Coffee is in jeopardy. As the world’s temperatures increase and the climate changes, it is becoming more and more difficult to grow coffee. For farmers, cafes, and coffee drinkers this is terrible news. In this episode of Thinking in English, let’s talk about the issue and discuss a potential solution to the problem!

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Vocabulary List

To afford (v) – to have enough money or time to buy, keep, or do something

I don’t know how he can afford a new car

Accustomed (adj) – familiar with something

I quickly became accustomed to the taste of beer

To brew (v) – if you brew tea or coffee, you add boiling water to it to make a hot drink, and if it brews, it gradually developed flavour in the container in which it was made

He brewed us some coffee

Barely (adv) – by the smallest amount 

She was barely 15 when she won her first world championship 

Enthusiast (n) – a person who is very interested in and involved with a particular subject or activity

He is a keep-fit enthusiast

Jeopardy (n) – in danger of being damaged or destroyed 

The lives of thousands of birds are in jeopardy as a result of the oil spill 

Elevation (n) – the height of a place above the level of the sea

The crop is not grown at high elevation

Yield (n) – an amount of something positive, such as food or profit, that is produced or supplied

Crop yields have risen steadily

To crossbreed (v) – to cause a plant or animal to breed with another plant or animal of a different type in order to produce a new type of plant or animal

Asian pears are a variety developed by crossbreeding pears and apples  

Over the last year, lockdowns and quarantines forced people to change their habits and major parts of their lives. In particular, with many group activities and indoor venues closed, a lot of people have to find new hobbies. Some people have started exercising everyday; a few of my friends have started baking and cooking food from around the world (in fact, I’ve just ordered a Taiwanese cookbook because I’ve missed eating food from that part of the world!); my mum has started knitting and my grandparents have been doing a lot of puzzles. 

For me, there have been two new interests in my life. The first is wristwatches. Before the pandemic, I owned one wristwatch. Now I have about seven, all with strange or unique features. I’m not rich, unfortunately, so most of the watches I have collected are cheap and second hand from the internet. I particularly like watches made in the Soviet Union as they often have fascinating and original designs. And hopefully, over the next few years, I’ll be able to afford more expensive models from Japan and, if I’m lucky, Switzerland. 

My second new interest is coffee. I grew up in a family that drank a lot of tea, and I never even tried coffee until I was in my second year of university. There was a Starbucks in the main university library, and one day when I was incredibly tired I finally decided to force myself to drink a cappuccino. The first time I tasted coffee I thought it was disgusting, but because I wanted the caffeine boost I kept drinking the beverage. Gradually, I became accustomed to the flavour, and started to drink stronger coffees. By the time I was living in London, I was drinking two or free coffees a day. 

However, I didn’t care what type of coffee I was drinking. As I mentioned before, my family was, and still is, a tea drinking family. Growing up, we never had a coffee machine or the right equipment to brew coffee. Therefore, I never learned how to make coffee myself. Instead, if I wanted to make coffee at home, I would use cheap instant coffee. The pandemic, however, caused this all to change!

YouTube, as you all probably know, will often recommend you unexpected videos. A few months ago, a video by creator James Hoffman popped up in my recommendations and I decided to watch. He is a champion coffee maker (that’s right, there are coffee brewing championships around the world) and probably the biggest coffee based youtuber on the platform. His passion when he spoke about the coffee, the interesting stories of the beans he used, and the scientific methodology he used to brew his drinks really interested me! After searching through my parents’ cupboards, I found an old French Press (or cafetiere) that had barely been used, and followed his recipe to make delicious coffee. Although I don’t have much equipment at the moment, I definitely plan to invest in some different ways to brew coffee when I’m living by myself again. 

So, now that I am interested in coffee, I have more interest in reading coffee related articles and a few have recently shocked me. So, for the rest of this episode, I want to talk about how the coffee industry is in danger, and how we can save it from global warming!

Although I’m a new coffee enthusiast, I am really quite late to the trend. Coffee is a multi-billion dollar industry with roughly about 100 million farmers in tropical countries growing the beans. According to the British Coffee Association, in the UK alone 95 million cups of coffee are drunk every single day. Worryingly for these people, the future of coffee is in jeopardy. Although there are hundreds of types of coffee growing in the wild, the consumer market is dominated by only two types: Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora. Arabica coffee comes from the highlands of East Africa, and grows best at temperatures between 18 and 22°C. Coffea canephora, usually called robusta, comes from lower elevations in west and central Africa and struggles to flourish at temperatures above 24°C. You can probably see the issue here. Coffee, which is grown in tropical countries, only grows in a narrow range of temperatures which means that the entire industry is threatened by climate change. As the world gets hotter, it becomes increasingly difficult to grow coffee.

As I mentioned, there are hundreds of different varieties of coffee growing in the wild; and many grow at warmer temperatures compared to canephora and arabica. Unfortunately, even though these different varieties might be able to cope with climate change, the majority are unsuitable for consumers. In fact, it was once thought that every other type of coffee tasted worse, had smaller beans and lower yields. The future of coffee looked bleak. 

Then, a discovery in the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens has suggested there may be a solution. Dr Aaron Davis, and his colleagues, have rediscovered a type of wild coffee which tastes good and can grow at higher temperatures. Instead of looking to modern technology and innovations, the researchers instead found a paper written nearly 200 years ago by George Don, a Scottish botanist, which described a coffee species from the lowland hills of Sierra Leone. This coffee is known scientifically as Coffea stenophylla, has a flavour similar to arabica’s, and most importantly still grows in parts of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast that have temperature ranges between 24 and 26°C. In fact, stenophylla was actually farmed in those countries until the 1920s, when it was replaced by the other types as they had higher yields. Over the last 100 years, the world gradually forgot about stenophylla.

Over the last few months, the group of researchers set out to test the coffee. They arranged a taste testing competition involving 18 professional coffee tasters who assessed a set of samples that included each of the three types of coffee. And, perhaps surprisingly, Stenophylla performed quite well. In fact, all of the results suggested that Stenophylla does taste like arabica. It is the only other type of coffee that can rival the major two in flavour. Even more importantly, it can grow at a higher temperature than either arabica or canephora.

This leaves the coffee world with two possible opportunities. The coffee industry needs to change and Stenophylla can do this! One opportunity is to start growing the rediscovered type of coffee itself. Farms around the world could begin to replace their existing plants. However, early in the podcast I said that Stenophylla used to be farmed until the 1920s. The reason it stopped was because of low yields, and this will probably still be an issue for farmers. Basically, compared to the two major types of coffee, one Stenophylla will likely produce less coffee overall for the same amount of space, time, and work. Therefore, coffee will probably become more expensive. Option two is to mix or crossbreed the rediscovered coffee with the major coffees. The aim would be to take the yield from arabica coffee and the heat tolerance from stenophylla to create a super coffee!

Final Thought

This episode of Thinking in English has introduced one of the major problems facing the coffee industry, and explored a possible solution. The rediscovery of stenophylla offers hope to coffee farmers, café owners, coffee roasters, and coffee drinkers. You might be thinking right now… I don’t like coffee so I don’t care. Well, coffee is not the only product at risk from climate change and global warming. So many of the world’s plants and crops can only grow in certain temperature ranges. Chocolate, wine, and fruit are all at risk. Many of these industries have been looking at new inventions and innovations to solve the potential future problems. Coffee, instead, shows that maybe we can look to other varieties of crops in the wild, or to the history of the products’ cultivation!

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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