By ANTONY WATSON for Issue 2 of 25 Magazine
More than 300 years ago, what we now call the Age of Enlightenment was heralded by the advent of coffee houses across Asia Minor and Europe. In London, they became centers of innovation as customers, for the price of a penny, could gain access to a bustling meeting place to read papers, exchange news of the day, and enter into conversation with others – and of course sip a dish of the strong, bitter black brew.
The coffee house revolution is often linked to the explosion of new discoveries in scientific endeavor, economics, and social sciences while contributing to the flourishing of arts and culture. In this historical light, the traditional coffee house became the innovation lab of the seventeenth century and, in many respects, is responsible for the incubation of intellectual ideas that still resonate today. Since then, the developments in science that coffee consumption helped to develop are now fueling our understanding of the bean itself.
Research is a way of solving the critical problems facing our industry today that threaten every aspect of our supply chain and livelihoods. This includes everything from funding research into crop variety trials and climate change adaptation to better understanding our customer segments and expanding the specialty coffee market worldwide.
Modern Coffee Science
Ever since the third wave movement emerged in the 2000s, bringing with it new technologies and techniques in coffee brewing, the renaissance in coffee shows no sign of slowing. And it is science that is one of the main driving forces accelerating this age of coffee discovery in the twenty- first century. Through informed research we can make the important decisions that are necessary to sustainably grow our industry.
Thanks to the efforts of pioneering organizations like World Coffee Research (WCR), we now live in an era where coffee genetics are being documented and understood, the genome of coffee has been mapped, and we are beginning to understand the blueprint that forms the foundation of our daily brew. This valuable work is helping to unlock the secrets of C. arabica, C. canephora and their genetic cousins so that coffee can continue to be enjoyed by future generations to come. Research is a way of solving the critical problems facing our industry today that threaten every aspect of our supply chain and livelihoods. This includes everything from funding research into crop variety trials and climate change adaptation to better understanding our customer segments and expanding the specialty coffee market worldwide.
In other fields of scientific exploration, recent advances in water science are helping to develop a more unified and transparent understanding of the water that we use for brewing specialty coffee. For example, the SCAE Water Chart by Zurich University of Applied Science (ZHAW), and Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood and Christopher H. Hendon’s book, Water for Coffee, build on familiar resources such as the SCAA’s Water Quality Handbook.
Given the huge difference in water types used around the world, the specialty coffee community is now moving towards a commonly adopted system of measurement and treatment for water. From a scientific perspective, our technical understanding of water hardness and alkalinity may be a small but significant step in the growing body of knowledge about optimizing water for brewing, but it represents a huge leap for the world of sensory in our quest to express the full flavor potential of coffee.
Progress in the development of sensory science can be illustrated by one of the most iconic resources in the coffee industry – the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel. Originally published in 1995, the Flavor Wheel is used by coffee scientists, sensory panelists, coffee buyers, baristas, and roasters the world over. Updated in 2016 using the sensory lexicon developed by WCR, it is the largest and most collaborative effort in research on coffee flavor ever completed. We may have differences of opinion on the sensory profile of a given cup, but we now have the tools at our disposal to develop a shared vocabulary that is widely adopted by specialty coffee professionals and a growing number of enthusiasts.
Another area of investigation that is helping to drive this new frontier in sensory science is the use of highly sensitive analytical techniques such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) first separates all compounds from each other and then attempts to identify and quantify each compound individually using two complementary detectors. This is complemented by nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR); a technique that exploits the magnetic properties of certain atomic nuclei to identify chemical compounds.
“The coffee community is very good at hypothesis generation and that’s why science matters: it helps us to bust the myths and, importantly, verify the facts. What excites me the most is that we are seeing greater collaboration with coffee businesses and the scientific community.”
– Morten Münchow
Research has shown that the formation of hundreds of volatile aromatic compounds created during the roasting process not only have a direct impact in the sensory profile of the cup and crema formation, but show how quantifiable markers such as CO2 can accurately measure the freshness of coffee. In this area, the scientific team headed up by ZHAW’s Professor of Analytical Chemistry and Diagnostics, Chahan Yeretzian, are opening a window into this complex chemical world that might just nudge us closer to tasting that ever-elusive “god shot”.
Their investigation into the effect of different parameters such as roast degree, grind size, brew temperature, and shelf life show a significant influence on the way coffee behaves under extraction as a result of degassing. In order to understand this well known but little researched phenomena, the team partnered with a leading laboratory scale manufacturer to develop an instrument sensitive enough to measure the results in an accurate, consistent, and repeatable manner. The technique they developed is a quantitative and time-resolved method to measure the release of gases – particularly trapped CO2 from whole beans and ground coffee, using a precise gravimetric approach.
Science Associate at ZHAW’s Institute of Chemistry and Biological Chemistry, Dr. Samo Smrke, describes how they approached the challenge: “Degassing is a topic that has been known for a while but from a technical perspective, there was very little data to measure the impact at a molecular level. It was a slow process as each test takes at least a week, from designing the prototype for the scale to experimenting with different parameters, until you start to get truly reliable results. This research has some really interesting implications.” Samo added that the degassing research has already been well received at industry events such as World of Coffee in Budapest and the team are now planning to publish the findings in a SCA handbook later this year.
Meanwhile, Morten Münchow, lecturer at University of Copenhagen and founder of the consultancy CoffeeMind, is contributing to the roasting community’s sensory learning in flavor modulation by analyzing different roast profiles. Not only does the research reveal insights into the detection of defects as a result of the roasting process, it is already deepening our understanding of the complex thermally driven reactions that take place inside the roaster. In highlighting the valuable role that science plays in this modern age of coffee-inspired discovery, Morten notes: “The coffee community is very good at hypothesis generation and that’s why science matters: it helps us to bust the myths and, importantly, verify the facts. What excites me the most is that we are seeing greater collaboration with coffee businesses and the scientific community. This is a rare moment where a critical mass of relationships in the coffee world are helping to ignite the development process that contributes to the expanding pool of knowledge about molecular gastronomy and coffee science.”
And it is not just the discoveries in the laboratory that are fueling innovation in coffee. Market research initiatives such as the recent SCA Roaster and Retailer Financial Benchmarking study promise to reveal commercial insights for businesses that want to add value to their operations. Field research conducted recently into consumer preferences, behaviors, and other motivating factors has identified specific consumer groups whose responses shine a light into the areas where specialty coffee has the greatest potential for growth.
Yet despite the discoveries that help to further scientific and market insights, or the collaborative efforts made to ensure the sustainability of our industry, we still stand at the threshold of enlightenment in coffee. In a call to action for coffee professionals and enthusiasts everywhere, SCA Chief Research Officer, Peter Giuliano, concludes: “This age of coffee science is not only amazing and inspiring, it is necessary. We must commit to making coffee science accessible to all, so that together we can deepen our scientific understanding of coffee, making it more sustainable, more delicious, and ever-better. It is the wider specialty coffee community that holds the key to driving this age of enlightenment, enriching not just ourselves, but generations of coffee lovers in the future.”
Learn More: The SCA Research Center
The Specialty Coffee Association strives to develop specialty coffee research that partners with all actors along the value chain to enhance knowledge for the benefit of the SCA members and the global coffee community under the core areas of market economics, scientific, and sustainability. To stay informed about the latest research, head to scanews.coffee/research.
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