Finland—the world’s No. 1 coffee consumer—is turning to AI and lab-grown beans to energize the industry

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Finland may be the world’s happiest country, but it also has another braggable superlative: It’s the world’s largest coffee consumer, with its population of 5.6 million grinding and steeping the equivalent of 12 kilograms—or about 1,560 cups of coffee—per capita annually, per the International Coffee Organization.

With a coffee market expected to generate $487.5 million in revenue in 2024, according to Statista, the nation’s coffee roasters have turned to creative solutions to meet high demand. Those innovations include using AI to generate coffee blends, an experiment Helsinki-based Kaffa Roastery undertook this week.

The roastery, the third largest in the country, partnered with Elev, a Finnish AI consulting startup, to create “AI-conic,” the roastery’s first blend generated by large language models (LLMs).

The roastery staff prompted ChatGPT and Copilot with a series of tasting notes and asked which beans would produce that flavor profile. The experimentation with the LLMs yielded a blend of four different beans—an unconventional move, but one that surprisingly worked. Kaffa’s staff made no changes to AI’s suggestions.

“This (trial) was the first step in seeing how AI could help us in the future,” Kaffa’s managing director and founder Svante Hampf told AP. “I think AI has plenty to offer us in the long run. We are particularly impressed [by] the coffee taste descriptions it created.”

Finland has a strong coffee culture in part because of its location north of the Arctic Circle, which produces long days—sometimes with 19 hours of sunlight—that necessitate a steady flow of caffeine. Some Finns drink up to eight cups a day. Finnish cafes are not only places for locals to get a coffee fix; they’re also the epicenter of family-led childcare services, cementing coffee as a focal point in Finnish culture.

But despite Kaffa’s dive into coffee experimentation, the AI-generated drink craze did not originate in this Nordic nation. Coca-Cola launched Y3000 in September, a beverage with flavors suggested by AI that’s supposed to resemble “what a Coke from the future might taste like.” Columbus-based brewery Species X added two beers to its menu in February that draw on unconventional flavor combinations created with the help of AI—think pineapple, strawberry, and subtly sweet lactose.

The cutting edge of coffee technology

Finland’s coffee industry has embraced outside-the-box technologies for years. VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland found a way to grow coffee beans in a lab by essentially soaking cells in a liquid containing the enzymes and nutrients needed for them to grow.

Indeed, climate change has made it harder to grow coffee in farms, as the heat in areas growing the industry’s most ubiquitous Arabica bean has become inhospitable to the plant. Other bean varieties such as Robusta can grow in a wider range of climates, but tastes bland compared to its counterparts. The industry is also contending with soil contamination, deforestation, and the use of chemicals treatments, all of which impact coffee bean harvests.

But while coffee bean farms can only generate a couple harvests a year—and are also limited by the labor-intensive processing of the crop—scientists can produce lab-generated beans in about a month. Yet the proliferation of the technology to grow coffee in a lab doesn’t mean these beans are ready to reach the mass market.

“Although the roasted cell coffee samples had several odor-active compounds in common with the conventionally prepared coffees, the complete aroma and flavor profile of cell coffee samples require further efforts to closely resemble conventional coffee,” Heiko Rischer, head of plant biotechnology at VTT, and colleagues wrote in a 2023 Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry study.

Lab-grown coffee may not be as tasty as its farm-grown alternatives, but roasters and distributors have acquiesced around the idea of using the beans in the future, should climate change necessitate it.

“I think someday we’re going that way because of all the natural coffee sources vanishing, so we have to move along…If it tastes good and the aroma is coffee based, so why not? I think it’s possible,” a Helsinki-based barista told Reuters.

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