Coffee Scientists Unite: SCAA Science Manager Reports from ASIC

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by Emma Sage, SCAA Coffee Science Manager

(Warning: this is a blog post. Get ready for some super-casual coffee science conversation.)

In early September, hundreds of coffee scientists gathered in the remote city of Armenia, Colombia to attend the 25th ASIC (Association for Science and Information on Coffee) international conference on coffee and science. The event was hosted by the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (the FNC) and included days of scientific talks followed by fun and scientific field trips. As the SCAA science manager, this is one of the highlights of my year, as it is THE place to meet scientists, hear about new frontiers of coffee research, and learn from the source.

I would personally recommend this event to anyone with a scientific background who works or would like to work in the coffee industry. Despite the fact that few general industry representatives attend this conference, the level of “science-speak” is pretty serious. Clinical methodology, genomic jargon, and organic chemistry are common scientific languages at the podium that do not get translated for the layperson. If you are up for it, the ASIC conference happens biannually and the next iteration will be held in Yunnan Province of China in about two years.

At this conference, about five days of scientific talks include all topics, including health and physiology, chemistry of roasting, genetics and plant breeding, coffee flavor and evaluation, and plant pathology and pest resistance. Coffee breaks included poster sessions, collaborative discussions of yet-to-be-realized research projects, and the consumption of copious amounts of Nespresso.

Dr. Fernando Gaast, director of Cenicafe, gave the keynote address. He explained Colombia’s model of scientific research supporting a sustainable strategy for coffee production. Meeting challenges to producers while connecting with markets is a key challenge for any producing region or organization. The FNC/Cenicafe example is a great one, and was showcased thorough the week. Cenicafe was highlighted for its research on plant breeding, pest and disease monitoring, and geographic/climatic technology, emphasizing the importance of the transfer of knowledge between scientific researchers and local extension services. After all, if scientists spend all of their time and resources to get answers to important coffee questions, there needs to be an avenue to disseminate those results to the people who can utilize them to create progress!

The first day of the conference was devoted almost exclusively to what I like to call, “the good news on coffee.” This, of course, has to do with human health and physiology. I have said it before and I will say it again, the more I research coffee’s effect on the human body, the more I want to increase my consumption! Longer talks were given to the discussion of caffeine in coffee, (it’s still safe) and dehydration (it’s still not an issue). Some interesting work was presented on chlorogenic acids and other polyphenols, liver disease, blood pressure, and cancer. It turns out, scientists are still spending a lot of time digging coffee out from under all the misunderstandings it got into some decades ago, before modern research methods and statistics were able to help us understand all the good news on coffee. If you are interested in the nitty-gritty on this, I suggest you browse the Coffee and Health Report, available on the SCAA website.

Major themes that resonated through many presentations included climate change, rust, genetic research, and general disease resistance strategies. Colombia/Cenicafe offered an unprecedented number of presentations, including their disease resistance story, such as projects including rust and the coffee-berry borer. This event ended up being a serious education on the Cenicafe strategy, research areas, history of forward thinking, and connecting results with the coffee growers. ASIC attendees were even given the option to take a special field trip to the Cenicafe headquarters after the conclusion of the ASIC event for more hands-on learning.

Genetic research was one of the hottest topics on the podium, following the release of the Coffea canephora (Robusta) genome published the previous week in Science Magazine. Tracking the genetic history of Robusta across Africa is now possible, and we saw a very interesting presentation by a research team working on this topic, who have identified a plant group in Uganda which they believe is very similar to the original parent of C. arabica. Genetic work on C. canephora seems to already have shown major progress in light of the completion of the genome. C. arabica, although very tasty, has not yet been sequenced due to its complex genetic history. Being the accidental child of two different species, by a fluke it has twice as many chromosomes as it is supposed to, and is therefore at least twice the work to sequence. That being said, lots of scientists ARE working on it! Two different research groups presented on the progress and complexity of sequencing the C. arabica genome, one from the Arabica Genome Consortium, led by Cornell and Nestle, among others, and another group led by Illy and the Applied Genomics Institute, with many other collaborators. Lucky for all of us, when the Arabica genome is fully sequenced and published, it will be readily available to the public, which means that we will immediately see an onslaught of other researchers jump on the Arabica bandwagon and start answering our big questions about our specialty species.

Coffee quality and connecting other scientific projects to cup profile was a pleasant and surprising topic in a good number of presentations. I noted a clear increase in presentations considering this topic, compared to the previous ASIC conference I attended. Highlights included Dr. Flavio Borem’s (of UFLA (Universidade Federal de Lavras), Brazil) presentation on how environment can affect genetics and therefore coffee flavor. Altitude and cultivar were investigated in this study. Some amazing results on chemical flavor precursor compounds were presented, finally making some solid connections between genes, the environment, and cupping profile. Another study in progress, presented by Fernandez-Alduenda, described work being done to statistically qualify the flavor descriptors of natural coffees. I personally loved the continual reference to the SCAA cupping method as a way to augment or complement scientific methods of sensory science. This work, connecting established scientific methods with industry best practice, is great because it opens the discussion between scientists and coffee cuppers, something we all should get on board with!

Perhaps the only suggestion I have for this event is that it could be more connected with the non-scientific portion of the coffee industry. After all, from my experience we all care about coffee science! The research presented at this event covers important topics, many of which are relevant not only to scientists but to the rest of us in the coffee world. Perhaps we could make progress through connections and collaborations? I would make the case that the scientific language could be toned down so that a larger portion of the industry could attend and follow the lectures. In this way, we could make far more industry/science friendships, have more fantastic interdisciplinary conversations, spur more relevant research, and maybe even inspire companies to invest in specific coffee science research projects. After all, it is my firm belief that coffee science is for everyone, and already affects the entire industry bottom line. We cannot get away from science—so, I say, charge forth! Learn and immerse yourself and perhaps take a trip to China in about two years for the next ASIC conference.