Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Coffee for Chemists

By a cosmic coffee coincidence, Javatrekker and aspiring comic Dean Cycon released this video just as I was preparing to address the annual meeting of the New England Association of Chemistry Teachers, which was hosted by our BSU chemists last week. I had not worked with this group before, but rightly surmised that this would be a good way to open my presentation. I post it here for the benefit of those NEACT participants who might wish to share it, along some of the other resources I presented that evening.

(Prior to the talk on coffee, I mentioned two other resources that might be of interest to anybody involved in education in New England, especially southern New England. These are the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History, which can put together an educational program on any subject and our own EarthView outreach program.)

As Dean points out in the video itself, of course, the pesticides associated with "conventional coffee" are in reality no laughing matter. Many chemicals we have banned in the United States are routinely used on the coffee -- and other products we import from around the world. In real life, Dean sets an extraordinary example, and I was able to offer the teachers a choice of his No CO2 and Decaf Chiapas coffees. Each of these single-origin selections gave us a chance to discuss some environmental chemistry, related to carbon offsets and caffeine removal, respectively. The byproduct of decaf coffee, by the way, is now marketed as "green coffee extract" by Starbucks -- coffee without the coffee flavor. Gadzooks.

Never mind the debates about whether traces of these nasties make their way into our cups: there is no denying that the barrage of chemicals sprayed on the coffee, sugar, flowers, oranges, and countless other tropical crops have profound effects on the ecosystems and communities from which we extract these bounties. As much fun as I have with coffee as a beverage and teaching tool, I remember that life-and-death questions really do surround its production.

Because the theme of this year's NEACT meeting was green chemistry, I put together an eclectic talk entitled "Greening Coffee: From Red to Green to Brown." That is, I provided a sampling of environmental choices at various stages of coffee production, from the growth of the plant (red berries) through the in-country processing (green coffee) to its roasting and brewing (brown beans or beverage).

This required a very brief overview of the roughly 50 steps from field to cup, which I summarized with the names that are typically used to describe coffee in Nicaragua. On the tree, the fruit is a cherry. Once picked, it is a grape. When peeled, the slimy seed is honey. When dried, it is parchment. When green, it is gold (because it can earn money). When roasted, it is a bean. When brewed, it is coffee.

I also mentioned the parts of the cherry that are separated at various stages, and an online quiz that I created for those who wish to learn these parts. A more advanced quiz teaches the geography of processing -- the locations in which each part of the coffee is typically removed through processing.

I discussed the geographic parameters that determine where coffee can be effectively grown, and I mentioned Coffee & Conservation, a marvelous resource on the relationship between coffee ecology and the habitat of migratory birds. Then, as an antidote to Dean's Mad Scientist, I shared the best example I know of coffee being produced in harmony with its surrounding ecology -- the biodynamic production of my friend Byron, the Poet of Coffee.This video also provides a nice transition from the coffee grower to the importer and roaster, who also have the opportunity to make important decisions about the environmental impacts of the coffee.

An interesting development at the roasting stage is the growing interest in solar roasting, a growing field in which Solar Roast Coffee of Colorado seems to be a leader. As roasting coffee on our campus continues to be an elusive goal, we might actually have an opportunity to do some relevant roof-top research.

I talked about brewing not in terms of environmental impact so much as flavor impact. Flavor is important, however, as brewing coffee properly honors the work of those who have put tremendous care into producing it. Moreover, the more consumers learn to appreciate good coffee, the more likely are farmers to be fairly compensated for their work and talent. Rather than discuss my approach to brewing in detail, I mentioned one brewing method that is favored by industry experts and was invented by a chemist in Springfield, Massachuetts: the Chemex coffeemaker.

And even though most of the audience members were (I presume) going to be spending the night away from their romantic partners, I ended the presentation with Ella Fitzgerald's rendition of the sultry song Black Coffee and reference to the work of Lavazza and others on a different kind of coffee chemistry that is explored in some depth on my (PG-13) Coffee & Tea Romance page.

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