The rediscovery of Coffee Stenophylla is probably our future hope to enjoy quality brew in the face of the climate change

The rediscovery of Coffee Stenophylla is probably our future hope to enjoy quality brew in the face of the climate change

June 17 - 2022

Coffee Geography Magazine

Robusta beans are known to survive the climate change due to its heat resistant nature. Its lower quality value doesn’t match that of Arabica Coffee’s which only tolerate on cool volcanic highlands with its best flavorful tasting notes. 

Researchers now doubt that Arabica could not survive the climate change even with the few temperature fluctuations. Researchers from Sierra Leone, NRI at the University of Greenwich, Royal Botanical Gardens Kew and CIRAD (the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development) have been working to find a future replacement bean that could tolerate a warmer temperature with the same or even better quality than the Arabica beans.

View from Sugar Loaf Mountain

Daniel Sarmu, a Sierra Leonean researcher discovered Coffee Stenophylla which was lost for many years in the steep and humid Kambui Hills in his country. 

 Jeremy Haggar, an agro-ecologist at the University of Greenwich in the UK and one of the researchers who rediscovered the stenophylla coffee with Sarmu stated that coffee markets are very interested in anything that's different -- particularly if it has good flavor attributes and it's highly likely that the specialty coffee market will be interested in it, and they may pay very high prices for this, once it gets in the mainstream. 

Hagger explained that Stenophylla coffee also grows in warmer temperatures, which means it could help the industry in its battle with climate change. Stenophylla can comfortably grow at temperatures up to 6.8⁰C higher than Arabica which could offer the industry a potential lifeline in a warming world.

"In the 1890s, it was stenophylla coffee that dominated the market," says Sarmu. It was the preferred coffee of the French, and traded widely during the 1920s. 

C. stenophylla was first discovered by Swedish botanist Adam Afzelius in the 18th century, and first published by Scottish botanist George Don. Subsequently, a sample of seeds was obtained by Sir William H. Quayle Jones, the Deputy Governor of Sierra Leone, in 1894. The plant was cultivated by the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, and samples were sent to Trinidad. J. H. Hart, F.L.S, the Superintendent of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Trinidad, reported in 1898 that the plants had fruited for the first time, four years from being planted. He described the flavor of the prepared cup of coffee as excellent, and equal to the finest Coffea arabica. Stenophylla produces small berries and has a low yield compared to the commercially dominate species and is therefore not widely used in global coffee production. 

 In the 1950s, Robusta coffee was introduced to Sierra Leone by the British during the time when instant coffee dominates the market everywhere. Robusta is a more productive plant with much better yield to produce instant coffee. Then farmers in Sierra Leone had made their own decision which was right at the time to replace Stenophylla with Robusta.

Coffee was more important to Sierra Leone's economy than cocoa. Until 1991, Sierra Leone was exporting up to 25,000 tons of coffee annually. But in that year, conflict in the neighboring country of Liberia, led by Charles Taylor, spread to Sierra Leone, triggering an 11-year civil war which forced farmers to abandon their fields all together and the coffee industry disappeared forever including Stenophylla. 

The recently published research in ‘Nature Plants’ by NRI at the University of Greenwich, Royal Botanical Gardens Kew and CIRAD (the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development), reveal the results of an in-depth evaluation of a ‘rediscovered’ coffee species that has the potential to help futureproof the coffee industry against climate change. NRI’s Professor Jeremy Haggar has co-authored the research paper.

After discovering a wild coffee plant of around 15 stenophylla plants growing in the hills, the research team gathered samples for testing. According to their publication, it was confirmed that stenophylla coffee is of high quality and excellent flavor, comparable to the best Arabica beans. 

 The search was performed to try to find living specimens. This wild plant stock is being propagated for future sensory and agronomic evaluation as well as species protection. According to Aaron Davis a co-author of the research publication and head of coffee research at Britain's Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the cultivation of C. stenophylla could be used to further diversify the genetic portfolio of cultivated coffee around the world. 

Further diversification is considered necessary to increase resilience to climate change as well as pressures from global crop diseases such as rust. C. stenophylla has been found to have good agronomic performance at low elevations which could expand the potential area used for coffee cultivation, which is a typically higher elevation of 800m and above.