Jobs Full of Awesome: Interview with a Coffee Scientist

Of all the cool-sounding jobs in the world that I am woefully under-qualified for, “coffee scientist” might be my favorite.

And, turns out, it’s a real gig.

Joseph A. Rivera is the founder of a company called Coffee Chemistry (www.coffeechemistry.com), which was launched in 2004 “as the coffee industry’s leading information portal for all aspects on coffee science, chemistry & technology.”

The site regularly posts interesting tidbits — backed by hard research — about the nature of coffee, caffeine, decaf, specialty coffee, and more.

We caught up with Mr. Rivera, who chatted with us about becoming a “coffee scientist,” what exactly that job entails, and offered a few facts that even coffee geeks and enthusiasts might not know.

Osmosis Online: So, how does become a “coffee scientist?”

Joseph Rivera: Well, to be honest I never really planned on becoming a “coffee scientist”, it was simply chance.

In 1998 there was an infamous coffee scandal that sent a huge shock wave throughout the entire specialty coffee industry. At that time one unscrupulous coffee importer in Northern California was allegedly selling fraudulently labeled Panamanian coffee as the highly prized Hawaiian Kona coffee. After months of investigation with U.S. Customs, the importer was eventually found guilty and sent to jail. “How could this have happened?” asked many within in the coffee industry, and “how could we prevent this from ever happening again” was what the industry cried out immediately after the incident.

As luck would have it, I had just graduated from the university and was soon recruited by Specialty Coffee Institute (now CQI) to develop a “Verification of Origin” study. The study, which sought to determine a coffee’s true origin, looked at a number of technical parameters, including DNA analysis, acid content, isotope ratios, and trace minerals as a means of verifying origin. The project was eventually dismissed due to funding, but the experience sent me along a path of unchartered territory and I soon began researching other aspects of coffee science.

Looking back, I have to say that coffee science is a very multidisciplinary field — physics, chemistry, biology and technology were all essential tools in the development of my coffee science career.

OO: What were your duties with the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA)? How does specialty coffee differ from non-specialty coffee?

JR: At the SCAA, my official title for the majority of my career was “Director of Science and Technology.” I essentially took care of what I like to call the three “Cs” — coffee, chemistry and computers. I used my knowledge of chemistry and coffee to help develop and deliver technical training seminars to literally thousands people around the world. I also helped developed a number of training and certification programs that are still in use in the industry today. The other 50% or so of my time was spent managing the information systems for the association.

Specialty coffee differs from non-specialty in that the beans that produced are of much higher quality, either due to additional care the farmer took to separate and process the beans, or simply that the growing conditions produce a beans with better sensorial characteristics.

OO: So how about your new company and new role? Can you describe both?

JR: My first project, coffeechemistry.com, actually began as a hobby back in 2004, but over the years has developed into a credible information portal for the specialty coffee industry. Essentially what we do is provide is technical training, testing and consulting services for the specialty coffee industry. Aside from being the founder, I also spend a lot of time in coffee-producing countries assisting farmers and exporters in maximizing coffee quality for export.

OO: What are your coffee-drinking habits like? Favorite drink? How much? How often?

JR: I’m a coffee junkie, typically downing 4-6 cups of coffee per day! I particularly enjoy the French Press method, perhaps with a medium roasted Kenyan AA coffee, black, no sugar.

OO: Your recent “espresso vs. drip caffeine content” was a great example of how science can clear up misconceptions about coffee. Can you share a fact that might surprise even seasoned coffee nerds?

JR: One thing that may surprise even the nerdiest coffee expert is that coffee is a “drupe.”

With most fruits we typically eat the fleshy (mesocarp) section of the fruit and toss the seed in the middle — think peach, nectarine, etc. But with coffee it is the opposite — we discard the flesh (mesocarp) and consume (after roasting) the seed (bean) sitting inside the fruit. I bet you most people didn’t know that!

OO: If you could recommend a step to getting a better cup of joe, what might you advise?

JR: Proper roasting, and good bean selection. Roasting perhaps plays the most critical to developing a great coffee. Roasted coffee typically does not last more than a week before I discard it. Roast only what you need for the best results.

For more information on CoffeeChemistry.com and Mr. Rivera check out the Web site, or become a fan on Facebook!

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