Food for thought: UC Davis, Peet’s perk up science of coffee | Crain's Seattle

Food for thought: UC Davis, Peet’s perk up science of coffee

Bill Ristenpart has what's emerging as the most popular class at the University of California at Davis. There are literally hundreds of kids every quarter who sign up to hear him teach about their favorite subject: Coffee.

Sorry, Human Sexuality and Introduction to Brewing and Beer; you’ve been knocked off the top rung of class registration by a coffee bean.

Ristenpart, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at UC Davis, and colleague Tonya Kuhl, UCD professor of biochemical engineering, began teaching Design of Coffee in 2013 to 18 students. The goal was to teach students how to roast and brew a good cup of Joe, demonstrate in a very relatable manner how that process works with chemical engineering, and possibly generate more interest in science and engineering overall.

After all, just about everything that happens during the brewing process – such as mass transfer and thermodynamics – mirrors what chemists study, according to Ristenpart.

Mission accomplished. More than 1,500 undergraduate students showed up last year and learned that a good cup of coffee requires more than just hot water and a Keurig pod. And then they wanted a refill.

“One of the most common questions we get is, ‘What is the next class I can take about coffee?’” Ristenpart said. “Right now, the answer is, ‘There isn’t one.’”

A plan that's brewing

But that will change. Emeryville-based specialty coffee roaster and retailer Peet’s Coffee recently pledged $250,000 to help the university establish the UC Davis Coffee Center and Peet’s Coffee Pilot Roastery on campus. UC Davis will be the first school in the nation with a research facility devoted to post-harvested coffee, according to Doug Welsh, vice president for coffee at Peet’s Coffee.

“There isn’t a lot of good research in coffee,” he said. “We expect that it will become the go-to center for science studying post-harvest phenomena.”

The center, to be located in a renovated building on the north side of the campus, could open as early as fall 2017. It will include an advanced cold brew and packaging facility, an experimental green coffee bean storage facility, a cupping and sensory analysis lab, the pilot roastery, and meeting and office space, according to Ristenpart. He, Kuhl and Jean-Xavier Guinard, a professor and sensory scientist in UC Davis’ department of food science and technology, will oversee the center and roastery.

Jennifer Sinclair Curtis, dean of UC Davis’ college of engineering, believes the center will place the school’s coffee research efforts on par with other highly successful agriculture programs. “We fully expect it will do for coffee what the [university’s] wine and brewing programs have accomplished on behalf of those industries,” Curtis said.

While the Design of Coffee class is a general education course primarily for UC Davis freshmen, the coffee center will draw students of all levels who want to learn more about the coffee production process, according to Ristenpart.

A new tradition: scientific discovery

Contrary to what many might think, the brewing process is not a simple science. Welsh said that even a seemingly mundane effort like picking the beans leads to a more-austere fermentation process that must be carefully controlled for flavor development. Today’s hot product, cold-brew coffee, requires a detailed examination of pasteurization, because it lacks the “kill step” found in traditional heat-cooked drinks. And with all coffee, there are questions on packaging, storage and transport to consider. 

This is where the UC Davis Coffee Center will have its greatest impact upon the coffee industry, according to Welsh. It will bring science into the picture.

“Many of us in the coffee business have recognized for a long time that we do a lot of things out of tradition: how to produce, how to farm, how to process, how to roast, how to brew a really high-quality coffee,” Welsh said. “There are a lot of techniques out there in the business, but most of them were not derived scientifically. They were handed down. I’m sure what a lot of the science will do is to confirm many of those tried-and-true methods. But I strongly believe it will unveil new techniques.”

Peet’s contribution is geared toward the roastery – which will focus on the first step, how the bean is actually cooked and prepared. Others are contributing by area of expertise. Smaller growers like Oakland-based supplier Sweet Maria’s is supplying green coffee beans for processing. Food products manufacturer Mars Inc. is helping to supply lab equipment. And the Specialty Coffee Association of America plans to offer grants and fellowships to a number of graduate students on an annual basis.

“That’s what’s really motivating us at Peet’s,” Welsh said. “There are a lot of talented young people at UC Davis. We’d like to see them become the next generation of leading coffee experts.”

The public drinks it up

Naming the pilot roastery after Peet’s Coffee made sense, given the area’s subject matter. Ristenpart said the university is discussing possible naming rights for other rooms in the coffee center.

“We have a vision to make a coffee center that covers all aspects of post-harvest processing of coffee,” he said.​ “Our goal is to seek partners to support the renovation costs of each of the 10 or so laboratories in the center.”

Finding takers shouldn’t be hard. Welsh said the industry is keeping an eye on how this project turns out.

“Virtually everyone I’ve talked to in the business has expressed interest in helping out,” he said. “This is something that will benefit everyone – it’s not for one specific company. And ultimately, it’s for the benefit of all coffee drinkers.”

Eventually, the program may move beyond UC Davis students and to the general public, Welsh added. “We expect that the center will teach classes, not only to Davis students, but to the public at large and to people in the coffee industry,” he said. “If you want to become a certified brewer or an expert roaster, it’s our hope that you will be able to take classes at UC Davis.”

Molly Spencer, a second-year Ph.D. student in the UC Davis food science graduate group, was a student assistant in a Design of Coffee class and witnessed the quarter-long euphoria among participants. “The students generally seemed excited,” she said. “They were going to get credit for a science/engineering course in which they roasted, brewed and drank coffee.”

Spencer can understand their enthusiasm.

“I learned about heat transfer and mass transfer the boring way, in a very large lecture hall with 500 students and one professor writing on a board,” she recalled. “It would have been wonderful to be able to partake in a lab, and see chemistry and engineering principles come to life in the form of the relatable, daily activity of brewing and drinking a cup of coffee.”

October 5, 2016 - 7:45pm