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On the Trail of the ‘Indiana Jones of Coffee’

Describing the head of the nonprofit World Coffee Research as a “sort of Indiana Jones of coffee,” the Wall Street Journal recently profiled the 59-year-old Tim Schilling, the organization and its efforts to find new strands of arabica beans.

Tim Schilling of World Coffee Research

Photo Courtesy WorldCoffeeResearch.org

The group, financed by coffee giants such as J.M. Smucker and Peet’s Coffee & Tea, among others, recently made an expedition to South Sudan, near Ethiopia, looking for wild strands of coffee. From the Journal:

The group’s goal is to expand the global coffee crop’s tiny gene pool. But after four days of hiking on this plateau west of Ethiopia, Mr. Schilling’s 15-member expedition—which included a coffee taxonomist, a Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc. executive, agriculture students and hired porters—still hadn’t found any specimens that seemed new. They were hoping that Nyameron, a wild-coffee connoisseur they had met through a Murle tribal chief, could help.

Companies are turning to exploration to ensure future coffee supplies because production has leveled off even as demand has increased, causing coffee-bean prices to quadruple since 2001.

The report noted that the efforts of Schilling and others to find new varietals explore coffee genetics do come with some adversity and competition from various sources:

Some of the world’s largest coffee companies are pursuing proprietary research projects to expand coffee’s genetics. Nestlé SA has a project it calls the Nescafé plan, which involves robusta, the other major type of coffee bean, a spokeswoman says. And Starbucks Corp. is conducting research through support centers staffed by agronomists who help local farmers, a spokeswoman says.

Ventures like World Coffee Research must also overcome friction with national research institutions that often aim to protect local interests, notably in Ethiopia, believed to be the fatherland of Arabica. There, hundreds of wild varieties exist, but government officials have sometimes had a contentious relationship with foreign coffee sellers.

The full story: Wall Street Journal

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