The UC Davis Coffee Center Receives its Official Dedication and is Open for Business

Friday, June 25th, was the day of the official dedication ceremony for the UC Davis College of Engineering Coffee Center, a 6,000 square foot multi-bay laboratory building currently on its way to becoming the world’s first research and teaching facility dedicated entirely to the study of coffee.

Prior to its newfound identity, the Coffee Center building was known as the Advanced Materials Research Laboratory. It stands at the end of a gravel alley crowded by campus fleet parking lots and the oddly wonderful UC Davis Aggie Surplus, a university thrift store that sells de-circulated campus furniture and health equipment to the public. The front of the building, however, opens directly onto the central foot path of the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden, a well-funded, well-watered oasis of more than 100 acres of demonstration gardens and horticultural collections. And turtles. So clearly this side is where we sat.

That Friday, after a plated Mediterranean lunch courtesy of “Olive & Vine”, UC Davis’ in-house catering, everyone gathered for the official ceremony. The chancellor of UC Davis, Gary May, marked the occasion with a few words. He was joined by Dr. William Ristenpart, the university’s pioneering coffee researcher and Coffee Center visionary. Together they reflected on the appropriateness of the university’s new co-venture with the coffee industry’s leading private donors. They whipped the cloth off the center’s new blue and white sign. There were white folding chairs under a portable canopy for invited guests to sit and listen. When the time came, there was champagne. There was talk of the knowledge within our reach, new pathways for budding coffee researchers, and a strong agreement of future greatness ahead. The generosity of donors, and donation opportunities, were widely reflected upon. With graduate researchers lined up behind the banners it all felt a little like a Cup of Excellence ceremony for chemical engineers in California’s central valley. It was 93 degrees out and it was not at all a bad way to finish a work week.

Guests toasting with champagne at the Coffee Center's dedication ceremony

Guests and researchers toasting with champagne at the Coffee Center’s dedication ceremony

UC Davis is becoming synonymous with coffee science in the United States. In the splashy first-ever Sensory Summit, in 2016, the SCA’s updated flavor wheel was unveiled to an elite list of attendees. The sensory science methodology behind the wheel, which has been central to its legitimacy, was led in part by Molly Spencer, then a PhD candidate at UC Davis. The wheel’s design methods were later co-published in the Journal of Food Science by Spencer, UC Davis sensory science professor Jean-Xavier Guinard, and Emma Sage, SCA’s Science Manager at the time. Spencer has since been awarded the doctorate and has spent her private sector career working in market research and as a sensory scientist with Beyond Meat.

If Spencer was a breakout star of coffee’s new American wave of research, the dedication day for the UC Davis Coffee Center suggests a hungry next generation determined to enter increasingly diverse interests where coffee is the subject. It also reflects an increasing appetite of the coffee industry to see itself associated with research.

The newly minted Coffee Center is meant to be a funnel of cross-disciplinary work. It aims to blend coffee as a research subject into departments across UC Davis with already stellar credentials in their respective fields. Food science and technology, plant sciences, agriculture, resource economics, biological and agricultural engineering, chemistry, sociology, and animal science are all fields practiced by Coffee Center faculty. And the list of Coffee Center-affiliated publications, while preliminary, is already intimidatingly broad. There is even one about the role of caffeine on “evaluations of the self and others in group settings” in the April 2018 Journal of Psychopharmacology. (Caffeine enhances both, but our increased alertness to it moderates this effect somewhat.)

The founding discipline, however, the department who first used coffee as a research vehicle and thereby planted the seed for the entire venture–is chemical engineering. Everything began in 2013 with a runaway hit 100-level undergraduate course designed by Dr. Ristenpart and fellow UC Davis pioneer coffee academic Tonya Kuhl, entitled “The Design of Coffee”. The course was created to teach chemical engineering’s essential perspective tool, the process flow diagram, by calculating the energy usage of a simple coffee maker. Students finish the course by diagraming their own roasting and brewing parameters, challenging themselves to use as little total energy as possible (this is an optimization problem classic to engineering). The final exam day has students, working in teams, submit their process flow diagrams along with a corresponding carafe of brewed coffee, the latter of which is submitted to a professors’ judging panel for bonus quality points, with the green coffee serving as the control. I have guest-attended a final exam day. It is a raucous talent show of neophyte undergrads, as new to the concepts of specialty coffee as they are to chemical engineering, competing with their introductory knowledge of both. Everyone is tasting each other’s coffee, challenging one another’s specifications, and using descriptors from the UC Davis-backed SCA Flavor Wheel, which is framed on the wall of the lab.

“The Design of Coffee” is still one of UC Davis’ most popular undergraduate courses. It regularly outranks both “Introduction to Brewing and Beer” and “Human Sexuality”, the campus’ longtime champions of enrollment. The lab book that accompanies the course has been re-published for the public. As of this writing it has 4.7 stars on Amazon and is regularly given away at coffee industry conferences and educational events, where Dr. Ristenpart has become a fixture.

Dr. William Ristenpart gives opening remarks at the RMI Sensory Theater. Photo courtesy of UC Davis.

Chemical engineering, as Dr. Ristenpart explained during the dedication of the Coffee Center, is the science of developing commercial applications that make useful products out of raw materials. It’s fun to imagine a seasoned chemical engineering professor like Dr. Ristenpart or Dr. Kuhl letting their gaze fall onto a generic cup of coffee at their desk, innocently wondering to themselves how sound the commercial applications might be for a consumer product like this–a watery solution of crushed fruit seed originally grown in the tropics, picked by hand, fermented, dehydrated, transported to dramatically different climates, roasted almost to the point of combustion, and then steeped in near-boiling water—and whether or not there might be room for more research.

You guessed it. Now, eight years later, coffee needs research were the first official words of the dedication day, given by Dr. Ristenpart in his welcoming remarks. The dedication schedule was part research symposium and part commencement ceremony. It seemed perfectly designed to showcase the young coffee researchers’ hunger for scientific study, and then to gratify it by presenting a suitable venue of their own designed precisely for that pursuit.

Since the Coffee Center itself is still mid-development, attendees began the day hearing research summaries at UC Davis’ Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science (RMI). The building’s idyllic edible garden and demonstration vineyard were in full June splendor and buzzing with pollinators. (One of the items in our gift basket would be a potent coriander honey from the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center.) This beautiful campus-with-a-campus is the same venue as the SCA Sensory Summit event, which is now annual and co-hosted by the SCA Roaster’s Guild and UC Davis. Naturally by now the RMI’s interior centerpiece, the Silverado Vineyards Sensory Theater, complete with retractable insulated dividers to isolate audience members for tastings, has become familiar to many people in the coffee business. Also familiar to RMI attendees: the sinking awareness that coffee has no representation in academia, no names on buildings, no sensory theaters, no Robert Mondavi of our own. Yet.

The UC Davis Coffee Center building awaits its dedication. Photo courtesy of UC Davis.

The UC Davis Coffee Center building awaits its dedication. Photo courtesy of UC Davis.

The audience Friday morning was a blend of coffee industry professionals, particularly donor businesses and brands with Coffee Center laboratories and conference rooms already in their name. Cross-disciplinary faculty of the Center were also on hand to introduce graduate speakers and ask clarifying questions for the benefit of the mixed audience.

The most current “need”, if we are to interpret Dr. Ristenpart based on the topics that morning, is (surprise!) more precise consumer products for brands. Research presented included: how roast level and brewing temperature impact the perceived color of brewed coffee (PhD candidate Sara Yeager); the use of desiccants in green coffee storage and shipping (MA candidate Laudia Anokye-Bempah); and how to better map the extraction process of immersion brew coffee using an equilibrium desorption model (PhD candidate Jiexin Liang). The sole presentation focused on something other than consumer satisfaction was given by Lisa Antoshak and Evie Smith, a cross-disciplinary team that used a participatory research methodology to interview coffee producers in five different departments in Guatemala. Antoshak and Smith shared producers’ own perceived threats to the sustainability of coffee production and attempted to illustrate the confluence of climate, a low market, and human migration, and how any one of these threats alone can push smallholders outside the specialty market, thereby exacerbating the rest.

Laudia Anokye-Bempah, center, serves blind samples representing different desiccant treatments corresponding to her research. Photo courtesy of UC Davis.

Jiexin Liang, center, answers questions about her research during the Center’s poster session. Photo courtesy of UC Davis.

The most advanced study of the day was the Coffee Center’s first official PhD awardee, Dr. Mackenzie Batali, who presented the sensory evaluation of immersion brews done using different extraction temperatures. Dr. Batali’s deck included a fascinating graph comparing titratable acidity (total acids), acid strength (by pH), and actual perceived acidity in coffee roasted to different degrees and brewed at different temperature-length formulas. It turns out, brewed coffee with more total acid doesn’t always taste more sour according to calibrated tasters, especially when controlled for serving temperature and %TDS. More importantly, the perception of sourness depends on the particular acids present—an effect of roast degree. Deconstruction of acid groups with further controls will be the next phase of Dr. Batali’s research, likely ready to present at this year’s Expo event in New Orleans.

Dr. Batali wrapping up her presentation, “Sensory Evaluation of Cold, Ambient, and Hot Full Immersion Coffee Brews”. Photo courtesy of UC Davis.

Dr. Batali’s acid work is exactly the kind of research that airs out the thinking of coffee professionals. It takes a common oral tradition that always made science-y sense and does precisely what nobody in coffee could have done to examine it. Even if we were 75% right, and darker roasts or colder brews do taste slightly less acidic by measure, but we can’t explain how that’s true, does that mean we know what we’re talking about? Within that 25% is potentially a whole new world of understanding. Think of what using refractometers instead of our tongues to measure brew strength did for the barista profession, and the scale of specialty retail as a whole. The kind of palate baristas used to spend years pursuing is at everyone’s fingertips on their first day. (Still, anyone ever play “TD-guess”?)

Nevermind that the majority of studies presented Friday were directly commissioned by sponsor companies. That Toddy’s backing, for example, was the reason why every study used immersion brewing as the method of choice, rather than filter, soluble, espresso, or any other method more commonly consumed by coffee drinkers. UC Davis gets around potential donor-cynics early and beautifully, by requiring that all research be made public. Doing so makes sponsorship beneficent to coffee and academia simultaneously and avoids the optics of grad students for hire. Alas, this can also backfire: Royal are green coffee donors and regular sensory panel guests for Coffee Center studies, which can sometimes entail tasting our own less-than-perfectly-fresh coffees over and over again in the name of science. We nobly consider this a small price to pay for the greater good.

Although grad students here technically are for hire, in the best way: their research is paid for by Coffee Center sponsors, which frees them from work-study duties or other dues to the university, and instead lets them get right to work, delivering actionable knowledge to the industry, to use as it pleases. On the menu of “Opportunities” to contribute financially to the Coffee Center that was in our welcome packet, the last item was $50,000 per year specifically for graduate student fellowships.

Juliet Han is the Probat Roasting Fellow and Head Roaster for the Coffee Center, a specialized in-house coffee roasting and cupping expert at the disposal of graduate students and professors. She’s in charge of sourcing and roasting coffee for research purposes and she helps enhance the external validity of research by designing sensory trials, soliciting donation coffee, and generally consulting on research methodologies. Herself a longtime retail coffee roaster and Q-grader prior to entering academia via UC Davis, Juliet pointed out the critical importance of an academic-professional bridge in a global value chain when we spoke that afternoon:

The Coffee Center has to be both things: it has to have professional benefit and academic benefit. It is really important that research being done here is public. Part of my role is to help answer questions the coffee industry has, since we don’t want to be in this vacuum of academic questions. A lot of researchers just focus on one thing and continue to zero in, but engineers can take the big picture too, and use process flow diagrams to understand big systems, like coffee trading itself for example. And of course the long term goal is to create a Master’s Degree in Coffee Science. All the research we do is funded, all grad students you see come through here are funded, the funding pays for their tuition, plus a stipend for their living, so that means a grad student doesn’t need to be a [Teacher’s Assistant] and spend time grading papers and paying dues. Instead they’re working on a project. Here you see people who are passionate because they found a way to apply their research somewhere, and it brings them through to a higher academic level because they stick with it. Here it’s a collaboration between companies of all kinds, from roasteries to espresso machine manufacturers, to Folgers. For the Coffee Center to work it all has to be together.

Although for $10 million you can be coffee’s Robert Mondavi and name the entire center after yourself.