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The Quest For Naturally Caffeine Free Coffee Plants

Can a Caffeine Free Coffee Plant Exist?

We all know where decaf coffee comes from: caffeinated coffee beans. After taking a trip through the Swiss Water Process, the Ethyl Acetate Process, or any number of other methods, these beans are stripped of their caffeine and become decaf coffee beans.

But what if there was a way to do this without any decaffeination process at all? It sounds impossible, but scientists have been attempting to breed naturally caffeine-free coffee plants for decades now. Although they have not yet been successful, the work continues.

Early Attempts at Caffeine Free Coffee Plants: 1980s and 1990s

Let’s turn the clock back to the 1980s. Shoulder pads are high, and feathered hair is higher. Hair metal and synth pop are burning up the charts. And a New Jersey based company called DNA Plant Technology is attempting to produce caffeine free coffee plants. As an informative article from the great roaster Decadent Decaf tells us, this unfortunately never came to fruition. The gulf between a breakthrough in the lab and a commercially viable product turned out to be pretty wide.

At the same time, however, work started in Brazil. Researchers at the Agronomical Institute of Campinas began to study the caffeine content in coffee plants. The quest to create caffeine free coffee would continue on in Brazil into the 21st Century.

Moving into the 90s, a geneticist at the University of Honolulu found a way to block enzymes that create caffeine. As Slate puts it, “The process was laborious. And, as soon as the seedlings were transplanted on a farm, the plant’s caffeine level increased.” Another bust.

A Breakthrough: 2000s

Moving into the 2000s, however, things started to look more promising. In 2004, a collection of Brazilian scientists published a paper in Nature that outlined the existence of a caffeine free arabica coffee plant. Rather than the result of genetic engineering or cross breeding, this plant came from Ethiopian coffee samples collected in 1964. At the time, researchers were confident that they could transfer its caffeine free traits to an easily reproduced arabica coffee plant. The Brazilian government contributed a 1.2 million dollar research grant to make this happen.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be more difficult than expected. A 2012 article in Nature explains that the coffee plants the scientists were able to produce were bushy and couldn’t flower properly. Caffeine, as it turns out, is a natural insecticide as well. Removing this created another roadblock to producing farm-ready plants.

For Brazilian researchers like Paulo Mazzafera, however, this wouldn’t be the end. In 2023, Brazilian scientists again reported that they were closer than ever to producing a viable, caffeine free plant. Mazzafera himself remains confident in the project, telling Nature “If I had a farm. . .I would grow this coffee for myself.” 

We can’t say if the world is any closer to an easily grown caffeine free coffee plant, but we do know that the quest continues. It’s easy to speculate how the decaf world would be rocked by such a breakthrough. In the meantime, however, we have plenty of naturally decaffeinated coffee options to tide us over. 

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