World Coffee Research’s pipeline to quality coffee

The global coffee industry is scrambling for solutions, as the negative effects of climate change on coffee production become ever more apparent. But while a lot of these efforts have been focused simply on finding hardier breeds of plant to withstand the harsher conditions brought about by global warming, it seems that often the matter of how to preserve coffee’s quality in the face of changing conditions has been neglected. Until now, that is. A new project by World Coffee Research (WCR) is aiming to create a complete scientific catalogue that captures and records all of the relevant information about a variety of coffee, from data about its cultivation conditions right through to the sensory attributes that it displays. Called the Sensory Pipeline, this process will collect an unprecedented amount of data about each sample of coffee that goes through it, from the altitude of where it was grown right through to a map of the volatile compounds it emits as aroma once it has been roasted. Hanna Neuschwander, Director of Communications for WCR, says that while this project is still in its fledgling, once enough of this type of data has been collected, the potential for its use are unlimited. “We can use the data to speed up the process of creating new varieties, and take quality into account in ways that has never before been possible for coffee breeders. We can determine what the effects of certain processing techniques or different roasting profiles are on flavour. We’ll be able to do things we can’t even imagine right now,” she tells GCR Mag. A key component of the Sensory Pipeline work is a detailed sensory analysis of each coffee sample. “Whenever we take a coffee sample to be analysed for our research, we will roast it to our specifications. Then we will send the roasted sample to the sensory analysis lab at Texas A&M University and they will brew it to specifications, and analyse it using the lexicon, giving them a data-set about the flavours of that sample,” Neuschwander says. At the same time another portion of that same sample will be sent to the Animal Sciences laboratory at Texas A&M University, where it will be subjected to a detailed chemical analysis. Chris Kerth is Associate Professor in Meat Sciences at Texas A&M, and has been working
on this project for WCR. “The main focus is on the end of the pipeline in the supply of unique and well-catalogued genetic and environmental impacts on coffee varieties,” Kerth says. As Kerth describes it, the green beans from these geographically diverse samples of different varietals are shipped to his team for cataloguing and some initial chemical analysis. “We will take samples that will be evaluated by a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer that separates each of the individual aroma chemical compounds and identifies them using well-documented technology,” Kerth says. “We report the volatile aromas that have a distinct aroma and analyze those aroma chemical compounds. This will allow us to develop an ‘aroma fingerprint’ of each of the varietals and identify specifically what compounds are of importance for each treatment combination.” This work is then aligned with the results of the sensory testing to create a complete picture of the composition and attributes of a coffee sample. “The idea is that, once we’ve got a big enough data set for this to work, we can correlate the flavours with the underlying chemistry and aromas, and it is possible that, in the future that we may even be able to correlate those things back to particular genetic markers,” Neuschwander says. Key to the success of this work is the tasting framework provided by WCR’s coffee lexicon. With the lexicon now giving tasters externally verifiable ways to define and measure certain sensory attributes, that information can then be reliably matched against the other data being collected in the sensory pipeline to create a complete picture of where the coffee has come from and what attributes it displays. “It could appear that the lexicon is the culmination of a whole body of work, which in one way it is, but for us it is also the very beginning – it’s a necessary tool that we had to build in order to now use it to do the kind of research that we want to do,” Neuschwander says. “Once you have this tool you can go so much deeper into examining the nuances of where
the quality is coming from, because the tool enables you to quantify the sensory attributes of the coffee, you can then run statistical analyses and comparisons on them.” One of the outcomes of this is a process called product fingerprinting, whereby a map is created of all the flavours that are present in a particular product with the lasting effect being that those flavours can then be replicated later on. “This type of technology is widely used in the food and beverage industry to maintain quality and develop new products,” says Kerth. By having this ‘fingerprint’ it provides a baseline for a particular product and allows for reproduction of that product. “It is also common in the fragrance industry,” Kerth adds. “It is sometimes used to ‘reverse engineer’ a fragrance and offer a less expensive ‘knockoff’ of the original whether fragrance or flavour.” GCR

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