Now in the making: Florida Coffee Research – The Apopka Voice

By | June 8, 2023


The United States is consistently among the top coffee-consuming nations in the world, largely importing its favorite beans from South American countries like Brazil and Colombia.

University of Florida researcher Felipe Ferrao says the Sunshine State could become a global hub for coffee research. That’s why he’s conducting studies on the caffeine-containing drink and the plants that produce it.

“We have the laboratory experience to determine the entire genetic makeup of different coffee varieties,” Ferrao said. “Even the University of Florida has a course artificial intelligence initiative, so combine this with our access to the HiPerGator supercomputers and we could pave the way for improved coffee production and flavor.”

Will grow?

The science issue of the first project is very basic, Ferrao said. Over the past year, scientists have grown about 150 coffee plants in a greenhouse on UF’s Gainesville campus, and the plants are about to be exposed to the Florida elements.

“It’s a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer that we’re looking for in this first phase,” said Ferrao, who splits his time with blueberry research as part of the project Blueberry breeding program UF/IFAS squad. “Determining what will grow is the first step in identifying the plants that are most adaptable to Florida conditions.”

The researchers obtained the Arabica and Robusta seeds from a Puerto Rican collaborator, Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters because the territory is one of the few U.S. locations that has had success growing the plants. Now, the little plants are going to three fields: one near Gainesville, another at UF/IFAS Indian River Research and Education Center (IRREC) at Fort Pierce, and the final at UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC) at Homestead. Sowing is expected in the coming weeks, weather permitting.

Coffee drinkers prefer Arabica beans for their superior flavor and aroma, Ferrao explained, but the plants are less productive than Robusta varieties. Arabica plants are also more sensitive to the challenges of climate change in the regions where they have long been produced.

However, Florida’s climate will not necessarily create more favorable growing conditions. Northern Florida plants will grow in containers under tall tunnels in the hope that the young plants can be protected from any freezing temperatures. Plants in Central and South Florida locations will be in the ground in open field.

“As an exploratory analysis, we should see some level of success or failure in each field by the end of this year,” Ferrao said. “Our follow-up questions will be to understand the plant’s behavior under these new conditions; then the taste of what we can grow here in Florida; and finally, perhaps most importantly, whether it can be profitable as a crop.

The project has collaborators in Gainesville and around the state, and is funded by the SEEDIT research program UF/IFASwhich supports research in emerging agricultural enterprises.

Prioritize taste

At the same time, though, Ferrao is already looking into the flavor of coffee varieties, even if not from plants grown in Florida.

A project called ‘DeepFlavor: Using Artificial Intelligence to Predict and Understand Taste Preferences’ combines traditional consumer sensory panels with deep learning technologies. The work is being incorporated into existing breeding programs, such as blueberries, to identify chemical components that match what consumers indicate they like.

Each stand at UF sensory laboratory features a computer, where panelists are asked to rate the food or drink on a scale of 1 to 9, based on individual preferences, with directives regarding characteristics such as bitterness, sweetness, texture, etc. In Ferrao’s DeepFlavor project, researchers added webcams to each computer for selected tests, starting with a coffee panel held in March. The cameras capture the expressions of the speakers in a quick series of photos in the moments following the tasting of the product. A human never sees the images but instead goes directly to the HiPerGator for analysis, using a model trained by Ferrao.

“I don’t want to claim that this will be the new way of making sensor panels,” Ferrao said, “but I can see a future that combines the traditional with this new technology.”

What was most interesting in the first round of the coffee test was that the speakers rated a Robusta variety very highly. Of the nine total options and three Robusta options offered to the March speakers, one Robusta came in second overall.

“For years and years, Robusta has been considered a bad coffee. It grows well, has a high caffeine content, but its wide diversity of flavors hasn’t been explored,” Ferrao said. “Well, now we can say that nearly 300 consumers on this panel disagreed. Some Robusta growers are focusing on quality and both specialists and regular consumers are recognizing this. Now we’re trying to understand the chemical and genetic attributes that make consumers say they enjoy it more.”

This could be important for coffee growing research, even if the projects are not directly related, as Ferrao suspects that Robusta varieties may grow more successfully in Florida conditions.

The DeepFlavor project is funded by a UF/IFAS Dean for Research program called “Launching Innovative Faculty Teams in AI”, or ELEVATOR TOand brings together the collaborators of horticultural science, food science and human nutritionAND microbiology and cellular sciences.

Finding the genes behind the flavour

The flavor of fermented coffee beans is complex, Ferrao said, and it’s complicated by the fact that scientists haven’t considered genetic information in previous breeding efforts. This is the third project currently underway.

“We know the environment it grows in is extremely important, how the beans are harvested, how they are roasted, how they are prepared,” he said. “But the genetic profile creates the chemicals that determine the flavor in the final product.”

Ferrao collaborated with scientists from Instituto Capixaba de Pesquisa, Assistência Técnica e Extensão Rural (Incaper) in Brazil – leader in coffee research – and his laboratory received leaves and green coffee beans from Arabica and Robusta plants grown in Brazil. In their initial research, recently published In the Crop Science Society of America’s journal, “The Plant Genome,” scientists noted that improvements in Robusta varieties could be accelerated using genetic sequencing-based breeding methods.

“Coffee production has to adapt to a changing climate, and knowing the plant’s full genetic profile could be the key to doing that,” he said. “At the bottom, we might find the traits that make the plant thrive and others that create a favorite flavor and aroma, and the potential is wide open for breeding.”

As these projects continue, Ferrao expects each one to inform the next. There could be a Florida-grown coffee being tested on the sensory panel, or the development of new genomic tools that can speed up the selection for favorable traits.

“Coffee is a bit of a social phenomenon in America, and its future is at a critical point,” Ferrao said. “This work is a new frontier.”

The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge about agricultural, human and natural resources and make that knowledge available to support and improve the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty at the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS delivers science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resource industries and a all Florida residents. For more information, go to

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