University of California Davis Coffee Lab Grand Opening

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By Eton Tsuno, Director of Coffee, Temple Coffee Roasters Inc.

The University of California Davis officially opened their new coffee lab on Friday, October 22, 2015. This may sound odd, as coffee is generally not thought of as an academic subject, but at the University of California Davis it is taken seriously. UCD has a long history of supporting the food and agricultural sciences, most notably in the wine and dairy industries…so why not coffee?

As coffee professionals, we are aware that the creation of brewed coffee consists of constant chemical reactions; from water migration in green coffee to the Maillard reaction during roasting, and even the reactions happening in the cooling cup of coffee on my desk. In the past, most Academia seemed to prefer coffee as a means for a research project, not a class or major. Organizations like the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), and the International Coffee Organization (ICO) have been breathing new life into the relationship with Academia for decades, and now the University of California Davis is taking a new exciting step.

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The coffee lab, and the class—ECM1: The Design of Coffee—is the brain child of two professors from the department of Engineering: Chemical and Materials Sciences, William Ristenpart and Tonya Kuhl. ECM1 is a hands-on class that focuses on energy input to roast and brew coffee. Students roast their own coffees, reverse engineer a Mr. Coffee maker to hopefully create a better brewer, and finally present their results to a tasting panel. Performance is graded on a balance of best flavor and energy used to ultimately brew the cup of coffee.

Ristenpart and Kuhl wanted to create an interesting, hands-on class to increase enrollment and retention in their department, and with with ECM1 they have succeeded. Under their direction, the class grew from enrolling 18 students in its first spring quarter of 2013, to 500+ students in 2015 making it the most popular freshman and sophomore year class on the UC Davis campus.

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As a specialty coffee professional, this is exciting news to me. It means that coffee is interesting, and even more interesting to incoming college students than the previous leader in freshman and sophomore enrollment, at UC Davis: “Human Sexuality.”

What does this mean to us SCAA members? This means that the process of making coffee is more interesting to young people then the process of procreation! That’s pretty awesome news. I credit the specialty coffee community for this and every person involved who drinks coffee to live, not to wake up.

Interested in hearing a bit about how the program is shaping up? Here is a short Q&A with William Ristenpart:

Your class ECM1: The Design of Coffee has been a huge success. With the opening of your new lab will there be opportunities for SCAA members and specialty coffee professionals to access the lab? Will there be any opportunities for collaboration? What is the next step in your vision?

Absolutely! We will be hosting an event for the Roasters Guild’s Sensory Summit this upcoming January, which will be held here on campus at UC Davis.​ We’re also exploring summer lab offerings through the university extension aimed specifically at coffee professionals. More generally, UC Davis is exploring opening up a “Coffee Center” that will focus on higher-level research topics involving coffee, and we plan to be involved intimately in that.

What is in the new lab (equipment, etc)? Is there anything you wish you had more of that the specialty coffee community may be able to assist with? How would someone involved in the specialty coffee industry donate their time or products to help the new lab or the UC Davis coffee program in general?

We are very grateful that the coffee industry has been very enthusiastic. For example, Rogers Family company has donated a lot of green coffee beans, and VST Inc. donated several digital refractometers (which ​have become an integral part of the course). Hopefully we will soon be receiving some donated higher quality grinders and mass balances.  Something we don’t have yet—but would love to explore—is espresso machines, and perhaps a different type of benchtop roaster (right now we use Nescos and hot-air popcorn roasters). Once the Coffee Center gets going, there will be tremendous opportunities for donating production level coffee equipment (large roasters, etc.) to be highlighted in the academic environment.

In ECM1, students focus on a non-mathematical way to produce the best cup of coffee with the least amount of energy. Will UC Davis ever publish scientific papers or recommendations for the specialty coffee industry to take into consideration regarding the production of coffee (roasting, exhaust treatment, and brewing)?

I know my colleagues doing sensory analysis are starting to work more with coffee, and another one of my colleagues is helping characterize aerosol emissions from the roasters. Personally ​I’m currently writing up a manuscript focusing on an update to the classic coffee brewing control chart, which I think will be of great interest to SCAA and the coffee community. In terms of stuff already available, our first book on coffee is available on Amazon (The Design of Coffee: An Engineering Approach)​.  My co-author (Prof. Tonya Kuhl) and I focused it on serving as a lab manual for students in our class, but I think coffee industry folks will be highly interested in it too. We have plans to write a more detailed and comprehensive book aimed specifically at the coffee industry.

SCAA’s desire is to help connect the specialty coffee industry with the food and taste academics at UC Davis, with the dream of initiating a thriving coffee program—much like UC Davis has already done with wine, beer, olives, and honey. Can SCAA members contact the academics at UC Davis to help achieve the goal of creating a specialty coffee program that we can all be proud of? If so, what do you believe is the most valuable thing SCAA members could bring to the UC Davis program?

​Well, to be frank the main challenge to overcome is funding. A coffee center takes funding to get off the ground, and we’re working to try to identify potential sources and donations of large scale equipment. SCAA has been extremely helpful in starting the dialog, and the best thing SCAA members could do would be to lobby on behalf of a UC Davis academic center as an idea worth pursuing.

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To learn more, please visit US Davis website Coffee Center initiative.