ScienceOnline'09 - Friday Morning Coffee Cupping


Friday morning was really, really cold (for North Carolina), so what better way to start off ScienceOnline09 than at Counter Culture Coffee where about 25 or so participants (and several other people - this is an open event) showed up bright and early to learn about the science (and business) of coffee.

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Coffee is one of those things that you just drink, unthinkingly, at the time of the morning when it is hard to think anyway. So this was quite an eye-opener - learning what happens between the moment the coffee plant is planted and the moment when you taste the coffee. And there are many steps in-between, and each step involves hard decisions as to how to do it as everything can affect the taste of coffee in the end: where to plant, how to plant, when and how to harvest, how to process it after harvesting, how to ship and store the beans, how to roast it, how to prepare the coffee. And we saw the process as well as learned about the effects of different geographies and practices on the final experience.

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Our hosts presented us with three different 'mystery' coffees. First, we smelled the dry, freshly ground beans. Then we smelled it as soon as the hot water was poured over it. Then we smelled it at the exact moment when we broke the layer of foam that formed on the surface (and that can be a STRONG burst of aroma!). Then we tasted one spoonful of coffee. Then we waited about half-a-minute and evaluated the aftertaste.

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At each of those steps we tried to do what is probably the hardest part of the exercise - translate the olfactory associations into words. Smell, the oldest sense, the only one that does not get pre-processed in the thalamus before getting processed in the cortex, is incredibly difficult to describe with language - it affects our emotions more than our rationality. It is hard to 'classify' smells in any meaningful way. So, it is not a surprise that some of the descriptions of coffee aromas spoken in the room on Friday took quite a flight of fancy, e.g., "barbequing in the forest", "dirty baby diapers" and "deflated inflatable kid's toys heated by the Sun out in the yard"....

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After the tasting, we were shown the rest of facility, including the stacks of bags of coffee, from all around the world, all of it either certified organic, or uncertified but known to be organic anyway.

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Then, we were shown the process of coffee roasting. You start with a barrel of unroasted coffee:

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Then, after testing a small batch, decide which one of the three different roasting machines to use, at which temperature, etc.:

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What comes out is a barrel of roasted coffee, ready for grinding and turning into delicious liquid:

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Now, I have to admit, I came to this event with a whole set of handicaps. First, I am, unlike some other bloggers, incapable of writing poetry or even creative fiction. Thus, my verbal descriptions of coffee smells were quite technical and prosaic, unlike some I mentioned above.

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Second, where I come from, the only liquid that can be called coffee is Turkish coffee. Espresso is frowned upon as "too quick", thin and weak. Everything else is derogatorily called "instant coffee", to be served only in hospitals. I have never heard of a concept of decaf before I came to the USA. So, for me, the American coffee is just a very rarely used caffeine delivery device, when I need a really fast, strong and short-lived boost of the drug and nothing else is available.

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When I want to enjoy the taste coffee, I fix myself a Turkish coffee (OK, French Roast will do in a pinch), or have a coffee cake, or get a Mocca. So, trying to figure out the differences between three types of liquids that I barely ever drink was not easy - I was quite a novice. Not that I could not make distinctions between them, but it just not do for me what it did to regular American coffee drinkers.

And finally, after two hours of talking, thinking, smelling and tasting coffee on a very chilly morning, it would have been nice to actually drink a cup!

People you can see in these pictures are Erin Davis, Paul Jones, Henry Gee, Anton Zuiker, Cameron Neylon, DNLee, Carlos Hotta, Victor Henning, Paula Signorini, Enrico Balli, PalMD, Janet Stemwedel, Erin Johsnon, Arikia Millikan, Bjoern Brembs, Diana Pauly and Bob O'Hara, among others. Several of them have already (live)blogged the Coffee Cupping with much greater expertise than I ever could, so visit their blogs for their takes.

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More pictures can be found on Flickr and more blog/media coverage here.

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