Coffee Research - What is next?

I reported before on our involvement in the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative. This is a project funded primarily by coffee roasters to advance research into improving coffee quality, and improving the volume of quality coffee produced in the world. It's not as if there is a lack of great coffee out there, but we are definitely on the threshold of seeing production of really good arabica drop, given greater consumption and agricultural issues with pernicious pest and disease. And, despite the nay-sayers of global warming, everywhere I go farmers are commenting on changes in their local climate and how it impacts their crop. I am lucky; I am sitting on the preliminary Research Planning Committee for the GCQRI and the nascent projects I am hearing about are intriguing. Quite a few projects involve scientific collaboration to bring new technology to the old methods of the coffee industry. NIRS (Near Infrared Spectrophotometry) is a newer tool for analyzing chemical markers and has already yielded breakthroughs in coffee research. Under GCQRI, one possible project is to form an open NIRS Database of Quality Coffee samples from all growing areas. New samples could be submitted by roasters for cost-effective and complete analysis of all the complex factors that contribute to flavor and quality, and then the sample would be indexed among all other known samples from that region, providing a global context for understanding differences in coffee flavor. It ties right into another project, described as such "Identify Main green coffee candidate molecules strongly impacting quality." Yes, it is true. We don't know what it is in coffee that makes it taste good. Using older techniques, we have some pretty good ideas, but many things have been left. Coffee is just so darn complex. The project design would involve rapid screening techniques on the thousands of metabolites in coffee and then set out to correlate and identify those related specifically to cup quality. When we know that, we know how to test for quality components in future studies. Another project along the same lines involves sensory evaluation, cupping as we call it. The project is called NextGen Coffee Sensory Evaluation. Traditional descriptive cupping has it's place; it's how we find coffee we like, and describe it to our customers. And some biochemical screening techniques have come along lately. (Everyone recalls the press for the "electronic nose" a couple years back). But what about relating the two in order to form a broader understanding of coffee quality. In the current methods, humans do not reliably attain repeatable results in sensory analysis (I am talking about the kind of cupping that can be a basis for scientific study of coffee quality, not the kind of cupping for someone to find and describe flavors). On the other hand, current chemical evaluations might tell us if a compound is present, but doesn't tell us what that means ... and there being a lack of understanding of which core compounds relate to quality, how do we know what we are looking for? So this new technique would involve a panel of tasters that would calibrate and agree on levels of quality and flavor attributes, then run the sample through a battery of these new, rapid techniques to validate the finding. Repeat this, and you find out exactly what chemical components are behind flavor attributes that coffee roasters find valuable. When these findings are informed by the other two project approaches I already mentioned, you form a much greater understanding of exactly what it is we find desirable in a good cup of coffee, which can then be used to discover ways to grow higher quality coffee in the producing countries. You might ask yourself, why doesn't all this exist already? It might, but it would be locked in a vault at Nestle in Switzerland. And nobody else has had the means to define and fund research that centers entirely on coffee quality. Producing countries focus on fighting disease and pests, and on higher yields. Both of these are important, but in the absence of a buyer's regard for taste quality, we end up with hybrids that have robusta genes; Catimor, Sarchimor, CR-95, Ruiru 11, Castillo, Etc. It's only this type of collaboratively funded research that can pool resources to address the concerns of quality-oriented coffee business, and by extension, all those who drink coffee because it tastes good. Those who lift a cup of coffee to their lips and think "Boy this tastes like an economically-produced large-scale agricultural product" or "Boy, this Insant coffee is awful but I saved myself 11 minutes I would have wasted grinding and brewing a good-tasting coffee" ... well, we just can't help you. That's the coffee experience of the '60s and early '70s before the rebirth of the small roaster, and we don't want to go back to that! You can find the GCQRI site here. -Tom posted at Sweet Maria's Weblog

Good scientific practice

Good scientific practice would work on eliminating variables to have a more clear picture of one of those variables at a time... at least that's my naive understanding. What about taking soil/terroir out of the equation? If we're to truly understand what a Varietal really is, variables like soil quality and climate can confuse us even more. Hydroponics? (no shortage of indoor agriculture in Oakland, huh?) Could that help at all? Once there's an understanding of what the plant itself brings to the table/cup, then we can zoom out and see how those attributes behave under different soil or climate conditions, how they interact and create flavor.

Again, I'm very naive and idealistic here because I don't have a lot of experience at origin, but would love to learn more...

I saw and ordered some of the

I saw and ordered some of the El Salvador Finca El Majahual last night. The full review is an interesting story about the 50-80 years old bourbon that are still very productive, cupping well and healthy. Understanding what is going right in the environment on a farm like this would seem to be useful. An environment that can develop harmony over a period of time tends to have great natural resistance. Is this a fairly healthy area for coffee in general?

[...] and dealing with lots

[...] and dealing with lots of producers on this subject. Tom Owens briefly mentions some issues in this post (which you should all have read!). I also feel like I’ve skimmed this topic slightly – [...]

Thanks for the thoughtful

Thanks for the thoughtful comments Ed, and your last line hits home, "Science is wonderful. But why and how to use it is the challenge." I think we need to remember there is a time NOT to apply the latest science, simply for its own sake. One reason I see that we DO need more scientific alternatives in the way farmers and others respond to crisis in coffee (low crop, broca, fungus, climate change) is that the current scientific responses are not good. To replace all the pure arabicas with crosses of robusta and arabica is not good, but that is what is happening and will happen with the current approaches, which are decided completely by agronomists and labs in producing countries. Without input from those who buy coffee for its taste qualities, we might just loose many of those desirable attributes, the ones that come from older types of Bourbon and Typica trees. Exactly why people care at all about "Specialty Coffee" (a term I dislike quite a bit as of late), I can't say. Cynically, it's about brands and commodity fetishism.. Substantially, it is about quality of the green coffee, fresh quality roasting techniques and great preparation. -Tom

Some thoughts: Having been

Some thoughts:
Having been involved with the local foods movement it is important to understand consumers. Why does a consumer buy specialty coffee? Is it really about taste? and to what degree. Is it about status, helping small co. vs transnationals, liking the scene better at Intelli vs McDs, what do they buy/drink out of the house vs at home. does merely packaging appearance make the difference, are they making coffee at home, what can different consumers detect in a blind cupping, do reasons vary in different parts of the country or world, did the economic up turn spur specialty coffee and will that change in lower or more normal times, etc.?
We clearly need to understand coffee better as Tom and others point out. We also need to better understand farmers as has shown with the recent price hikes. One thing I do know having been a farmer over a long period of time is sorting out short and longer term trends. I started raising sheep for meat and wool in the mid 1960s. The meat/lamb trends had several factors. The biggest at that time being the fathers who were in WW2 and had to eat crappy mutton in Europe. Even the smell of lamb at home brought back bad memories. But was clear this would be short term. The polyester leisure suits and the claims that wool would have no future purpose were also short term. I also could have switched to pot belly pigs during that craze that was clearly going to be short term. From the start I was told that a feed lot was the way of the future along with drugging my feeds and using certain breeds that did better in confinement. It was also about drugging my soils which really seemed questionable Much of which made little sense to me. Thus I worked to develop what is generally now known as natural grass fed and selected breeds and characteristics suitable to that approach.
Science is wonderful. But why and how to use it is the challenge.

This is something im very

This is something im very interested in. pyrolysis that converts the beans makeup into a varying array of scents and flavors. Is it the soil or terrior of the coffee? or is it the strain of coffee. or could it be attributed to the processing and storage of the beans. the scientific aspect of roasting is one that definitely catches my attention. perhaps someday the screening of coffee will be a much more automated process, hopefully not so far that we dont get to taste it.

[...] This post was mentioned

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by sweet maria's coffee, Christopher Scheirer. Christopher Scheirer said: What's next for ensuring quality coffee? Tom at Sweet Maria's tries to offer some answers in a solid blog post: [...]

[...] This post was mentioned

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by sweet maria's coffee and Mecca, Murray Ross. Murray Ross said: Awesome piece Tom! RT @sweetmarias: Coffee Research – What is next? #GCQRI [...]