What is coffee DNA testing? And how does it help farmers?

For the last few years, our partner, World Coffee Research (WCR) has been working on a genetic database for coffee varieties. These reference samples have been assembled from large collections of coffee plants from research institutions around the world. Using this database, WCR began working on a genetic testing service for coffee producers in 2017, and Counter Culture became one of the first roasting companies to use the service to help producer partners understand more about the coffee varieties they have planted on their farms.

The goal of this service is to help plant researchers, producers, and roasters alike verify and understand the varieties growing in farms and research plots.

What is coffee DNA testing?

DNA genotyping is a process by which researchers compare sequences of DNA to search for similarities or differences to a known reference sample. Ninety-five percent of genetic material in coffee plants is “non-encoded” meaning that random variations of the DNA sequences can occur. These variations are considered to be a sort of fingerprint, unique to a specific biological lineage. Researchers are able to focus on key portions of these non-encoded DNA sequences and compare them against reference samples and indicate whether or not the samples are a match. (Interestingly, this is very similar to how DNA paternity tests work in humans.)

What is Counter Culture’s involvement in DNA testing?

Counter Culture has been collaborating with WCR since the organization’s inception in 2012. Our CEO and co-founder, Brett Smith, sits on the WCR board, and we recently worked with the organization to explore the history of Ethiopia and Kenya coffee varieties. When we heard that WCR was developing a DNA testing service, we reached out to them to learn more and were excited when WCR invited us to participate.

What have the findings been?

Through genetic fingerprinting, WCR has been able to refine our understanding of how coffee made its way from the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia to the rest of the world. Most interestingly, testing has confirmed that both Bourbon and Typica coffee varieties left Ethiopia as distinct genetic populations and not from a natural mutation that occurred later in the 18th century as previously thought. The findings also found that India played a much larger role in the dissemination of the Typica variety throughout early European colonies in the Pacific Rim than had previously been known.

Bourbon variety coffee plant.

As a company, we’ve learned some fascinating details about varieties we sent in for testing—like the Arusha variety from Papua New Guinea. While there isn’t a lot known about Arusha, we found references in an old Papua New Guinea coffee research manual that led us to believe the variety was related or identical to the famous Kenyan variety SL-28. When the tests came back, the Arusha sample we sent was a direct genetic match to the reference sample for a lesser known Kenyan variety called K7. Today, it is relatively easy to taste single variety separations of SL-28, but incredibly uncommon to find K7—or so we thought. Turns out, we were tasting the variety the entire time, and it’s led to us to rethink the quality potential of the obscure K7 variety.

In another instance, we were exploring a relationship with a small farmer group in Sumatra that was growing some interesting varieties and experimenting with fully washed processing techniques—a big departure from the wet-hulled coffees that are common in Sumatra. One sample was labeled Pacamara. The coffee certainly didn’t taste like any Sumatran coffee we had tried before, but it also didn’t look or taste like the Pacamaras more commonly found in Central America. We decided to test the sample, and it turns out the coffee was not Pacamara at all, but another obscure variety we had not heard of called S4808—which is a hybrid of Catuaí and Timor varieties. It’s not that the group was trying to deceive us, it’s just that they didn’t know what variety they were growing and at some point were given false information.

Neither instance was earth-shattering to us, but we pride ourselves on transparency and want to be as accurate as possible with the information we present. This type of genetic testing is another tool that allows us to fulfill this goal and continue to learn about coffee with—and from—our producing partners.

What does it mean for the future of coffee?

Though today it’s difficult to imagine that a majority of the world’s coffee farmers aren’t certain what varieties of coffee they are planting, this is the reality. It is common for many coffee farms to be inherited or for seeds to be passed informally from neighbors or relatives. There are countries that have more official channels for distributing new varieties to producers, such as Colombia and Guatemala, but many of the world’s smallholder farmers don’t have this kind of access.

Seed and plant verification is essential to a farmer’s ability to manage risk on their farms. Imagine a farmer buys seed from their neighbor thinking the variety they intend to plant is resistant to Coffee Leaf Rust (CLR)—a serious plant disease affecting much of the coffee-producing world. The producer may make decisions about specific farm management techniques based on this assumption, but what if the seeds aren’t CLR resistant? What if the seeds they’ve acquired are actually another variety altogether that are highly susceptible to disease? This could have devastating effects on production, and these mistakes could take many years to reverse because most coffee plants don’t start producing fruit until 3–5 years after they’ve been planted.

A coffee plant affected by Coffee Leaf Rust (CLR)

Another implication for producers involves access to credit—a huge barrier to farmer profitability. If a producer decides it’s time to replant sections of their farm or invest in newer high-quality varieties, this often takes a large investment upfront. If a bank feels uncertain about the farm’s likelihood of success, it is less likely that they will approve a loan for these improvements. Verified information about the varieties being planted can make this a safer investment for lending institutions. This may seem far-fetched, but this has already happened in Colombia where farmers have received more-favorable loan terms in exchange for planting CLR-resistant varieties such as Castillo—a variety created and certified by Colombian coffee research institutions.

In the end, DNA coffee testing has the ability to empower producers at the farm level by ensuring they know which varieties they are planting, which, in turn, can help ensure the success of not only their farm but the industry as a whole.