cautions should ALSO apply to hybridized plants as well:

    (1) dangers of increased use of mono-cultures (e.g. Kent/S795 v CLR in India);
    (2) dangers of increased patenting (copyright applies to intellectual property; patents to invention such as hybridized, GE, or other “new” plants) of new GE plants.

    The end of your response, Peter, indicates that it doesn’t matter whether hybridization or genetic modification is used to propel the industry forward. In this case, the more general caution vis-a-vis GMO’s apply: lack of long-term, 3rd party research on the effects GMO foods on human beings and other organisms. Hybridization does not = GE. Hybridization (along with selection methods) involves plants of the same genus; Genetic Engineering involves the substitution of genes from outside the genus (even phylla!), and without good research, caution should be a “hot button word.”

  11. Pingback: The future of specialty coffee | Ministry Grounds Blog

  12. PLynagh

    The world might need GMO foods to feed people. But, I do not consider coffee to be a food, at least in the sense of providing nutrition.

    The GMO world seems very complicated. We are having a difficult enough time with other complicated issues.

    I wonder what other options a farmer has. Maybe shade could decrease a farm’s temp more than it is raised by global warming. Coffee is shade tolerant.

    … just thinking out loud.

  13. Edwin


    I agree that fantastic coffees won’t disappear, however I would suggest that there will be MORE fantastic coffees as well as more poor to average quality.

    It’s the middle ground low 80 pt coffees that I think will thin out in response to a more articulated market place. This means some lean years for middle of the road coffee roasters.

    Economic sustainability often implied fair prices and wages at the producer level… it seems the challenge of economic sustainability is being increasingly shared with the roaster now.

    GMO’s scare me. I don’t oppose them, but they make me uncomfortable. Simply because I think they will be leveraged first by larger companies and applied on lower quality coffee producing markets and as they move into quality producing markets the risk becomes disproportionate.

    However I really liked Peters questions because (speaking for myself) there are no clear answers. As an industry we clearly don’t know enough to have a uniform opinion on the subject.

  14. John Gibbons

    Sorry, I’m missing something were the post mentioned the line drawn between the “Big Guys”, and the other “Specialty coffee companies”. Does this mean that the big guys, intelli/the other guys in the Coffee common will get all the business, and dominate into a monopoly like businesses?

    This article scares me. As someone who’s just in the middle of trying to open a specialty coffee company, it makes me think twice. I won’t ever act on my second thought, but it’s still there.

    I see the coffee common site, and I see a lot of what James Hoffmann writes, and both I believe are wonderful, but they seem to be black and white views of specialty coffee. This view (problems, worries, struggles…and what are we going to do?), and the focus on joy of the business and focusing on quality.

    Direct trade business and high price coffee has been one of the reasons I decided to get into it. To provide truly fair and conscious business, and working on our global ties. But double the price of coffee is horrifying, especially when considering the US economy is struggling (for the USers).

    One question: Do any of you guys think there will be more people trying to purchase crops in other countries to control quality, market, and availability?

  15. Nicholas Cho

    It’s not nutritious food, that is true. However, it IS the livelihood for many. If we oppose providing those people with the tools for success, we can only accept (however inadvertently) poverty for a huge number of farmers, or their transition away from farming coffee. A generalization, but an apt one I think.

  16. nora

    “Authentic help means that all who are involved help each other mutually, growing together in the common effort to understand the reality which they seek to transform.” Paulo Freire

  17. Rich Ottenhof

    We in the Western Developed nations have a habit of romanticizing what for producers is a means to feed their families. Any and all steps that offer the farmer increased income will find traction. We can push for differentiation and increased quality, but a micro lot on auction increases one or two family’s income, not the conditions under which all the others are existing. What specialty coffee has completely failed to appreciate is that the factors we quote by rote affecting farmer income, are dwarfed by the impact of traders moving capital based not on the latest harvest figures, but the yield on a 10 year Treasury Bond, the vagaries of the US Dollar, and the relative attractiveness of other investment opportunities. Leveraged ETF’s make it even easier to participate and move markets because leverage increases liquidity as well as volatility. On days of high volatility, these futures contracts are held for minutes, not months. One day recently, the average period a contract was held on the ICE was less than 4 minutes. James is quite correct that the spread between the “C” and high end coffee will increase due ONLY to the fact that one price is determined by individuals who never want to take delivery, the other by individuals intent on taking delivery.

  18. Peter Lynagh

    Useful generalization. I’m fuzzy on tools for success; and, tools for whom. I’m not sure that it’ll clear up before the chips have fallen.

  19. Michael


    First, thanks for the witty and provocative presentation at Symposium — easily the most entertaining of the event!

    Second, just a note on the projection of declining production of specialty-grade coffee from Central America. While there may be, as you note, different projections in terms of increase in mean temperature, there is real consensus around the general implications of climate change for specialty coffee — it is migrating uphill, where their is less land available for growing. (While coffee agroforestry is a pretty water-friendly way to use the land, with the migration of the coffee frontier will inevitably come other crops that are less friendly to upland ecosystems — not a coffee quality issue but a quality of life issue for communities downstream, but I digress…) The long-term response involves some of the coffee R&D work that you mention on developing new varietals that have both increased resistance and cup quality. Meantime, I think it is important to remember that there are ways with existing technology to significantly increase the supply of quality coffees in areas that we expect will remain safely in the bounds of viable coffee production areas for the next few decades. I work on a coffee project involving 7000+ smallholder farmers in Mesoamerica. Their average yield is around 700 pounds per hectare. As Juan Luis Barrios indicated in his presentation on coffee in Guatemala, 60 percent of coffee plants here are over 15 years old, with 25 percent of those over 25 years. For smallholder farmers in the region — those least able to invest in renovation but still producing a lot of the coffee in the specialty market — trees are even older and densities are even lower. In Colombia, where I have talked to farmers who have replaced trees after 12 years because they were getting “too old,” smallholder production is three times higher. In short, the coffee sector in Central America could easily absorb $100 million in new investment in renovation and in a 15-year production cycle significantly increase the amount of specialty coffee available, again, even with existing technologies.

    I think it is important to remember that there is production decline we can’t do anything about with existing technologies (climate change) and production problems that can be addressed over the medium term with existing technologies and investment.


  20. Michael


    Thanks for your post, and this passage in particular:

    “Any and all steps that offer the farmer increased income will find traction.”

    I think this is so important to remember in general, and specifically in relation to GCQRI.

    GCQRI is a worthy and necessary effort. But identifying a technological package that can bring more resistant, high-yielding, high-quality varietals into the world (the Holy Grail of coffee R&D) is actually not enough if it doesn’t consider these questions: is the price point within reach? is the process prohibitively labor-intensive for smallholder households engaged simultaneously in multiple income-generating activities? who will provide the technical assistance necessary to foster adoption? where will investment for the technology and TA come from?

    The more GCQRI can embed these questions into the research process — what are the incentives for adoption among (smallholder) farmers and where will the investment and TA come from to foster that adoption? — the more likely it will be to really transform the market.


  21. Benjamin Myers

    What do we know about GMO’S???


    Scientists warn that GMO’s: set off allergies, increase cancer risks, damage soil fertility, produce antibiotic resistant pathogens, damage product quality, harm Monarch butterflies & beneficial insects such as ladybugs, create super-pests, super weeds & new plant viruses, produce dangerous toxins, increase the use of toxic pesticides, and contaminate organic and non-GMO crops.

    More can be learned about GMO’s by contacting the Organic Consumers Association if this is something you care to take action against. The usage of GMO’s is a short-term solution, that provides grave long term results. Benjamin Myers

  22. James Hoffmann

    Sorry if this seems harsh, but “Scientists warn” isn’t really a solid factual basis for making those kinds of claims. I’m not denying that they may well be true – but linking to some solid research is necessary here in order to continue this vein of discussion in a productive way.

  23. Matt @ CoffeeDome

    Coffee is as old as our culture. So, no worries coffee will not disappear in the planet earth as long as there are farmers who plant them and consumers who drink them.

  24. Ed B.

    GE coffee have pretty much been focused on pest control from what I’ve heard. This focus will unlikely produce a better cup. GE pest control is a plant producing it’s own can of Raid. Natures natural controls are around warnings by undesirable traits. Poisonous plants will tend to be some form of foul bitterness. If the pest no longer likes the coffee it will follow that we won’t like it much either.

  25. Benjamin Myers


    Sorry for trying to make it simple. I can give a little more…

    But first, let’s get some clarity on a position. Shall we?

    Is a ‘solid factual basis’ dependent on coming from a University? Like maybe from Texas A&M? They don’t have a vested interest in GMO’s do they? I don’t know, but it reads to me like they do. Maybe they don’t? Nevertheless, I am more ready to believe non-profits or NGO’s such as the Organic Consumers Association when it comes to such issues.
    Moreover, what might you think happens to an earnest University scholar when he/she starts publishing critically on the topic of GMO’s? Ignacio Chapela is a good case study to look up. I was working with him at the Environmental Science and Policy Management School of Berkeley when he was packing up his office. He got a little too real with his investigation of GMO’s. Lost his tenure because of his research on corn in Mexico.Also, and this really sucks, paying for studies to be completed on the other side of the fence is no new idea either. It happens in all the disciplines these days. Ecology, English, Genetics, Economics… Someone figured out that you can actually pay highly accomplished academics to have a study done validating a claims. Ask Icelandic economists how this works in reality(see documentary: INSIDE JOB.) So when it comes to ‘solid factual basis’ what do you take to be ‘solid factual basis.’ Here is a more detailed explanation of what I was alluding to in my earlier post. link might be a little informal for progress, but instead of pushing the veins of progress forward… maybe we should consider something radically different?Maybe we as a coffee industry should consider slowing down production instead of trying to ramp it up more with Genetically Modified Organisms. In Gestalt Psychology there is a phenomenon known as the paradoxical theory of change, whereby briefly stated, it is this: that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is–to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible. I believe the same is true in reference to agriculture and our hopes to change an ecosystem. What would happen then, if we, coffee professionals, were to take a greater awareness to our current position/predicament rather than trying to implement coercive change agents such as GMO’s? Might we allow the opportunity for the ecosystem to repair its operating system?Everything that I have researched about coffee suggests that slowing down is a way of not only improving quality, but moreover improving the resilience of the entire system surrounding the output(coffee.) Whether it be looking at drying times or espresso shots, every step of coffee production goes a little better when slowness is a respected object of quality improvement. Moreover slowing down also provides greater opportunity to become aware of alternative solutions that are indigenous to a place-important ecosystem, over the top-down managerial approach of Western societies encouraging the usage of GMO’s abroad.There is a wonderful collection of essays to be published in the Fall of 2011 by MIT Press, that further advances the notion of slowing down as a way of making progress, entitled: Collaborative Resilience: Moving from Crisis to Opportunity. One essay by Jana Carp entitled “Slow as an Object of Study for Social-Ecological Resilience” is of particular weight and beauty in regards to this subject.Hope this helps. Sorry for simplicity of my earlier post, I just was relaying what I had read in a article posted by the Organic Consumer Association earlier that day. The information seemed relevant in the discussion about what we know about GMO’s.

  26. Per Nordby

    As this post is not as much about GMOs as the comments reflect I would like to go back to the post and comment its summary.

    writes that “You’ll have to fight to find [Speciality]
    and buy it” at the very end of the post. I do not know enough about the subjects to know if the predictions are correct or not. But either way, I think this conclusion is wrong. I have seen farms in Asia, East Africa and Central America with coffee that is not Speciality, but has every precondition to be. The producers are waiting for buyers who are willing to pay the price needed for it to be sustainable for them to produce it. Yes, the coffee will be expensive, but it is there, waiting for us.

    There will always be coffee for small players as small roasters only use small amounts. It is a matter of making the connection, start building the relation and finding a way to transport the coffee from origin to roastery. It sounds simple, and I think it is.

    If anyone will have problems finding high quality beans in the future it is the big players. But I see no reason why they would not go one step further and take control of the production themselves. We can already find importers with their own farms. I think we soon will find farms and process stations owned by a (presumably big) roaster from a consumer country.

  27. John Gibbons

    I like and agree with what you said!

    The only things that I may (not sure about) disagree on is the availability for the small guys. It seems to me as if the big guys are in need of an absurd amount of the best coffee, and they can get it because they have the money, previous connections, experience, and could very well take control of some of their own farms. The small guys, have significantly less money, resources, and relationships might have a tough time getting what they want, but once they find it, I don’t think they will have trouble with the amounts.

    Farmers will most likely go with the big guys because they do, like I said, have more money, and reliability.

    This being said, it could be difficult, but it leaves the options up for the ones who have the passion and drive to find it.

    It seems like these problems are SLIGHTLY (don’t get mad at me) over dramatic, indeed are big things we definitely need to work on/be aware of. I’m doing my best to stay positive about it.

    With the increasing popularity of Specialty coffee and more people on the planet (aware of it), it seems to me that the high quality lots/micro lots will be that much more popular.

  28. Simon

    The cross-polination point is a particularly valid one. This has always been one of the biggest concerns about GMO’s even from science loving nerds who are less concerned about the hypothetical effects upon the human body.
    So if coffee does not cross-polinate (unless of course it was genetically altered to do just that) it alleviates two concerns – the undersirable spread from farms into the wild, with unforetold consequences, and the spread as you point out of patented varieties from one farm to another – placing even further power in the hands of the patent owners.

    What I am not sure it would alleviate is the power of patent owners to unfairly dictate to the farmers who use their product?

  29. Jason Skinner

    the more general caution vis-a-vis GMO’s apply: lack of long-term, 3rd party research on the effects GMO foods on human beings and other organisms. ”

    This is not really an argument.

  30. Jason Skinner

    Yes, but it is fairly meaningless in reality. We also do not know the long term affect driving electric cars will have on humans, does mean this that we should not drive them? Also, GMO food is the same thing as a regular modified food, the difference is that it was done in a lab and not slowly in nature. Bananas aren’t shaped the way they are by chance. We’ve been working with food for a very long time. I am not arguing against any other points (patents, big corps, etc) just this one aspect that is frequently argued, but holds little water.

  31. Tim Schilling

    In order for GMO coffee to be of real concern, coffee will first need to have a seed industry. That has yet to happen. If and when it does, there is no need to rush to or even to consider GMO coffee. The most obvious and beneficial-to-everybody place to begin would be with simple F1 hybrid varieties that would combine excellent sources of agronomic traits like yield and disease resistance with excellent sources of high quality taste attributes. Yield and quality are not negatively correlated. You can increase both yield and quality traits simultaneously in arabica coffee. This was proven by CIRAD scientists Montagnon and Bertrand.

    F1 hybrid development is a classic plant breeding approach that has been used in scores of crops to combine two or more quantitative desirable traits since. It also happens in nature. Pollen from one plant will land on another distant but related plant and bam, there it is an F1 hybrid….but nobody knows so nobody cares. Peppermint is a natural F1 hybrid, for example, that people did notice… F1 hybrid coffees are great. This old but very useful technology is not what most people refer to when they talk about the evils of GMO. In fact, the other day, in Nicaragua, I cupped some F1 hybrid coffee and hey, this stuff has great potential to push the quality envelope.

    So, the main point here, the way I see it, is that the coffee industry needs to be close to the seed industry to insure that the roaster/consumer are properly served by the seed industry and the research that fuels it. I’m not a salesman and I hate sounding like one, but supporting the GCQRI does exactly this. It keeps coffee R&D working together with the coffee industry so that you get what you want and need. It also keeps you in the know on what is going on out there in laboratories and experimental fields.

  32. David

    Some pretty intriguing stuff in this one…And frankly it looks like most of us are over our heads in the science department.

    Here’s my obvious generality to add to the discussion: we are at the convergence of 2 momentous changes.

    Humanity is just recognizing that we have been trampling the earth and it’s ability to supply for its inhabitants at exactly the same time that we recognize that in order to do the trampling we have been requiring the majority of the inhabitants to do it for us at virtually no financial cost to us.

    If the people of Brazil and Ethiopia and every other coffee-producing nation are to gain a higher standard of living then our standards – in general terms – won’t be as good. That means coffee will get more expensive to us as it becomes more available to them. And as it becomes more available to them through higher wages and an increase of the standards of living then they will be acquiring the kinds of things that have so degraded the environment…Like manufactured goods and pesticide-raised crops.

  33. Tim Schilling

    I asked the CIRAD geneticist, Dr. Benoit Bertrand, if he would comment on this discussion and tell us about the parents of the hybrids we cupped in Nicaragua last month…. here is his response:

    “I am the ‘father’ of the new F1 hybrids in Central America.
    So I would like to give some information about it. As you know, Arabica is an autogamous specie (i.e. cross pollination occurred
    for only 5-15% of the seeds, 85 to 95% of the seeds are produced by

    The first F1 hybrids resulted from artificial cross-pollination (manual
    castration of the stamens).
    I considered three groups of plants (genotypes) from the Arabica species: 

    a) the ‘wild’ genotypes (the majority come from Ethiopia) and two genotypes
    come from Sudan (Boma Plateau)
    b) the traditional varieties (Bourbon, Typica, Mundo Novo, Catuai, Maragogype,
    c) the catimor/sarchimor group (that derived from the Timor Hybrid). Between
    specialists we know them as (introgressed varieties) because by natural
    pollination Arabica crossed with Robusta (Canephora). This rare event occured
    in theTimor Island (in the early 20th). Through this natural event, 
    chromosomal fragments of Robusta introduced into the genome of Arabica.

    I crossed a x b and a x c and obtained several combinations (families).

    I created more than 120 families during 1990-1993 in Costa Rica  and tested
    them in trials (Costa Rica and Nicaragua) in comparison with varieties
    cultivated (Bourbon, Caturra, CR95, etc…).
    After 20 years, We selected (CIRAD, CATIE, ICAFE de Costa Rica, IHCAFE de
    Honduras, PROCAFE de Salvador, ANACAFE de Guatemala), four exceptional plants
    (individuals) that resulted from crosses between a x b and a x c.

    For example the new F1 hybrid ‘Centroamérica’ resulted from a cross between
    Rume Sudan (a wild plant from Sudan)  x Sarchimor 5296 ;

    Cassiopea results from a wild Ethiopian crossed by ‘Caturra’, and so

    Those four plants are exceptional in terms of yield, resistance and quality.

    Now the problem is how can we reproduced (propagated) those plants to obtain
    millions individuals for producers.   It is not possible to reproduce it by
    seeds, so we reproduced it by a new technique of tissue culture (somatic
    embrygenesis) that we have developed in the same time. 

    The new hybrids are 100 % natural.

     Benoît BERTRAND, Genetecist (”

    So, there you have it from the ‘father’s” mouth.  These are very exciting times in coffee right now.  The question of how to increase supplies of quality coffees and at the same time, increase the ‘unique taste profile’ differentiation potential (the geishas, small lots, heirloom, etc. ); all the while increasing the livelihoods of the producers and their families is what the GCQRI is all about.  

  34. Ed B.

     Thank you Tim for getting the detailed information.
    The next phase will be how these will do in different areas under different conditions. Origin characteristics in the cup are especially important in coffee. The demands/yields of a certain plant on the soil must be keep in reasonable balance with the ability of the soil to rejuvenate. A need to supply added nutrients can diminish origin characteristics and add the complication of access and cost of these added nutrients. I like the new concepts around formulated compost teas to rejuvenate the life in the soil and increase soil breakdown and nutrient release. 
    I still believe that standard/heirlooms with a global selection process of appropriate individuals for a given condition is an approach that should also be developed. I heard a speech by a Harvard professor where he analyzed what would have been the results if standard breeding had been continued during the 1900s vs the focus on F1s and now GMOs. Interesting stuff. 
    My background was in natural grazing livestock selection and breeding for specific areas/conditions and purpose.    

  35. Shawn Steiman

    Good stuff here, as always!  I do want to address some GMO conversation and high quality scarcity.  I’m going to split it into two posts, though, since the GMO is gonna be long.

    Breeding anything for all the traits is damned tricky.  Invariably, as you acquire one trait that you want (say quality), you lose another (pest resistance).  Yes, it’s a generalization.  It does speak to the challenges of coffee breeding for coffees us geeks want and the agronomic traits farmers need.  Rust, coffee berry borer, and coffee berry disease are serious pests and pathogens with no good solutions for dealing with them.  (I hope Bertrand has something and wonderful, though, from his breeding).  My guess (and I’m no geneticist) is that we’ll not have ultra-yummy coffee from a 100% Arabica line in the near future.  Thus, inserting a gene that will prevent a plant suffering from rust (or high temps, or water stress, or low nutrient inputs…) while tasting exceptional doesn’t sound so bad to me.

    The evidence against *commercially* available GMO crops does not seem to show much nastiness.  Some of the stories Ben mentioned were modifications that the system caught and either pulled out of production were only problematic in the lab, not in nature.  GM crops have been around for almost 30 years.  While mankind (in developed nations) has what seems to be an increase of health problems, there has not been a direct to them from anything, including GM crops.  The argument that these things are bad for us and the environment just doesn’t seem to be stack up to reality.  (I’m happy to discuss this stuff more with anyone off this blog, if you’re interested).

    Can GM crops be functional and taste good  Of course!  GM papaya in Hawaii is a fantastic success story.  The population of Hawaii seems unaffected by the crop and consumers love it.  There’s no reason tasty coffee can’t result from GM modification.

    Must we take the GM route?  No.  Would I rather not if we didn’t really need to- yup?  It is expensive, difficult, and full of social problems.  However, it is a tool we should have in our toolbox.  I’d rather not lose out on fantastic  coffee and other tasty crops because, as a society, we weren’t willing to take this route.

    The 1st SCAA symposium had a 1/2 day dedicated to the GM-coffee conversation.  I agree, James, that it could have received more attention this year.

    Lastly, there is GM coffee out there.  At least, I’ve heard there is some experimental planted in a test operation.  I know several labs have been working on GM coffee (of various sorts) for awhile now.  What has been successful or not is not something I know, nor do I know all of the goals of the programs.

    Ok, enough GMO talk!

  36. Shawn Steiman

    Ok, on to availability of uber-specialty coffee.

    I rarely hear anyone say that a reason awesome coffee is hard to find is that so many people are buying it?  Demand for this coffee is higher than ever and so scarcity has occurred.  This is a good thing!  When this happens, farmers get more money (ideally) and other farmers get jealous and (hopefully) make efforts to make great coffee, too. 

    Yes, the world is getting hotter and coffee pests are covering more ground.  This sucks.  It doesn’t change the fact that we’ve produced great coffee up this point under these conditions. 

    We know a lot about what not to do with coffee production and processing.  I’m a huge fan of the GCQRI and his holiness Tim Shilling :-), but let’s not forget what we already  know.  We know how to avoid many mistakes and we know how to increase yields.  If we allocate resources differently (water, fertilizer, knowledge), we could increase our supply of geeky coffee in but a few seasons.  Talk to any direct trade roaster who works with farmers on processing and storage and they’ll probably agree with me.  We need more of this as well as agronomic assistance for farmers.  Traditional production/processing methods aren’t necessarily the most efficient or desirable.  Education of farmers and processors can do a lot of good.

    Through all this, buyers need to be willing to spend more money to offset the costs these farmers take a risk at implementing (remember, they get after the changes, not before, when they need it most).  I am quickly becoming a believer in the idea that  coffee prices are way too low (but that’s another conversation). 

    There are plenty of challenges to overcome, for sure, not all of which our current knowledge and distribution of resources can deal with.. High prices also can translate into farmers doing less effort for their crop for quality.  We consumers need to show them we care for quality and we want their best product and that we’re in it for the long term relationship (both social and financial).

    Let’s keep on with the research, for sure.  Let’s keep on, too, with what past research has taught us. 

  37. Ed B.

     Shawn this is so important. “ We consumers need to show them we care for quality and we want their best product and that we’re in it for the long term relationship (both social and financial).”
    Farmers are isolated and many kind of like living that way. But they still need the respect and appreciation for their hard work and extra efforts, like everyone else. I spent many years working with many farmers in this country in basically the same situation. They never know how appreciative we are on a  personal/social level, money isn’t everything they need. I wish we could come up with more ways to make this happen.

  38. Croce Felipe

    I would like to  challenge the idea that global warming will decrease the total area available for coffee production. I believe this will allow other areas further from the equator to become possible for coffee production. Also, here is a theory that I would like to pose to you: Is altitude the biggest variable on acidity or is temperature. It seems the farther we go from the equator the less higher up we need to go up the mountain. I think crisis seems to bring change but also new opportunities but not a reason to panic.

  39. Kevin

    James, thank you for sharing your thoughts on the future of specialty coffee. Re GMOs there has already been a considerable amount of work done on transgenic coffee plants which has led to the creation for example of coffee plants with insect resistance and caffeine free plants.  I think the coffee industry needs to work on a number of fronts to tackle the problems that coffee farmers face in dealing with pathogens, insect attack, and changing weather patterns. This will involve using traditional Mendelian genetics and in this respect the work by Bertrand et al, with F1 hybrids in the early 90s is of course vital and needs to be continued. However, of the 120 F1 hybrids produced by Bertrand, only 4 were finally selected for further propagation and it took over 20 years of work.  The use of genetic transformation technology can help to speed up the process and should not be shunned. If resistance to coffee berry disease, leaf rust, or frost can be achieved by using genetically engineered plants, without compromising cup quality, then surely this must be a welcome development. CDB, for example, which affects crops in Africa in particular, can result in up to 80% crop loss with chemical spraying accounting for up to 40% of production costs. Much of the bad publicity surrounding GMOs resulted from the use of foreign genes as selectable markers, particularly the use of markers that carried antibiotic resistance genes (as not all cells in culture are transformed the use of antiobiotic resistance allowed selection of cells that were transformed with the required gene). However, new technology based on the use of different selection markers or eliminating the use these markers is under development. While we are waiting for new disease resistant varietals to appear I think there is a considerable amount of work to be done on a farm level to improve quality. As an example I would point to the work that the likes of Graciano Cruz has been doing with farmers in El Salvador. He has worked with a number of farmers to improve their cultivation and processing technologies which has resulted in some of the coffees on these farms gaining honors in the Cup of Excellence competition.

  40. Shawn Steiman

    Every scientist I know who works with coffee suggests what you suggest, Croce- it is a matter of temperature and altitude is merely a proxy.  Evidence to support this is places like Hawaii (far north of the equator), where coffee is grown from almost sea level to a bit over 1000 meters.  While there is a quality difference along that gradient, you’ll find something for everyone. 

    Does this mean coffee and other tropical crops can move away from the equator?  An excellent question!  I can’t answer it but logic does suggest the answer is “yes”!

  41. Croce Felipe

    Shawn, thanks for the response. Maybe you and others already knew this but I must admit this was a recent revelation for me. Last year I happened to cup very acidic coffees from as low as 600 meters from the state of Parana in Brazil. This is an area well below the Tropic of Capricorn which has seen its production decrease since heavy frosts in the 90’s. While reading a wine book I found that many winemakers will harvest their grapes at night or on a colder day in order to increase acidity. So my guess is depending on the temperature you pick and process at you can influence towards acidic or towards more sweet? I am going to experiment this at my families farm this year. Felipe-

  42. Shawn Steiman


    Your observations are spot on and you deserve credit for figuring it out!  I also want to note that you’re correct about the low elevation Brazil with acidity.  Acidity isn’t determined by temperature, it is influenced by it!  That’s about all we know, to be honest.  (Go GCQRI!)

    I can’t tell you if your hypothesis about cold days/night is accurate or not.  All I can suggest is that you beware about making grape to coffee analogies.  We use physiologically very different parts of the plants for these beverages: grapes are a fruit, coffee is a seed.  They respond very differently to the world, consequently.

    I fully support your experimentation and look forward to your results.  If you’re ever keen to talk about coffee physiology or hash out your experiments, please, don’t hesitate to contact me.  I’m happy to help!

  43. Croce Felipe


    Thanks! Would definitely love to exchange ideas. I think that is something we could benefit greatly on the producing side. Will send you my results from this year. We just begun our harvest here last week so it might take a few months :)

    James, thanks for providing the inspiration and space for conversation. I think what your doing for the coffee world is great!

Leave A Comment