Just found this article in the scientific journal "Nature". (Nature vol 429, 24 June 2004, pg 826).
Heres the synopsis (from a New Scientist report):
A naturally decaffeinated coffee plant has been discovered. Coffee from the new strain could be tastier than existing decaf brews, which can lose flavour compounds when caffeine is extracted with solvents.
Other caffeine-free plants have been reported, but the latest comes from the same genetic stock as today’s elite commercial strains. This means the decaffeinated trait should be relatively easy to breed into popular types of coffee.
“This is the first report of a decaffeinated variety of Coffea arabica,” says Paulo Mazzafera, head of the team at the University of Campinas, Brazil, which isolated the strains. “This species is the most cultivated species in the world, responsible for more than 75 per cent of traded coffee,” he says.
The discovery is welcome news for an industry which has struggled to cross elite varieties with more distantly related decaffeinated species.
“So far, caffeine-free natural coffees have been Madagascan species which are outside the mainstream, and not easy to breed from,” says Pablo Dubois, head of operations at the International Coffee Organization, in London, UK.
“This should be a step forward in terms of getting high quality decaffeinated coffee,” says Dubois, not least because extraction of caffeine with solvents would no longer be necessary. “There’s always a risk of losing flavour compounds, although there are examples of very good flavour in today’s decaffeinated products.”
Mazzafera and his colleagues discovered three naturally decaffeinated varieties after screening 3000 Ethiopian coffee trees, representing 300 strains. Experiments on the plants demonstrated that they lacked caffeine synthase, the enzyme in leaves that converts a compound called theobromine into caffeine.
As well as eliminating the need for solvent extraction, the discovery could also be an alternative to decaffeinated plants created by knocking out the gene for the same enzyme via genetic engineering (New Scientist, 18 June 2003). Some consumers are unlikely to accept these.
Mazzafera says that it might be possible to produce commercial decaffeinated coffee directly from the newly discovered strains within five years.
“I haven’t tasted them yet, but in general, C. arabica tastes OK,” he says. Programmes to breed the trait into existing elite strains could take longer, perhaps 15 years, he says.
“It would also provide a way for developing countries to compete with big companies which produce industrially decaffeinated coffee,” says Mazzafera.
This is really cool news and Im looking forward to tasting some of these beans as Ive been sorely dissapointed by the available decafs. Theres another thread discussing this as well:
Java "Wants to try some of those beans!" phile