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RAISING THE BAR

UC Davis Coffee Center blends the art and science of coffee.

WRITTEN BY EDYE KUYPER
PHOTOS BY CANDISS KOENITZER

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Students hover over lab benches strewn with a combination of engineering equipment and home-coffee-making paraphernalia. At the sound of a gong, feverish coffee brewing begins. These students are contestants in the coffee-making championship of The Design of Coffee class. Of 500 mostly first-year students enrolled in the course this quarter at the University of California, Davis, about 30 are vying to see who can brew the tastiest cup of coffee using the least amount of energy.

Thirty minutes after the competition begins, a panel of judges tastes the brews and grades them for flavor. The kilowatt hours spent per brew have been recorded throughout the process, including the roasting effort that students carried out a week prior to the championship, using bench-top roasters available to the home aficionado.

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There’s an upset: The winning team doesn’t even place in the competition for taste, but it steals the prize by using 15 percent less energy than its peers.

Offered each quarter, the class brings key chemical engineering principles to life through the medium of coffee. Not surprisingly, The Design of Coffee is a hit among sleep-deprived students — it even leads Intro to Brewing & Beer and Human Sexuality in number of votes for the most popular undergraduate elective class on campus.

The dynamos behind it are professors Bill Ristenpart and Tonya Kuhl, both of whose enthusiasm has made the course grow from an 18-student offering in 2013 to a class limited only by the number of seats available in the campus’ largest lecture hall.

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Future pursuits

Ristenpart has poured this same contagious energy into developing the first post-harvest coffee center at an academic institution: The Design of Coffee provides a more visible face for the emergent UC Davis Coffee Center. Through partnership with faculty members (who have made UC Davis a prominent institution in relation to beer brewing and winemaking), the coffee center will provide upper-division and graduate-level training for aspiring coffee professionals. Research endeavors will draw on the campus’ expertise in disciplines including microbiology, engineering, economics, and sensory science.

The coffee industry is stepping up to support this effort to bring scientific rigor and trained personnel to the craft. Peet’s Coffee is the founding contributor to the coffee center, and other large companies are following its lead. Once the funds committed reach a tipping point, renovations will begin to transform an existing campus structure into a space that will include an experimental green (unroasted) bean storage facility, an espresso and brewing laboratory, and a sensory and cupping laboratory. The Peet’s Coffee Pilot Roastery will familiarize students with industrial-scale roasting, using equipment many sizes larger than the bench-top roasters used in The Design of Coffee.

The science of coffee increasingly is accessible to amateurs, thanks to seminars and classes. The UC Davis Coffee Center promises to contribute to its evolution in years to come, to the benefit of all coffee drinkers who value flavor. But for aspiring winners of The Design of Coffee championship, the winners have shared a secret: Make it taste just good enough, while using as little energy as possible. 

A transplant from Vermont, writer Edye Kuyper is rooted in Sacramento, where year-round gardening bolsters her mental health. She spends her workdays researching and supporting small-scale farmers around the world through the program in international and community nutrition at UC Davis.

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