Imitation game

Would you buy a synthetic coffee concocted in a lab? What if it was significantly cheaper and more environmentally friendly? David Burrows dons his white coat to see what the future may bring. Photo by Gary Smith

Would you drink wine made not from grapes but a bunch of flavour compounds created in a laboratory? How about if it promised to be identical to a classic vintage at a fraction of the cost? What if it was better for the environment, or for you? Connoisseurs may scoff, but Alec Lee claims his batch of synthetic wines is just the start of things to come. “Wine is technologically a low-hanging fruit,” he says. “We’ll be able to rapidly bring products to market that not only match but surpass the quality of their natural counterparts.”

Taste tests carried out on the Moscato d’Asti mimic Lee’s team has produced suggest there’s a long way to go, but that doesn’t stop him dreaming about the possibilities – many of which could lie beyond wine. “I see a future where any food we want is available at the touch of a button,” he says. Food would be cheap, plentiful and sustainable.

Molecular puzzle

Such claims should always be taken with a pinch of salt (Lee is a man who insists he can turn water into wine in 15 minutes). Still, it makes you think: if it’s possible to recreate wine in the lab, could the same be done with coffee?

“I haven’t looked at its molecular profile to get a really good sense of it, [but] I do think that’s a possibility,” says Lee. Texture and caffeine would be the most straightforward bits, while flavour and aroma would be the most difficult, he assumes. Others agree it’s possible, but that doesn’t mean synthetic coffee would be easy, cheap or acceptable.

Christopher Hendon, a postdoctoral associate in the chemistry department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has worked with three-time UK barista champion Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood to determine the best type of water to use in coffee. He sees “no particular reason we couldn’t create a coffee from the ground up”, but says to turn theory into practice you must first consider two things: complexity and cost.

To make their synthetic products, Lee and his team at Ava Winery in San Francisco essentially deconstruct wines to identify flavour compounds. They can then build “bio-identical” matches by combining ethanol with flavour compounds such as ethyl hexanoate, which has a fruity, pineapple-like aroma. It isn’t easy, but molecularly speaking it’s not that difficult either.

“The big secret is that most compounds in wine have no perceptible impact on the flavour or the aroma,” Lee admitted in an interview with New Scientist.

Complex compounds

The same approach – capturing the precise chemical composition and mixing these chemicals in the same concentrations as found in nature – could be used to make synthetic coffee, but it would likely take much, much longer.

“Coffee is substantially more complex than wine or beer, because the mechanism for the formation of organic compounds throughout the roast process is still not known,” says Hendon. “You would need to perform a very complex series of molecular isolations to determine each component in a coffee after it was brewed to taste ‘good’. This is more challenging than it may appear. Several [hundreds] of compounds in coffee are so dilute we would need to brew a huge quantity to get them to the detectable limit for such separations.”

Others also believe it could be a wild goose chase. “With all of the things that could alter the flavour of a particular coffee, who’s to say what that coffee should taste like?” says Thomas Haigh, head of Coffee by Tate. “The coffee will also go through processing, storage, transport, roasting and brewing before it’s tasted, any one of which will change the potential flavour in that coffee.” Haigh admits he can’t comprehend how the complexities and subtleties of a coffee could ever be manufactured.

There would be other challenges too, says Chris Stemman of the British Coffee Association. Not only might it prove impractical to copy these compounds, it would also be “very, very expensive”.

For wine, the economics make sense (a bottle of Dom Pérignon mimic could cost as little as £40), but synthetic coffee may not have the same commercial benefits.The price of a laboratory chemical is determined by several factors, one being how “synthetic” it actually is. This puts us in a chicken and egg situation, Hendon suggests.

“Most pure chemicals come from cracking oil or the by-product of various reactions performed on an industrial scale,” he says. “Most coffee compounds aren’t produced in nature, but by roasting [which is a chemical process after the natural process].” Designer coffee would therefore be “immensely expensive”, while the best source of coffee-containing compounds would be, you’ve guessed it, roasted coffee.

A greener option?

But while synthetic coffee looks like a commercial non-starter, could environmental benefits tip the balance? Ava Winery claims its wines use “50 to 100 times” less water than natural wine, and the coffee industry is starting to sweat about climate change. Research published by the Climate Institute in Australia concluded wild coffee – an important genetic resource for farmers – could be extinct by 2080. Increasing temperatures and extreme weather events will also cut the area suitable for production in the world’s “coffee belt” by up to 50%, as well as erode quality and push up prices.

Mass-producing synthetic coffee that hits the same flavour and aroma notes without damaging the planet offers hope, then? Not quite. We have to tread carefully, warns Mark Driscoll from sustainability experts Forum for the Future. “While [these alternatives] may go some way towards providing alternative choices and raising consumer awareness, they’re not a panacea,” he says. “Their production also involves the use of scarce resources, and not enough is yet known of these experimental products to comprehensively map out and measure their environmental and social impact.”

What’s also unclear is whether people will buy them. All trends point towards us choosing more natural ingredients because we perceive them to be healthier. And coffee has some health benefits, too – would these be lost in synthetic versions, or even enhanced?

“It’s not enough to create the product, you also need to create demand,” says Driscoll. “Is it possible to get a critical mass of people to consume a faked version if the real thing is still available?” That could be a challenge for Ava, but one it’s well-placed to overcome if it offers decent, affordable copies of very expensive wines.

The same argument could be aimed at Impossible Foods, which has spent millions of dollars creating a meatless burger that looks, smells and tastes meaty. The Impossible Burger is plant-based rather than synthetic, but compared with its beef-based cousins uses 95% less land, 74% less water and results in 87% fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Reviews have been mixed. But in the company’s favour is a big trend towards eating less meat for environmental, health or ethical reasons.

Diversity in variety

The ethics of synthetic food and drink are intriguing: are these replacements fair on the farmers? These producers help to create the diversity we crave in our food and drink: coffee’s flavour and aroma potential is significantly influenced by the varietals, altitude, soil composition, picking and harvest, as well as processing, washing, storage, transport. “Each coffee harvest from the same farm tastes slightly different,” says Haigh. “This creates huge diversity of flavour potential within small pockets of coffee production across the world.”

During roasting, the chemical compounds in coffee change, react, transform and degrade, offering the roaster the chance to manipulate and innovate in order to create sweetness, acidity, bitterness, body, balance and solubility in the coffee. Brewing also creates vast differences in flavour and aroma, and coffee continues to transform in the cup as it cools.

Coffee is created by everyone from the farmer to the barista, something synthetic coffee can never match. “The whole delight in experiencing coffee is knowing many people from many cultures have come together to produce each cup,” says Haigh. “Why should we want to bypass all of that?”