A roasters guide to the Starmaya coffee hybrid

JP Blignaut
August 9, 2023
An image of ripe coffee cherries on a coffee plant, Starmaya coffee, in a roasters guide to the Starmaya coffee hybrid

Climate change is expected to impact more than half of the world’s top agricultural regions. Rising temperatures and changing weather patterns have increased the risk of production security and further decreased crop yields. Many coffee-growing regions across the belt are seeing a decline in the size and suitability of their coffee crops.

It is estimated that Vietnam alone will lose as much as 50% of its coffee production size and suitability in the next 30 years. According to a report by National Geographic, this is because of rapidly rising temperatures.

As industrial and commercial activities further escalate climate change, the world could be on the brink of a coffee supply shortage by as early as 2050. However, over the last several decades, scientists, researchers, and coffee growers have been working on the Starmaya coffee hybrid, which can grow under harsher and warmer climates.

To learn if the Starmaya hybrid could be the coffee variety of the future, I spoke with Clément Rigal, a coffee agronomist at French agricultural research organisation CIRAD

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Understanding F1 hybrid coffees

Since the turn of the century, the scientific community has collaborated with coffee producers in South America to develop a new coffee hybrid variety. The goal is to create a hybrid coffee that produces higher-than-usual yields and is resistant to leaf rust but still delivers an enjoyable cup for the consumer.

The Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Centre (CATIE) located in Costa Rica partnered with World Coffee Research (WCR) to perform a comprehensive analysis of coffee varieties. This was in order to better understand the cross-breeding of coffee parents that were both rust-resistant and produced high-quality coffee.

F1 hybrids are created using classic methods of plant breeding. This often includes collecting and transferring pollen manually from one flower to another using a paintbrush. Modern genetic capabilities are used to speed up the process of selecting which plants are likely to be successful as parents.

F1 hybrids are mass-propagated in an advanced nursery and often cross more divergent coffee varieties than is usual in the wild. While they offer coffee farmers several benefits, they are extremely difficult and expensive to procure. Therefore, their availability is often limited to wealthy producers.

“Higher costs and technical requirements often mean hybrids are used by farmers with large investment capabilities,” explains Clément, who has contributed to several research papers for the specialty coffee industry. “So, they have little chance of being adopted by smallholders who have limited funds.”

An image of Starmaya coffee, roasted starmaya coffee, raw starmaya coffee, green starmaya coffee, starmaya coffee hybrid, in a roasters guide to the Starmaya coffee hybrid

What is the Starmaya variety?

Starmaya is the first F1 hybrid propagated by seed rather than through costly biotechnology. It is a cross between Marsellesa and a male-sterile Ethiopian or Sudanese landrace variety. 

During the mid-to-late 2000s, CIRAD and ECOM field-tested the hybrid in Nicaragua. Studies show it can grow at medium altitudes while still producing high yields and desirable flavour profiles.

Other characteristics include a large bean size, greener leaves, and a higher resistance to leaf rust. The variety thrives at a medium growing altitude between 800 and 1,400 m.a.s.l, typically considered being the average height in Central America.

It’s still unknown whether the Starmaya variety will be resistant to other known berry diseases or nematodes. Coffee nematodes are a common pest on coffee and many other crops. They cause damage to the roots and often drive stunted plants, poor growth, and reduced yield.

“Starmaya is the only coffee hybrid that can be grown in a seed garden,” Clément says. “So, in my opinion, it’s the only hybrid that has a chance of being adopted by smallholder farmers. As it is less expensive and easier to transport to remote areas.” It is estimated that a seed garden could effectively produce a half-million F1 hybrid seeds per hectare, per year.

Starmaya represents an incredible breakthrough in coffee breeding. Notably, it suggests the main constraints of the widespread production of F1 hybrids for farmers could soon fall away. 

Could Starmaya be the coffee variety of the future?

In an ever-changing environment, many farmers and researchers hope Starmaya could be the variety that survives climate change. Theoretically, it is a coffee hybrid that offers it all: high cup scores, high yield, rust resistance, and affordable seeds. 

However, it’s likely to be some time before global production takes off. Starmaya is currently part of a global coffee variety study network that includes hundreds of test sites around the world. 

Researchers are actively looking for more varieties exhibiting male sterility that could be used in breeding. WCR is also working to identify how male sterility works such that it might be possible to turn sterility on and off in any variety. 

At the end of the supply chain, we need to consider how roasters will welcome this new variety onto the market and to their consumers. So far, some F1-hybrid coffees can deliver impressive cup quality, with a Centroamericano variety scoring 90.5 points at the 2017 Cup of Excellence Nicaragua.

F1 hybrids are an exciting answer to many of the problems and challenges that coffee farmers expect to face in the coming years. However, while we’re still in the early stages of bringing the new varieties to consumers, it remains to be seen where the hybrids will fit in the coffee market.

If the current results are anything to go by, F1 hybrids could quickly become some of the most sought-after coffee varieties in the world, challenging the likes of Geisha or SL34 in terms of cup quality.

At MTPak, we love to see innovation in the coffee industry, which is why we are always looking to help improve the quality and sustainability models for any size of coffee roaster. We offer various styles and sizes of coffee packaging, made from environmentally conscious materials.

If you’re looking for a business that can support your roastery’s aspirations and goals, MTPak is ready to be your partner in success. Contact our team today to get started with your new packaging solutions.

For information on our sustainable coffee bags, contact our team.

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