At one time, food chemist Sichaya Sittipod paid little mind to what was in her coffee cup.
“I would just go to Starbucks and get the same thing,” she said. “I’m much more in tune to the different flavors and the small nuances now.”
The fourth-year doctoral student in food science at Ohio State University uses the chemical makeup of green coffee beans to predict their flavor when brewed into coffee.
It's possible, she said, to read a bean's composition like a book and learn what chemical markers correlate with, say, bitter, sweet, fresh or fruity flavors.
“It’s not just aroma; it’s not just taste,” Sittipod said. “It’s a nuanced combination.
“We get a chemical fingerprint off each of these beans.”
The chemical identity of specialty coffee beans also can predict the score of a coffee's grade on the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s 100-point “cupping" scale.
Wyatt Burk, owner of the Bitter Barista and Little Ghost Coffee Roaster in Columbus, Ohio, is a trained and certified professional cupper.
To maintain consistent grading, the association lays out specific guidelines for cuppers about the “golden” grounds-to-water ratio to use, how best to sip, and the ideal temperature and timing for roasting, brewing and sampling the coffee.
Cupping is one of many measures used to grade a coffee's sweetness, body, cleanness, acidity flavor and fragrance, said Burk, who uses it regularly to experiment with new roasts.
“If you were trying to develop a new cookie recipe, you’d try out new recipes and tweak it every time,” he said. “It’s the same with coffee.”
Through her research, Sittipod said she has learned to consider how different techniques — French press, drip, espresso, for example — achieve different flavors.
“That’s something you can play around with,” she said.
Burk said Columbus, Ohio, coffee drinkers have, in the past decade, begun to understand and appreciate the chemical complexity of a cup of joe.
The optimally roasted bean, ground to an ideal size and steeped in water of a certain temperature for a specific number of minutes, is as special as any high- falutin craft cocktail, he said.
“We view coffee as a beverage, not a drink,” Burk said. “You ingest it anywhere.
“You can’t drive around and sip on a cocktail. That’s the difference. But there is a growing appreciation."
— Marion Renault explores the science of food in her monthly Matters of Taste column for The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @MarionRenault on Twitter.