Coffee Better Understood

A competitor prepares coffee during the El Salvador National Barista Championship at a mall in San Salvador

STR New / Reuters

From the Atlantic, where some of (but not all) our favorite coffee stories have come from in the past, we have this new item to share:

Specialty Coffee’s Resident Scientist

A computational chemist is changing the way coffee makers think about water.

by Sarah Kollmorgen

Wherever he goes, Christopher H. Hendon brings a homemade supply of powdery white chemicals. Made from coral-reef care sets, the little bottles and plastic bags may raise some TSA eyebrows, but they serve a perfectly innocent purpose. The substances comprise his personal water filtration titration kit.

“Who travels with this much white powder?” Hendon says with a laugh. His duffel currently contains several compounds including calcium chloride, magnesium sulfate, and potassium bicarbonate. These mixtures help detect the invisible chemicals present in a glass of water, he explains. Using them, Hendon can determine how hard the water is in any geographical area, based on the minerals it contains.

This information is especially important, it turns out, for those who are particular about how their coffee tastes. In 2014, Hendon published a paper in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry on how water hardness affects coffee flavor. What he found was that hard water contains compounds that can be “sticky” and attach to flavorful elements in roasted coffee beans during the brewing process. Hard water with high levels of magnesium, for example, might pull more flavor out of a coffee bean.

Soft or distilled water, conversely, has a chemical composition that does the opposite—and is actually bad at attaching to and “extracting” those aromatic coffee compounds.  This is one of the reasons why beans brewed in one part of the country might taste differently when brewed the same way in another state.

Hendon is currently completing his post-doctoral work at MIT as a computational chemist and plans on continuing his foray into coffee research. In addition to his analysis on water, he’s recently published a paper on how temperature affects the coffee grinding process. According to Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, an award-winning barista that Hendon has collaborated with, he’s well on his way to becoming the resident scientist for the specialty coffee community—a field which until recently, has largely lacked the scientific grounding that’s been present in other food industries.

Hendon’s interest in coffee began in 2012, while he was working on his chemistry Ph.D. in Bath, England. Fed up with his roommate’s “dreadful” homebrew, a quick Google search for “good coffee” led Hendon to an independent specialty shop in London named Colonna & Smalls. There, he met Colonna-Dashwood, the co-owner of the store, whom he’d later learn was a U.K. Barista Champion and a World Barista Championship finalist…

Read the whole article here.

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