UC Davis Coffee Center developing research, curriculum


Interdisciplinary approach, global awareness could make UC Davis number one in coffee science

The average UC Davis student has likely had at least one experience of a peer trying to pressure them into taking ECM 1: The Design of Coffee. This course is iconic not only because it fulfills the Science and Engineering general education requirement for non-science students, but also because students get to drink their weight in coffee.

Grace McClintock, a current teaching assistant for the Design of Coffee course and first-year masters student in material science and engineering, explained what a student unfamiliar with the sciences may garner from the course.

“A lot of the people come into the coffee lab without a science background and a lot of science is being able to communicate your ideas,” McClintock said. “[The students] work in groups of three and they have to write their lab reports together, they have to do their final projects together, so they have to learn how to delegate different jobs, how to work together to clean up the space, to divvy up tasks during the coffee lab because multiple things have to happen over the course of the class to finish on time. So those are really important skills for science but they’re also important for life.”

The course is also outstanding to students because of the breadth of science and interest surrounding the study of coffee. Beginning students’ astonishment with the world of coffee may also be the result of a historical truth noted by chemical engineering professor and co-creator of the course William Ristenpart.

“Because coffee is not grown here, there was never any agricultural impetus or push for government supported research,” Ristenpart said. “And without that funding base through the USDA and other entities there was just never any academic research, no academic professors, no curriculum, no classes. We saw this as a big need in the coffee industry and the coffee industry has been extremely supportive.”

The support to which Ristenpart alludes has led to the birth of the UC Davis Coffee Center — the first of its kind and the future home to academic research and education which will speak to the geographical tendency to overlook the study of coffee. Ristenpart draws parallels, or rather perpendiculars, between the study of wine and coffee on this campus and in the world.

“If you look at UC Davis we have a whole department for viticulture and enology,” Ristenpart said. “There’s a whole department of food science and technology with a beer program that’s world famous. If you look around campus there’s basically nobody focused on coffee.”

Although the Coffee Center is still in its development stages, it is receiving a great deal of funding from Peet’s Coffee as a result of the interest of the Specialty Coffee Association. Ristenpart already understands the ways in which research and curriculum will intersect with its ultimate mission — to be the leading site for coffee science in the world.

“What I envision in the long term is a whole curriculum based on coffee,” Ristenpart said. “If you scroll through the online course catalog you’ll see in the wine program there’s a couple dozen courses that undergraduates can take, [and] I can imagine easily many different classes [in coffee science] — all the chemical reactions that take place in roasting, all the physical chemistry of brewing, the stuff I’m doing research on right now.”

Ristenpart’s research is both disjointed from and integral to the study of coffee. He understands chemical engineering to be an ideal lens through which one can consider coffee because the roasting and brewing of the beans change the states of the molecules due to physical reactions.

“My research area of expertise is in transport phenomena and when you think about the act of brewing coffee […] you’re moving molecules from one phase to the other and the final flavor profile depends on which molecules move at which rates,” Ristenpart said. “It’s all tremendously complicated and it’s a lot of fun for people to focus on that.”

While one of Ristenpart’s research projects involves re-evaluating a chart used to optimize dissolved solids in coffee and its flavor, one of the many unique aspects of the Coffee Center is the broad collection of faculty associated and the breadth of research they pursue. Irwin Ronaldo Donis-Gonzalez, an assistant cooperative extensions specialist in post-harvest engineering from the department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, focuses primarily on the drying of coffee beans.

“The Coffee Center will allow us to do multidisciplinary state of the art research, where we are working with chemical engineers, working with mechanical engineers [and] working with post-harvest engineers with physiologists,” Donis-Gonzalez said. “We’re combining all this expertise to try to enhance how coffee is grown, harvested and stored and everything from now on.”

Donis-Gonzalez’s experience as a coffee certifier in Latin America coupled with his focus on coffee drying efficiency in an era of climate change makes him essential to the Coffee Center and insightful about the challenges faced by small coffee growers.

“The problem now with solar drying is that it is, in certain cases, people can’t even do it,” Donis-Gonzalez said. “With all this global warming and global climate change […] it’s just different patterns of weather throughout the whole world. So in places where people would exclusively rely on drying their coffee with the sun right now they’re getting [more rain]. So they are unable to effectively or efficiently dry their product.”

Donis-Gonzalez understands the Coffee Center to be both a project relevant to UC Davis and to the global community. Noting the interdisciplinarity of the center, the international aspect of the coffee trade and the impact of climate change everywhere, he thinks that the Coffee Center has the potential to make an impact on the world.

“This is the world market,” Donis Gonzalez said. “Coffee is an economy for many small families throughout the world so we can only highlight the importance of the Coffee Center because of the impact it might have on the world and it would be very, very positive. If we better one technology here and we can help a small family of five that are working very hard to produce coffee in Guatemala, the world would be a much better place.”

In addition to a heightened awareness of the growers of a product UC Davis students consume everyday, there are many exciting developments in coffee research and coffee study to which the community can look forward. The UC Davis community, outside of research, can also expect potential expansion of coffee courses and coffee study available to students.

“So we’re in the process of setting up a field station there in the northern highlands of Nicaragua,” Ristenpart said. “I’m actually working on a proposal to make kind of a summer abroad or a study abroad type of course where students here could go spend a few weeks down at origin and actually learn about how coffee is processed down there because the vast majority of the work is done at origin and not here.”

The Coffee Center, is also seeking funding for some limited coffee growing greenhouses, already having secured large-scale roasting equipment. The facility will cater to both research and educational opportunities.

“Long term, I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for UC Davis to be a world leader in coffee science,” Ristenpart said. “We already are in wine, we are, depending on who you talk to, at least in the top three for food science, we’re already one of the best for beer. What I’d really like to do is have UC Davis be globally recognized as the place to go to do serious research in coffee science.”


Written by: Stella Sappington — features@theaggie.org