A World of Specialists: Coffee and Chemistry

Tom Smith Photography 2By Christopher Hendon

My interest in chemistry was sparked in 2007 when I received a copy of Luca Turin’s The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell. Turin describes his pursuits of synthesizing novel, smelly molecules, and the challenge of elucidating how humans physically detect and perceive these compounds. Among other ambitions, one of Turin’s goals was to isolate a pheromone that induced human sexual attraction. Sadly, it was concluded that—unlike bugs and aquatic critters—no such pheromone exists for humans.

The idea of designing chemicals that had never been smelled before—or that made me irresistible to female Homo sapiens—motivated me to pursue chemistry in higher education. Today I work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in both chemistry and chemical engineering, solving problems associated with energy storage and conversion. Whilst this sounds far removed from perfume and coffee, the topics I research use the same toolbox and sets of physical laws that underpin all natural sciences.

Like my chemical history, instilled through talented professors and my own experimentation, my coffee education came from two specialists in this industry: Lesley and Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood. When I lived in Bath, I frequented their café— Colonna and Smalls—and observed what could, in essence, be described as a high-precision, high-speed chemistry lab. They weighed the dry mass of coffee, the mass of the liquid extracted, the time it took to do so, and then even measured extraction yield using a hand-held device that detected subtle changes in the refractive index of water. It was easy to find parallels between my area of expertise in applied chemistry and their practices in the specialty coffee industry.

We became friends and colleagues and 
began to teach each other our specialties. It was surprisingly easy to learn about coffee with such capable teachers; I viewed the content as the apex of applied chemistry (it was, and remains to be, immensely complex). Whilst I grappled with coffee and learning to taste, Lesley and Maxwell tackled chemistry in a way that evades most undergraduate students in classical chemistry training: they thought deeply about how simple chemical concepts like polarity or kinetics can be observed in real life. And, at this point, I realized coffee is an excellent medium for teaching chemistry.

Chemical literature is readily accessible online and in bookstores. Motivated people could, in principle, teach themselves about chemistry to a very high level. Yet, when coffee is viewed as a materials chemistry problem, the same cannot be said. The deeper we delved into the problems of water chemistry, grinding physics, and other complex topics, the more we realized that much of the fundamental knowledge in coffee was either proprietary 
(and hence widely unknown), or had never
been explored. The Web of Science quantified our suspicions. Limiting publications to only “science and technology,” there have been only 33,904 articles containing the word “coffee” to date. This is insignificant compared to two other random searches I considered whilst writing this article: “gold,” one element from the periodic table, yielded 362,648 unique results, and “hydrogenation,” one type of chemical reaction, yielded 78,286 papers. Of the ca. 50,000,000 total indexed articles, only 0.07 percent contain “coffee,” which is surprising given this agricultural product contributes significantly
to many countries’ net wealth and financial stability. It is even more surprising given how many academics consume bad coffee daily (but have likely had a good coffee at least once on their journeys around the world).

I must confess that I have not read all 33,904 published articles mentioning coffee. Even if I were to read two papers per day, it would still take nearly forty-seven years to get through them all, assuming no further papers were published in the interim. Instead, I rely on reading new articles and following their citation trails back to the dogmatic literature that initiated the field. I combine this with frequent seminars at events hosted by the SCAA and SCAE, taking particular interest in interfacing with the industry to learn about pertinent issues that could potentially benefit from an injection of science.

Here poses a challenge: I am a chemist employed by professors who ask me to work towards their academic goals, whilst creating my own future as an independent researcher. However, there are only twenty-four hours
in a day (all of which are work hours if you
ask MIT professors), and during those hours
the primary requirement is to be working on scientific problems prioritized by the university. This presents a fundamental dichotomy in the integration of coffee into academic research institutions; in order for funding and time to be devoted to research, academics must be able to ask an educated and relevant question, but also understand the potential value of the outcomes. Even if the value is clear, securing funding mandates a record of demonstrated success and produced results that have changed the field.

Coffee is widely viewed as a necessity
 to fuel academia, rather than a priority for fundamental development. Furthermore, 
it takes several years to gain the necessary education to make insightful comments on the industry. As a result, it is immensely challenging to provoke established scientists to interface with the world of specialty coffee. But times are changing. My work is primarily funded through crowd donation of equipment, including coffee, grinders, analytical devices, floor space, and other people’s time. Given that specialty coffee is becoming ubiquitous, and most of the practitioners who work therein (i.e. baristas, roasters, green buyers, and farmers) are specialists in their field, it’s easy to gain access to high quality information. Broadening opportunities for fundamental development is as simple as establishing a dialogue between both specialties, working together to maintain a high level of scientific practice and high quality coffee.

On a more personal note, I am at the junction of postdoctoral research and launching my own research group. To date, the coffee industry has been fruitful for both my career and my abilities as a communicator and teacher. The skills
 I’ve learned thus far are invaluable. I see this industry as a playground for scientists, where every result is novel and exciting. Even failed experiments somehow provide insights. Though it’s unclear where my career will take me geographically, coffee will certainly be a major part of my research for
the foreseeable future.

Hendon_CChristopher H. Hendon is a computational and experimental chemist with special interests in energy materials, applied physics and coffee extraction. He obtained his BSc. Adv. HONS from Monash University (2011), his PhD from the University of Bath (2015) and is currently a Postdoctoral Associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of the self-published ‘Water for Coffee’, an educational chemistry handbook written for the coffee community.