Vigorous Varieties: F1 Coffee Hybrids

It was the 1990’s and all the tasty coffee in Central America was disease susceptible and all the resistant coffee was not tasty. The regional coffee industry needed a new plan.

This plan was to develop F1 hybrids, named for filial 1, the first generation of offspring between distinctly different parents. In this case, the parents were wild African varieties crossed with commercially available varieties. Today, several of the resulting hybrids are now also commercially grown by producers. To get to know these new varieties of Arabica, let’s take a look back at the history and the science behind F1s.

A History of Collaborative Research

In the 1990’s, there was very limited genetic diversity among Coffea Arabica plants, specifically in Latin America. To increase diversity, a group of researchers from French research organization CIRAD (International Center for Agricultural Research Development), the umbrella organization PROMECAFE (Cooperative Regional Program for the Technological Development and Modernization of Coffee Agriculture) bringing together the national coffee boards of Central America and the Caribbean, IIAC (Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture), and CATIE, the Center for Tropical Research and Higher Education in Turrialba, Costa Rica crossed local varieties with wild varieties to develop new hybrid plants1.

It is worth mentioning the organizations involved to indicate the scope of the research they undertook. Brazil and Colombia, two of Latin America’s biggest producing countries by volume and research capacity, had a history of breeding varieties suited to their countries’ conditions. Central America was growing predominately Caturra and Catimor and it needed alternatives.

CATIE is home to a germplasm collection of hundreds of coffee varieties — Arabica, Canephora, Eugenioides, Liberica­ — a living library of coffee trees grown from material collected in Ethiopia in the 1960’s under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. One of CATIE’s biotechnologists explains the process of using this collection to breed new varieties2.

Karole, an agronomist and biotechnologist with CATIE. Credit: Rachel Northrop

“This investigation started with the basic objective to increase the pool of genetic material available. The three sources of material were the commercially used varieties: Caturra and Catuai; wild varieties from the CATIE collection, and developed varieties: Catimor and Sarchimor. With these three broad groups, traditional cross pollination was carried out to generate new material, and a log was kept of what was crossed with what. It was a five-year process. The result was one hundred hybrids, the first generation resulting from the cross.”

From those hundred F1 hybrids, twenty were selected for multiplication based on the desirable attributes they displayed. Based on performance over time, the pool was further narrowed to arrive at the handful of F1s in production today.

Strong but Unstable

F1s, being the first generation, display what is known as “hybrid vigor,” or qualities that are more vigorous than those displayed by either parent. This vigor, often presenting as disease resistance, higher production, or drought resilience, is desirable, but it will not necessarily be passed on to the next generation. Seeds germinated from an F1 will be very different from the F1 plant they were harvested from. Most commercial varieties of coffee have the advantage of being “true breeding,” meaning that the seed taken from a Caturra plant will produce another Caturra plant, with the same genes and same field performance.

By seed, it would take eight generations for the F1s to arrive at genetic stability. If each generation takes four years to produce, that’s thirty-two years producers would have to wait for seeds. Because F1 varieties are not genetically stable, the must replicated (also called multiplication or propagation) through cloning.

Cloning Coffee Plants

Cloning plants through tissue culture requires taking a small slice of leaf and suspending it in a gelatinous solution filled with macro and micronutrients in the form of concentrated salts in a process called somatic embryogenesis. The solution must remain in constant motion and the undifferentiated cells of the leaf cuttings take about a year and a half to transform into tiny plantlets that look identical to conventionally germinated seedlings, with roots, stalks, and leaves.

Once the CIRAD-PROMECAFE-CATIE research consortium had developed and selected the F1 hybrids meriting propagation, CIRAD and ECOM Agroindustrial Group together invested in bringing plant cloning technology to a commercial scale to make the “photocopying” process more commercially viable. One selection criterion was performance in an agroforestry setting, and the F1s selected by the program produce at optimal levels under managed shade.

While faster than eight generations of selective breeding, cloning plants is much more expensive than germinating them from seed. ECOM SMS, the Sustainable Management Systems division of the global agroindustrial trading house ECOM, took up this work at a research lab in Sebaco, Nicaragua3. One of the varieties propagated there is H1, also called Centroamericano.

Mother plants used for harvesting material to be clonedMother plants used for collecting material to be cloned.

Preparing nutritive cloning liquid and leaf cuttings for cloningPreparing nutritive cloning liquid and leaf cuttings for cloning

New plant cells growNew plant cells grow

Leaf cuttings become new plant embryosLeaf cuttings become new plant embryos

Embryos are transferred to larger containers where they begin to show roots, developing in the nursery and are prepared for the fieldEmbryos are transferred to larger containers where they begin to show roots, developing in the nursery and are prepared for the field

Centroamericano H1

Centroamericano H1 is a cross between Sarchimor T5296 and a Rume Sudan. It is lauded for being rust resistant and almost 30% more productive than Caturra or Catuai but with all their prized flavor notes, attributes first observed by Costa Rican researchers who tested the early clones of F1 plants on ICAFE’s experimental plots. ICAFE recommended this varietal for the terroir of Turrialba4, where Aquiares Coffee has seen great success growing Centroamericano as part of its shaded coffee agroforestry system.

But let’s back up. Sarchimor is one of the “developed” varieties used to develop the pool of F1s. Sarchimor itself is a cross between Villa Sarchi and the Timor Hybrid.

Villa Sarchi is a naturally occurring mutation of Bourbon that was found in Sarchi de Alajuela, Costa Rica in the 1950’s or 60’s. (Similar to the case of Caturra, also a spontaneous mutation of Bourbon found in Brazil, the mutation resulted in a smaller, more compact plant that is easier to manage and harvest.)

The Timor Hybrid is a natural cross between Arabica and Robusta that appeared spontaneously on the island of East Timor in 1920’s5.

All wrapped up inside the genes of Centroamericano, then, are a Timor Arabica, a Timor Robusta, a mutated Costa Rican Bourbon, and a wild Rume Sudan. That is why F1 hybrids must be cloned: to keep all these genetic pieces intact so that each gene delivers its desired attribute — rust resistance from the Timor Hybrid, compact stature from the Villa Sarchi, cup flavor and shade affinity from the Rume Sudan, and high production levels from the particular arrangement of the above generated by hybridization.

What’s in the Cup

Quite a bit of science and history is contained in each coffee bean! Working through the technical and historical backstories of new coffee varieties like the F1 helps us remember how long it takes to bring innovation to market and how much goes on behind the scenes before we even get to cup the first samples. At Ally we love digging into the details of the coffee we source and understanding how research at one end of the supply chain gives us delicious things to drink at the other.

F1 hybrid in production on Finca Santa Teresa in Sarchi, Costa Rica.

1Alipzar, Edgardo (2012) El mejor grano nicaragüense Hibrido F1 Hecho en Nicaragua: 18–19.

2Northrop, Rachel (2013) When Coffee Speaks: Stories from and of Latin American Coffee People New York: McNally Jackson.

3Navarro Ureña, Jose (2012) ¿Qué son los híbridos de café? Hecho en Nicaragua: 20–21

4Cataciones F1 (2012) Sintercafe, San Jose, Costa Rica.

5World Coffee Research (2016) Variety Catalog College Station, Texas: Online resource accessed 04/26/2019.

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