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The science of coffee: UC Davis now home to first coffee research center at a U.S. university

UC Davis has only coffee research center on a U.S. college campus
UC Davis has only coffee research center on a U.S. college campus 03:29

DAVIS -- You've heard of college students drinking coffee to study, but what about college students studying coffee? 

Coffee research has thrived in Davis since 2016 through graduate programs on the university's campus. 

Earlier this month, the UC Davis Coffee Center finally opened its own building on campus. It is now the only coffee research center at a university nationwide.

"UC Davis is known throughout the world for its innovation in food and food systems and agriculture. Coffee fits naturally in that. So we are very proud to have the nation's first academic center focused on coffee," said Bill Ristenpart, founding director of the Coffee Center. 

UC Davis has led graduate-level research for years and also offers an undergraduate course on the design of coffee, which more than 2,000 students have taken this year alone. 

"The goal is to do for coffee what UC Davis has already done for wine and for beer, which is to help elevate our state of knowledge about coffee, to help create an academic talent pipeline to serve the coffee industry and help make coffee better," Ristenpart said. "Not only for the people who consume it here in the United States but for the millions of people around the world whose livelihood depends on growing and producing coffee."

The Coffee Center is home to state-of-the-art technology allowing graduate researchers and faculty of many different fields to engage in innovative study on the science of coffee itself. 

Irwin Donis Gonzalez, co-director of the Coffee Center, showed CBS13 the Green Bean room, home to the coffee beans stored and studied at the center. 

Most all coffee beans are green or golden in color before they are roasted to give the desired flavor. At the center, this room is where their research starts. 

"What are the storage conditions that can better keep the quality of the coffee?" Gonzalez asked. "We cannot improve the quality, but can maintain the quality we are obtaining from the field."

That is the main goal of what is researched in this room: the exact science of how to store each batch to preserve its true character. 

Gonzalez said they use environmental chambers to do just that. 

"We can very accurately control the relative humidity and the temperature," Gonzalez said. 

The transformation process for those beans starts in the roastery where they're loaded into an oven-like spinning machine where every single variable matters. 

"We are heating at 37%. Our exhaust temperature is at 391 degrees," said head roaster Tim Styczynski, tweaking the exact measurements for a batch of beans in the roaster. 

The beans are heated up and dried out, and the exact formula used each time impacts the roast: for example, more heat and more time in the machine means a darker roast. 

They can also tweak certain inputs to generate a more sweet or sour roast. 

"As we are monitoring the bean temperature, I am looking to see if there's any hips or valleys. I don't want to mess it up. It has to be just right," said Styczynski. 

After the beans roast, they cool for about three minutes in a machine that spins them in the open air. 

"It cools the coffee down and stops the roasting process," said Styczynski. 

After cooling, they can then be bagged up and will eventually be analyzed bean by bean in the center's science lab. 

"It's as easy as snapping a photo just like this," said Keegan Thompson, an undergraduate communications student doing marketing for Roast Pic.  

Roast Pic is an app that was developed by students at the UC Davis Coffee Center. The technology scans the photo of the beans and identifies any inconsistencies or imperfections as well as general information about each bean and its roast. 

"It's making sure you are having a reliable product shipped out, making sure your coffee is going to be brewed the same every single time," said Thompson. 

The coffee beans will then be brewed at the center using exact temperatures, ratios and more to perfect the desired cup. 

"Every coffee has its own recipe, and even throughout the day as humidity changes and barometric pressure changes, they all have an effect on brewing a great cup of espresso," Styczynski said. 

The espresso is then served up for a sample in the sensory tasting booth where researchers study how people perceive each sip. 

The booth's red light masks the coffee's color. This forces whoever is tasting the coffee to ignore its color and focus only on its flavor when giving their opinion. 

"A coffee that looks darker or lighter could give people preconceived notions on how a coffee would turn out," said graduate student researcher Lik Xian Lim. "My main interest is really understanding consumer preferences in terms of how people like coffee differently and their perception of it to answer different questions. Why do they actually like coffee?" 

The goal of the Coffee Center is to grow and nurture the coffee industry. Leaders hope to one day offer a graduate degree in coffee science. 

Their work is made possible thanks to generous donations from community partners. The center's building was paid for privately, with no tuition dollars or tax dollars used. 

To learn more about the center and its research, visit its website.

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