Coffee, with its irresistible aroma and unmistakable flavor, holds a prominent place in our culture and society. However, what do we really know about the plant behind this beloved beverage? In this chapter, we will delve into the fascinating world of coffee from a botanical perspective, exploring its origins and the astonishing diversity it harbors within the plant kingdom.

Origins and Botanical Diversity

The history of the coffee plant, known botanically as Coffea, traces back to its belonging to the Rubiaceae family. Where does this plant come from? How did it originate? These are questions that lead us on a captivating journey through time and geography, exploring the most remote corners where coffee finds its natural habitat.

Today, more than 130 species of coffee have been identified, most of which are wild and not commercially utilized. However, only three species dominate global production: Coffea arabica, accounting for 60%, followed by Coffea canephora (known as robusta) at 40%, and thirdly, Coffea liberica, with a minimal share of 0.01%.

But what about the other 127 species? What is their relevance to the future of coffee? These are questions that have piqued the interest of institutions such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the UK. Under the leadership of Dr. Aaron Davis, principal coffee researcher, surprising discoveries have been made in recent decades.

Explorations in diverse places like Madagascar, the Pacific islands, and Africa have revealed hundreds of new species of wild coffee. These findings not only expand our knowledge of coffee’s genetic diversity but also open up new opportunities in research and development.

The genetic bank of Coffea is now enriched by these new species, offering the possibility of breeding new strains more resistant to climate change, pests, and diseases. This exciting field of study promises not only to safeguard the future of coffee but also to take it to new heights of flavor and quality.

Alternatives in the Face of Climate Change

Exploring the Coffee of the Future:

Imagine a scenario where commercial varieties of arabica and canephora coffee are no longer viable due to rising temperatures and unpredictable rainfall. What coffee do we have left? Recent studies suggest that Coffea excelsa could be a promising alternative. This variety exhibits remarkable climate resilience and, with its multiple strains, promises exceptional flavor. Additionally, its caffeine content is lower than arabica, and if properly cultivated, it may even surpass robusta in terms of production.

Another species under study for commercial cultivation is Coffea racemosa. This plant not only produces a quality cup but also shows great resilience. Its adaptability to low altitudes and specific climates could make it viable even in certain regions of Europe, where temperatures never drop below freezing.

Standing out in the new coffee landscape is Coffea laurina, with a remarkably low caffeine content, almost comparable to naturally decaffeinated coffee. However, its exquisite flavor and delicate aroma make it an exciting choice for coffee lovers.

Some of these wild varieties may have fruits with strange shapes, but their acidic taste may be intolerable.

In India, where I have resided for over 30 years, along with a group of botanical friends, we have identified one of the most interesting wild species on the subcontinent: Coffea wightiana. This coffee species is deciduous, shedding all its leaves to give way to a massive flowering of small white flowers with a scent similar to jasmine, capable of even intoxicating. Its fruit forms in just two months, unlike the nine months for arabica and eleven for robusta. Its beans, perhaps the smallest, barely reach one or two millimeters.

In 2023, we harvested these coffee fruits, fermented them in mucilage, washed and dried them. After a month of resting in parchment, we hand-peeled them. We used a fluid air roaster for samples, which allowed us to precisely roast fifty grams. We prepared the tasting following the Specialty Coffee Association protocol for arabica as a reference. The fragrance was intense, with clear notes of cardamom and cinnamon. In the mouth, it was an authentic coffee, with a light body and exquisite flavor, a delicate cup of an almost unknown species.

Creativity becomes an indispensable tool for overcoming obstacles. This article invites curiosity about the coffee of the future, where botanical diversity and adaptability play a crucial role in the sustainability of this beloved beverage.