Measuring light to find the origin of coffee

World Coffee Research (WCR) is brewing up a pot of coffee, and it is not from the usual markets in Columbia, Hawaii, Ethiopia or Indonesia.

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Dr. Al-Hakimi in the greenhouse with coffee plants.

The WCR, part of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University, is conducting a genetic diversity study of coffee in conjunction with Sana’a University of Yemen. Dr. Amin Al-Hakimi, a professor of plant breeding and a Fulbright visiting researcher, is looking at the genetic diversity of the exceptional land races of coffee from the Republic Yemen. This project has attracted the attention of Mokha Origin, a start-up based in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the Harvard Innovation Lab.

Working with the Moka Origin co-founder and researcher, Edward Kenney, measurements of the reflectance of green coffee samples from Ethiopia and Yemen were taken in the lab of Dr. Seth Murray, Assistant Professor in the Soil and Crop Sciences Department and collaborator of World Coffee Research. The reflectance of green coffee samples from Ethiopia and Yemen were measured using a technique called near infrared spectroscopy.

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Green coffee beans ready for testing.

Variations in how infrared light reflected off of the coffee beans indicate information about the growing conditions of the coffee and could even help determine which country the coffee was grown in. The same process has been used to test coffee origins in South America and Mexico, but never Yemen.

“Our hope is to create a database and testable model to ensure the origin of our coffee.” said Kenney.  “With this tool, the Yemenis themselves will soon be able to protect and build their national brand of high-quality coffee,” he added. In the past, the practice of blending Yemeni beans with cheaper coffee from Ethiopia was believed to be widespread and lessened the perceived quality of the coffee in the marketplace.

“We are excited to help Mokha Origin test if NIRS can be used to develop a traceability system for coffee. If successful, this technique could represent an important resource for producers and the coffee industry as a whole,” said Dr. Leo Lombardini, Deputy Director of WCR and Associate Professor of the Department of Horticultural Sciences.

Coffee is generally grown in the equatorial tropics where even the smallest climate change can have an impact on crops. “This work holds a lot of potential for increasing resiliency of the coffee trees to better tolerate effects of climate change,” added Schilling.

Mokha Origin is in the initial stages of this project, with twelve samples of what should be a 200+ sample database. The raw spectral images collected this week still need to be tested using advanced statistical models.   Still, despite the early stages of this collaboration, this project has already received significant interest. Last month, Mokha Origin was declared a finalist in the Harvard University President’s Challenge, an entrepreneurship competition.  They are one of ten finalists eligible for a $100,000 prize purse.

“We are delighted to be working with World Coffee Research and Texas A&M University’s world class scholars to develop and apply to Yemeni coffee this technical verification,” said Kenney.

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