The growing role of universities in coffee research

When University of California (UC), Davis professor Bill Ristenpart developed his “Design of Coffee” freshman seminar i undefined

n 2012, he was simply looking for a unique way to introduce students to chemical engineering.

That academic school year, 18 students enrolled. Fast-forward to 2015 and it was voted the best course on campus. Now more than 1500 students enrol each year, making it the highest enrolment of any elective course offered at UC Davis.

Ristenpart jokes that the course was more of a “pedagogical exercise” than anything. He’s long been a part of the food sciences faculty, but as far as coffee, “I don’t have any experience except that I drink it every day”, he admits lightheartedly.

He says publicity brought a lot of attention to the course, in addition to its hands-on approach to introducing engineering principles. But its popularity is no real surprise considering the university is well known for its similar approaches to beer and wine. UC Davis’ other most popular course is “Introduction to Beer Brewing”, with classroom and laboratory components similar to the coffee course. The latter are conducted in the August A. Busch III Brewing & Food Science Laboratory, which houses a moderate-size brewery donated by Anheuser-Busch in 2006.

UC Davis also has programs in viticulture and enology. California winemaker Robert Mondavi has partnered with the school to support programs within the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine & Food Science. The campus has the first-ever LEED-certified winery.

Aside from UC Davis’ unique academic take on agriculture, there are widespread trends happening in the greater coffee industry behind the popularity of UC Davis’ coffee course. In fact, these industry-wide forces are largely responsible for the growing number of coffee courses, programs and centres at universities across the country.

Just four days before UC Davis officially announced plans for its Coffee Centre, Texas A&M announced its own Centre for Coffee Research & Education. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt’s Institute for Coffee Studies (ICS) has been around for nearly two decades.

As coffee continues to increase in popularity and demand continues to outstrip supply – 2016 marked the third straight year of deficit – interest in all aspects of coffee is expanding.

“The upscale coffee market is booming so coffee is very much a hot topic these days,” says Edward Fischer, Director at ICS, and so “universities are a natural demographic for coffee. It’s something that both students and professors are interested in, and it is a great topic of research with so many different facets.”

Fischer and other coffee professors attribute this increased interest in coffee, both in consumption and in research, to the third wave’s move toward coffee as an artisanal beverage versus coffee as a commodity. With a greater focus on premium and single-origin varieties, ethically sourced beans, superior flavour profiles, intimate experiences and more, coffee consumers and producers alike are investing in every step of the supply chain.

“There has been an explosion of coffee initiatives at universities in the past few years in line with the rise of the third wave of coffee,” explains Fischer, noting a similar trend during the second wave. “The whole fair-trade movement was the focus of a lot of academic interest during the second wave, while the third wave has been really interesting for the work on rare breeds and odd flavours.”

A social enterprise
ICS is one of the pioneers in the coffee university space, having started in 1999 by Dr. Peter Martin with funding from a consortium of coffee-producing countries’ associations and a couple of the industry’s major players. At the time, its focus was on coffee’s health benefits. In 2007, when funding for that project ran out, ICS shifted from operating under the School of Medicine to the university at large. The institute is now housed within the Centre of Latin American Studies, but is also integrated with anthropology, economics and business faculties. The move allowed ICS to broaden its research to the entire supply chain.

“We have a strong program in social enterprise, looking at producer countries and the impact of changes in the industry,” Fischer tells Global Coffee Report. “Our focus is very different from Texas A&M’s and UC Davis’.”

Similar to Vanderbilt, Texas A&M’s coffee program stemmed from an initiative different to what it is known for today. Starting as early as 2010, what’s now well-known across the industry as World Coffee Research (WCR) was operating quietly as the Global Coffee Quality Research

Initiative, in partnership with the French Agriculture Resources Centre for International Development and The Borlaug Institute at Texas A&M.

After two years of fundraising, World Coffee Research launched out of those efforts, remaining housed at the university under scientist Timothy Schilling’s leadership.

Prior to founding WCR, Schilling led two programs in Rwanda, helping rebuild its coffee sector as the country recovered from genocide. “In that work, Tim saw that there was a great need for coffee research,” explains Leonardo Lombardini, Director of A&M’s current Centre for Coffee Research & Education. “At that time, you could count on one hand the number of organisations dedicated to coffee research around the world.”

At about the same time, Central and South America were reporting the first instances of what would become the coffee leaf rust epidemic. In response, Schilling and the Borlaug Institute organised the first Coffee Leaf Rust Summit in Guatemala and WCR launched its global coffee breeding program for rust-resistant and climate-resilient plant varieties.

Lombardini cites that work as one of the nonprofit’s first biggest successes. “WCR is a product of the coffee leaf rust crisis,” he tells GCR. “It was a wake-up call because not many people were working on research for coffee” – a scenario that has long been the case as the “orphan crop” has long been neglected in research and innovation.

When Schilling retired from A&M in 2015, WCR spun off into an independent nonprofit. Meanwhile, explains Lombardini, “we had coffee research programs at the university that we wanted to continue and we’re one of the biggest agriculture universities in the country, so we decided the best way for us to continue as well was to build a centre, which received initial support from WCR itself”.

“We can’t forget that coffee has tremendous potential as a developmental tool,” he adds, referencing Schilling’s work in Rwanda. “We can use [our expertise in] agriculture to help farmers have better lives and help alleviate poverty around the world, which was Norman Borlaug’s mission. WCR came out of that idea, and we have that as well, which we try to achieve while ensuring the advancement of coffee science.”

Coffee education

A vast network
Instead of the preharvest studies Vanderbilt and Texas A&M are focusing on, UC Davis is dedicating its efforts to postharvest and processing. The university is currently building “the world’s first academic research centre focused on postharvest coffee”, says Ristenpart, Director of UC Davis’ Coffee Centre.

To renovate the preexisting 1800-square-metre building, UC Davis has been “partnering with a broad range of coffee companies and organisations to represent the entire coffee industry”, he says. “The Specialty Coffee Association has been extremely helpful in making connections and Peet’s Coffee made a founding gift to fund the Peet’s Coffee Pilot Roastery”. Other plans for the state-of-the-art centre include an experimental green bean storage facility, an advanced cold brew and coffee packaging facility, a sensory and cupping lab, an advanced coffee analytical lab, an espresso and brewing lab, a custom water-quality facility, and supporting office, classroom and meeting spaces.

Similar to the extensive programs UC Davis has for wine and beer, the main goal for the Coffee Centre is to facilitate undergraduate- and graduate-level education, as well as technical courses and gatherings for the coffee industry. “We want to do for coffee what UC Davis has done for wine and beer,” Ristenpart tells GCR, “including developing a Masters of Coffee Science.”

Though in a much different capacity, Peet’s Coffee is also supporting sister school UC Berkeley through a US$8 million, 10-year commitment to support campus and educational programming, in addition to fulfilling the university’s coffee needs. Funds from the partnership will support a basic-needs skills course, scholarship opportunities, community outreach efforts, the student-led Building Sustainability@Cal Program and work-study and internship opportunities.

“All of these pieces came from the students,” says Amy Garner, Director of Project Affairs at UC Berkeley. “They helped really shake this deal out and say ‘this is what’s important to us’.”

Adds Program Executive Director Solly Fulp, “some of the same people who have a loyalty to their coffee brands have a loyalty to their universities. There was a lot of passion and allegiance felt through the entire process”.

Peet’s Coffee was actually founded in Berkeley 51 years ago, but that isn’t why the Bay Area-based coffee giant won the bid. “We had a dedicated working group and a very thorough process for identifying the right partner out of the nine coffee companies that submitted bids,” explains Fulp. Peet’s ended up winning due to its high level of brand connection and alignment and commitment to the university and overall community.


A global matter
“There are some fantastic university-level programs for coffee in other parts of the world, but it’s great to see [more] top-notch US universities in the game,” says WCR Communications Director Hanna Neuschwander. One of those international coffee schools is illycaffé’s acclaimed Universitá del Caffé at the company’s headquarters in Trieste, Italy.

Although initial research and education efforts date back to the late 1980s when illycaffé had agronomists in the fields working directly with farmers, it wasn’t until 1999 that the Universitá del Caffé expanded to meet the needs of professionals and coffee lovers. “We had prepared courses for farmers, teaching them practices of sustainability, but then we saw an opportunity to address the entire supply chain,” says Mark Romano, Senior Vice President of Education, Quality and Sustainability for illycaffé North America. “It became necessary to educate and train the entire trade.”

illycaffé has welcomed nearly 200,000 students at the Trieste location and opened 25 branches around the world, including in New York City at the International Culinary Centre in 2008, and in Napa Valley, California, at the Culinary Institute of America in 2009. In 2010, the Universitá del Caffé introduced its Master’s in Economics and Coffee Sciences – “the only one that exists worldwide,” Romano says. “It has attracted diverse people from all over the world who can then take their education back to improve the industry, whether on a family farm or as a café owner.” The inspiration behind the Master’s program – and really the entire illycaffé university project – was a combination of “the dream of Dr Ernesto Illy and the need for longer-term coffee sustainability”, he tells GCR, citing increasing global consumption and “the idea that we might not be able to meet coffee demand of the future”.

So when it comes to the recent proliferation of coffee programs, centres and research initiatives at US universities: “any investment in improving coffee at origin is just one necessary step in a longer-term trend”, he says. “The culture of coffee is so strong so how can we expand it? We have to rally the industry and its consumers.”

Understandably, the other experts echo his sentiments. “We want to disseminate the culture of coffee, starting with students here,” Lombardini says. “We also want to understand the science of coffee and make it accessible to producers.”

“A lot of people don’t realise what’s at the other end of the supply chain when they’re consuming coffee,” says Fischer. “So it’s important for us to reveal those links and make them clearer.”

Adds Neuschwander: “As more dedicated coffee programs start up, we hope to see many more researchers working on solving coffee problems in the future. Coffee needs more research – period – so the more the merrier.” GCR

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