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The Dirt

Breaking Grounds: UC Davis brews up a brand-new center dedicated to coffee research 

By: Molly Bechtel & Jessica Heath, UC Davis College of Engineering, for The Dirt

“It’s actually more challenging to make a good cup of coffee than it is to make a good bottle of wine.” 

While the sentiment may be something William Ristenpart, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Davis, spouts to give his colleagues in the campus’s viticulture and enology department a good-natured ribbing, he isn’t joking about the complexity of coffee science. 

“If you just count that number of unit operations, or the number of discrete steps where there’s a physical or chemical change going from the raw material — or the cherry — all the way to the final product — the coffee — there are way more unit operations involved in making coffee than there is wine,” he told reporter Vicky Gonzalez on CapRadio’s Insight in June.  

Studying this chemical change, as well as coffee from cultural, social, historical, engineering and agricultural aspects, is the goal of the new UC Davis Coffee Center, which opened this past spring. Housed in the university’s College of Engineering, it is the first academic research and teaching facility in the U.S. dedicated to the study of coffee. 

“Think of this center as a hub of all things coffee,” Chancellor Gary S. May told attendees at the grand opening celebration. “Together, we bring rigorous coffee science and cutting-edge technology to the world stage.”

The 7,000-square-foot facility provides pre- and post-harvest coffee science research locations, including experimental green bean storage, brewing laboratories, sensory and cupping laboratories, a chemical and analytical laboratory, and the pilot roastery.

Industry partners, including Peet’s Coffee have been buzzing to get the center off the ground — Peet’s provided the founding gift to establish the pilot roastery, and private donors have contributed toward the $6 million goal to make the center possible. 

While coffee is the latest addition to UC Davis’ menu of expertise, which includes the aforementioned wine as well as beer and tea, the center has been years in the making. 

Coffee By Design

Ristenpart and fellow chemical engineering professor Tonya Kuhl are co-directors of the center now, but they first offered the popular undergraduate elective course, “The Design of Coffee,” with the intent of teaching chemical engineering fundamentals in 2013. The course came about following a conversation over, you guessed it, coffee. 

“Coffee is crucial to our modern society, and chemical engineers can play a key role in understanding issues like mass transfer, heat transfer and chemical reactions,” said Ristenpart. “There’s so many things we don’t understand about coffee because of the lack of academic research.” 

“For example,” says Laudia Anokye-Bempah, a graduate student in biological systems engineering who is studying the kinetics of coffee roasting, “every aspect of coffee processing, from harvesting to brewing, can impact coffee’s flavor.” Based on research done at the Coffee Center, everything from the size of the bean grind to the water’s pH levels to the size of the holes in the filter can affect the final taste. 

“Many people have no idea that so much goes into making a cup of coffee,” she said. “That is why the science is so important.”

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