I’ve had a long, strange history with academics. Before succumbing to the dark side of money-plundering dot-com entrepreneurs, I worked in scientific research labs at The Johns Hopkins University and at Stanford University. It was also a joint graduate PhD program in bioengineering at UC Berkeley/UCSF, with a focus on neuroscience, that first brought me out to the SF Bay Area some 25 years ago.

Thus the idea of academia is something I know well, albeit with ambivalent feelings. For me, there’s always been an inherent conflict between the practicality of “real world” grounding and the legitimate need to follow intellectual pursuits to advance any field of interest — whether that be neuroscience or coffee — even at the risk of building ivory towers.

The University of Coffee in Trieste, ItalyThat people in the coffee industry today swear by using measuring scales, monitor things like total dissolved solids (TDS), and continually experiment with this pressure control or that pre-infusion time are all baby-step examples of the need for an academic approach — the building of a more comprehensive coffee science, as it were.

UC Davis Coffee Center

And yet while you can earn a PhD in Coffee Science from the University of Trieste (Italy) studying the scientific papers of Ernesto Illy, in America you can’t even earn so much as a bachelor’s degree in the field. So it’s with encouragement that we read yesterday’s announcement: UC Davis establishes center for coffee science study center; possible major to follow – Our Region – The Sacramento Bee.

UC Davis Coffee Conference - March 11, 2014If you don’t know UC Davis, they are an amazing ag (and veterinary) school. As just a personal example, a fellow Chicago native and husband of a lifelong close friend of the family, Chris Carpenter, moved from Chicago to Napa years ago to earn a masters in Horticulture from the viticulture and enology (i.e., wine) department at UC Davis. He’s now earning 100-point scores as a winemaker and recently served four years as chairman of the board for Slow Food USA. If you can judge an academic program based on the success of its graduates, and you should, UC Davis is no slouch when it comes to food and drink.

UC Davis just formally announced their Coffee Center and their first Coffee Center Research Conference, which will take place this coming Tuesday, March 11. All initial steps, but definitely promising steps in the right direction. Unlike their world-famous viticulture program, for example, the question still remains whether such an ambitious scientific initiative can truly thrive so far from origin for an ag school — rather than in a place like Kona, Hawaii. Greenhouse coffee can only go so far in vitro.

Much of their conference agenda, like their Coffee Center, seems focused on the microbiology of coffee. However, there are also talks on coffee genetics and sensory evaluation — the latter naturally tapping into the university’s expertise on the subject in the wine world.

TED 2014 Coffee Service

Coincidentally, a little over a week from now the 2014 TED Conference will take place in Vancouver, and there promises to be continued servicing of TED attendees by various luminaries of the professional coffee world. Recall that an invitation from TED is what inspired the now-defunct Coffee Common.

TED 2014TED fashions itself as a sort of intellectual gathering of big minds and big ideas for the betterment of the world. Sounds great for the academic and scientific advancement of good coffee, right? But if you thought I’d be a fan of TED, you could not be more wrong.

Fortunately I was able to attend a past TED conference on the tab of an ambitious dot-com entrepreneur rather than having to fork over the $7,500 hazing price myself. (I.e., “Your hedge fund must be this large to ride this attraction.”) TED has done an amazing job of marketing and self-promotion, and I felt I should have every reason to support TED and its aims on the surface. But I found the TED event and organization to be intellectually shallow and ethically dishonest.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, famed author of The Black Swan, once famously called TED a “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.” Part of that is the event’s general preference for infotainment over substance, as exemplified in its famous 18-minute videos that run like infographics set to moving pictures — optimized for people who prefer to be entertained rather than informed.

How most TED attendees view its coffee serviceMore objectionable to me were many of the event attendees themselves. They seemed fixated more on asserting or reaffirming their own special status in the world by the company they keep — or, perhaps as Mr. Taleb would put it, by those circus performers they invite to entertain them. Imagine The Great Gatsby, but with ostentatious material wealth replaced by grand displays of intellectual vanity.

The professionals of the coffee world are some amazing, impassioned, bright people capable of making their own brave decisions of free will. Yet I cannot help but feel that TED has cynically invited many of them merely to exploit for a premium event coffee service, helping the world of TED to maintain their personal façade of elitism in the process. I wish the best for the attending coffee pros and only hope they come out unscathed, unlike myself.

The Stanford Coffee Symposium

Location of the 2014 Stanford Coffee SymposiumMuch closer to home, about a year ago Stanford University Professor of Biology, Virginia Walbott, approached me to help co-organize a Stanford Coffee Symposium to be held in the spring of 2014. Prof. Walbott organized a similar, highly successful event for chocolate in May of 2011, tapping into both the university (Depts. of Biology, Latin American Studies, Economics, etc.) and industry (Scharffen Berger, Monique’s Chocolates, etc.).

Our goal for the event is to balance some higher-minded academics with a practical, consumer-friendly grounding in what makes coffee enjoyable and fun. (Read: check your self-congratulatory intellectual elitism at the door!) To be held Saturday, May 3 at the Cubberley Building of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Stanford Continuing Studies just published its course catalog entry last week:

WSP 172 – Coffee: From Tree to Beans to Brew and Everything in Between
https://continuingstudies.stanford.edu/courses/course.php?cid=20133_WSP+172

Registration is now open at $195 per student with a deadline of April 26. The featured speakers and topics thus far are as follows:

  • From Tree to Bean to CupJames Freeman – Founder and CEO, Blue Bottle Coffee [see their blog post]
  • The History of Coffee – Denise Gigante – Professor of English, Stanford
    How to Evaluate Coffee Flavors (includes a tasting session) – Richard Sandlin – Fair Trade USA (SCAA cupping trainer ninja and co-founder of the Bay Area Coffee Community, I might add)
  • Caffeine and Health: Myths and Mysteries – Christopher D. Gardner – Professor, Stanford School of Medicine
  • Colombian Coffee Landscapes – Eric Lambin – George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor, Stanford Department of Earth System Science; Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment
  • Coffee in Veracruz: Linking Quality of Coffee to Quality of Life – Madeline R. Weeks – Fulbright-García Robles Scholar
  • Fair Trade and Sustainability – Christopher Bacon – Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University
  • Coffee Genome and Defense Against Pathogens – Lukas A. Mueller – Assistant Professor, Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Cornell
  • Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Costa Rica – Chase D. Mendenhall and Daniel Karp – Department of Biology, Stanford

In addition to the planned talks there will be various Bay Area coffee vendors and an interactive tasting session. My current challenge? Following a location visit last Tuesday, I’m now working with the university to get sufficient power into the 1938 building to run sufficient numbers of espresso machines and grinders.

That said, I’m genuinely excited about the event and hope many of you will be too.



UPDATE: April 6, 2014
The Sacramento Bee featured some of the research coming out of the UC Davis Coffee Center: UC Davis geneticist tries to build a better cup of coffee – Food & Drink – The Sacramento Bee.