Who cares about decaf coffee? I do. I’m a slow caffeine metabolizer, like many millions of others. We folks with a particular type of CYP1A2 gene may adore a perfectly pressed single-origin Arabica but cannot drink a fully caffeinated cup without the caffeine accumulating too quickly, making our hearts beat like bass drums and our brains feel momentarily vaporized. At parties, we leave half cups of cold coffee to be tossed into the sink. At coffee shops, we pronounce, “half-caff or decaf” like our day depends on it (because it does). Baristas wince at the thought of heavily stripped decaf grounds grazing their precious portafilter. Many of us give up and drink tea. Pregnant women know our pain. But now there’s a chance for us, the metabolically mismatched. A whole new kind of coffee may be on the horizon.
At the 2022 World Barista Championships in Melbourne, Morgan Eckroth of Onyx Coffee guided a tower of coffee grinds out from under the mammoth grinder as she prepared to pull a shot of espresso. She added a collar around the grinds, fluffed them with something that looks like a mini scalp tickler, and pressed them down with a tiny plunger. The judges watched.
“We begin our time today with a coffee that has faced an extinction of its own: Eugenioides,” she said into a light pink jawbone microphone. She went on to explain that the Coffea Eugenioides plant, the genetic parent to Coffea Arabica, was almost extinct until recently. Arabica is the earthy, full-bodied, chocolatey coffee that most of the world finds delectable. Eugenioides is a bit different—still strong, but with hints of citrus fruit and marshmallow. The kicker: Eugenioides has half the caffeine.
Although Eugenioides helped Eckroth win second place, it’s unlikely we mortals will ever enjoy its pleasantly light buzz. It’s tough to grow. Even in the lush soil of Inmaculada Farms in Colombia, where Eckroth’s coffee was sourced, it struggles along. But Eugenioides might offer another path toward a quaffable coffee we can all enjoy. Now, Eugenioides is giving scientists clues about how to make a more metabolically friendly Arabica, to tweak the way it makes caffeine, and create a half-caff or decaf plant in the laboratory with the same full flavor of the ones found in nature.
At Wageningen University and Research Center in the Netherlands, Jan Schaart and his collaborators are breeding the next generation of wheat and potato plants. With new tools of genome editing, they probe the plants’ metabolic pathways and look for ways to make them healthier and more productive. It’s a task that many food and beverage companies are carrying out in parallel. In 2021, Schaart and one of his students, Nils Leibrock, became particularly interested in coffee and using the CRISPR system to quiet the caffeine-making pathway inside Coffea Arabica. “When it comes to the genetics, it seems quite easy,” Schaart says. “And coffee will taste much better because you don’t need a chemical process to get rid of caffeine in the coffee beans.”
Researchers have been trying to do this for decades using older technologies. In 1992, a geneticist at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu used antisense technology to insert a gene that blocks an enzyme in the caffeine-making pathway. The process was laborious. And, as soon as the seedlings were transplanted on a farm, the plant’s caffeine level increased. In 2003, scientists at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan used RNAi technology to mess with the caffeine-making pathway in a different way. Their plants didn’t grow well either—the missing enzyme had unforeseen deleterious effects.
On the growers’ side, coffee farms have been trying to breed caffeine out of coffee for just as long. In the 1990s, Illycaffé cultivated and roasted a low-caff species called Coffea Laurina, a coffee with a mild body and almost sweet flavor. But there was trouble. In the plant’s leaves, caffeine acts as a natural pesticide—it wards off insects and therefore prevents insect-borne disease. So, missing caffeine in Laurina and Eugenioides often means that the leaves get ravaged. As a result of this and perhaps other growing problems, the yield of these coffee plants is small, just enough for one limited release (or a World Barista Championship). Laurina is currently available for purchase only on the website of a Doka Estates, a farm in Costa Rica.
In 2004, Brazilian scientists announced that the decaf problem was solved—they had found a naturally decaffeinated Arabica coffee plant. Seeds were distributed to farms around the world. But we haven’t heard much about it since.
Coffee is a moody fellow. The only way to potentially get around this caffeine conundrum (other than just drinking less, but who wants to do that) is to find a way to reduce caffeine in the coffee beans without affecting the leaves. (And don’t say Swiss Water—more on that in a moment.)
“We think when we treat it in such a way that caffeine is still produced in leaves but not in the beans, and then you can have a solution to this problem,” says Schaart. CRISPR machinery along with a wealth of public knowledge about the coffee genome may allow them to do it, or at least come up with a plan. In the coffee plant, there are hundreds of proteins called transcription factors that help the caffeine gene get started. In the leaves, the plant uses a certain combination of these proteins, and in the beans, it presumably uses a different combination. Schaart and Leibrock’s plan uses CRISPR tools to prevent bean-specific transcription factors from clicking into the caffeine gene. They will get started as soon as they can procure funding.
But the private sector may have outrun them. Tropic Biosciences, a company headquartered in the U.K., seems to be already using CRISPR technology for making genetically engineered decaf coffee. A quick Google search turns up a patent application filed in 2019 in the U.S., Japan, China, Australia, and other countries describing something slightly different than Schaart and Leibrock’s plan. There are probably other companies doing the same. In addition, the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development is looking into CRISPR for decaf coffee, as are several Indonesian research centers. So, how far away are we from seeing low-caff and decaf Arabica with all the flavors of the original? Perhaps not far.
How idyllic, the thought of sipping a full-strength, robust latte in one sitting, start to finish, no jitters (and no hundred-dollar price tag). Of course, no one has grown a mature CRISPR-edited coffee plant yet (or if they have, they’re not disclosing). Perhaps more crucially, nobody yet knows whether consumers would buy genetically engineered coffee. Schaart is optimistic. “I like to call it inspired by nature,” he says. In Europe, however, genetically modified foods are still unpopular. In Asia and the Americas they are slightly more socially acceptable, but some consumers are still skeptical about them, especially their safety. Even if low-caffeine coffee would be a potable godsend for us slow metabolizers, it might be a while before public opinion turns around.
For now, there’s only one method of making decaf coffee for the masses—harvesting fully caffeinated beans and running them through a caustic or scalding solution, wrestling away hundreds of flavor molecules along with the caffeine. Now you can say Swiss Water. Award-winning roasters like Intelligentsia and Volcanica are paying more attention to their decaf these days, mastering the Swiss Water technique, a popular Swiss-born method that uses hot water and a coffee bean’s own water-soluble solids to draw out caffeine, and coming up with new things like ethyl acetate soaks. Volcanica’s decaf is decent.
My favorite decaf coffee on the market is Counter Culture’s aptly named “Slow Motion,” also a Swiss Water decaf. It’s good. Not great. I would love to sample it after running through a $10,000 La Marzocco at my local coffee shop. Maybe one day. In West Los Angeles, Café Luxxe roasts a very highly regarded Decaffeinato that currently garners a 91 rating by Coffee Review. It’s smooth. My husband calls it tasteless. When I brew it at home, I up the strength by using one and a half times the grinds. He still won’t drink it.
And of course, living in California, I couldn’t help but hear about a new West Coast startup company focused on decaffeinating coffee after it has been pulled or poured. Founded by Andy Liu, Decafino makes a teabag-like product that can 80 percent decaffeinate any 16-ounce cup of coffee in less than four minutes. Inside is microbeads made from algae with pores that bind the caffeine molecule exclusively, they say, leaving all other flavor molecules untouched. It’s up for pre-sale on their website. Although I can’t imagine dunking a perfectly poured cappuccino and watching it grow flat and cold while it decafs, I will try it anyway. In the meantime, I’ll keep ordering my half-caffs and enduring the ever-present barista wince.
Recently, on the way to a local park, I spotted Blue Bottle Coffee, a specialty coffee shop where baristas train for a month before they pull their first shot. I had tasted their coffee. I knew it was chosen and served with care, and at a moment where I was feeling sleepy and shiftless, it called me. I stepped up to the counter and placed my usual order—half-caff cappuccino—smiling as I imagined the warm cup of bliss grazing my lips. The barista replied, “I need to warn you: Our decaf is bitter.” I deflated. “It’s OK,” I said. “I’m used to it.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.