UC Davis establishes center for coffee science study center; possible major to follow

UC Davis has made a name for itself researching beverages people use to relax – like wine and beer. Now it’s turning its attention to one Americans use to get wired: coffee.

On March 11, a roster of eight UC Davis scientists will come together for a research conference run by the school’s recently founded Coffee Center. At the conference, the scientists and coffee industry stakeholders will gather to plumb such diverse topics as the genetics of coffee and the sensory perception of coffee drinkers.

It’s the first step in an effort that some on campus see as leading to a dedicated coffee research study center akin to the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, said J. Bruce German, director of the Foods for Health Institute at UC Davis. He also suggested the school could eventually offer a major in coffee science.

“We think there is sufficient interest given the fact that so many people have consumed coffee so regularly across the world, for so long,” said German. “Coffee is not an insignificant contributor to the agricultural footprint.”

Coffee is certainly a powerhouse commodity. It is the largest food import in the U.S., and the world’s most widely traded tropical agricultural commodity, according to the International Coffee Association. Worldwide coffee production is growing along with coffee consumption. In 2012-13, production is expected to hit a record 148 million bags.

Right now, the new UC Davis Coffee Center is being run on an ad hoc basis, without a dedicated home, and funded by the Foods for Health Institute. German said that the funding model will evolve once the coffee industry begins to partner with the university. After early-stage research is funded, German said, he expects the school to develop a coffee science major.

“What we’re looking to do is start a relationship with coffee and move knowledge of all aspects of coffee forward,” German said. “That knowledge will be driven by scientists and industry, and will explore issues of high priority.”

One such issue: sustainability in coffee growing. German said every step along the chain in the production of coffee – from land use to waste issues – will be examined.

The idea of a university researching coffee is not new. World Coffee Research, a nonprofit funded by the coffee industry, is managed by the Texas A&M University System. The Vanderbilt University Institute for Coffee Studies, meanwhile, investigates the health effects of coffee consumption, among other things.

However, German feels that the UC Davis coffee science center could be the only such center at a university with the a goal of establishing a major in the study of coffee, much like the major in viticulture and enology already offered at the university.

“Whether it will be formalized – like the wine institute – is too early to tell,” he said.

German said the first physical step taken by the center will be the construction and operation of a greenhouse to grow coffee plants that can be used for research.

One industry player looking forward to getting involved in the fledgling center is Peter Rogers, vice president of operations at the 35-year-old Rogers Family Co. in Lincoln. That company, one of a few remaining family-owned gourmet coffee roasters in the U.S., roasts more than 30 million pounds of coffee each year, and has annual sales of $110 million.

The company has a long-standing relationship with UC Davis, and hosts graduates on several of the 11 farms the company operates in Panama, Mexico and Hawaii, Rogers said.

He sees the enthusiasm for establishing the center as a sign of how the coffee industry is evolving.

“It’s a sign that we are becoming a more sophisticated industry. Coffee tends to be a generational industry, and it’s a nonscientific industry right now. You cannot get a four-year degree or a Ph.D. in coffee right now,” Rogers said.

Rogers compares the current state of coffee to the wine industry in the late 1970s.

“I remember my parents buying jugs of wine. Now it’s down to farms and estates,” he said. “There will always be generic coffee produced, but for coffee to evolve it needs to get to that level – and to do that, science needs to be involved,” Rogers said.

That sentiment is shared by boutique coffee growers such as Jay Ruskey, who operates the 20-acre Good Land Organics fruit farm near Santa Barbara. Ruskey has been growing coffee under the canopy of his avocado trees for the last nine years. Lately, he has been selling his beans to specialty coffee buyers in what is one of the fastest-growing and lucrative markets for such beans: Japan.

He sells some of his beans there for as much as $30 a pound. “It’s no longer a Folger’s market,” he said.

“Twenty years ago when people were only paying $5 a pound for coffee, it would have been insane for me to consider doing this,” Ruskey said. “Now it is worth considering, especially as a secondary crop.”

He said science needs to catch up to that newfangled evolution. “This is why I am very excited about what they are doing in Davis,” Ruskey said. “There are a lot of issues in the coffee industry that really need to be addressed.” These, he said, include isolating the factors that create flavor in coffee, and determining how to best combine coffee with other crops.

So far about 30 people from the coffee industry and 20 from UC Davis have signed up for the coffee conference, which is open to the public.

Information on the coffee center research conference can be found at http://ffhi.ucdavis.edu.