One of life's simple pleasures is really quite complicated

THE COMPLEXITY OF

OFFEE
By Ernesto Illy Photographs by Tina West

F
or sheer sensory enjoyment, few everyday experiences can Coffee cultivation entails myriad variables that must be moni-
compete with a good cup of coffee. The alluring aroma of tored and regulated. Once a coffee bean is grown, nothing can
steaming hot coffee just brewed from freshly roasted be added or removed: the quality must already be present. For
beans can drag sleepers from bed and pedestrians into cafés. a single portion of espresso, 50 to 55 roasted coffee beans are
And many millions worldwide would find getting through the required; a single irnperfect bean will taint the whole sufficiently
da y difficult without the jolt of mental clarity imparted by the to be noticeable. This is because human olfaction and taste
caffeine in coffee. But underlying this seemingly commonplace senses originated as defense mechanisms that protected our an-
beverage is a profound chemical complexity. Without a deep cestors from rotten-hence, unhealthy-foods. Only through
understanding of how the vagaries of bean production, roast- modern technology can one economically and consistently
ing and preparation minutely affect the hundreds of com- identify 50 ~early perfect beans.
pounds that define coffee's flavor, aroma and body, a quality
cup would be an infrequent and random occurrence. Growing Coffee
Connoisseurs agree that the quintessential expression of RA w COFFEE BEANS are the seeds of plants belonging to the
coffee is espresso: that diminutive heavy china cup half-filled Rubiaceae family, which comprises at least 66 species of the
with a dark, opaque brew topped by a velvety thick, reddish- genus Coffea. The two species that are commercially exploit-
brown froth called crema. Composed of tiny gas bubbles en- ed are Coffea arabica, which accounts for two thirds of world
cased in thin films, the surprisingly persistent crema locks in the production, and C. canephora, often called robusta coffee, with
coffee's distinctive flavors and a~mas and much of its heat as one third of global output. Robusta coffee plants and all wild
well. Espresso-the word refers toa serving made on request coffee species have 22 chromosomes, whereas arabica has 44.
expressly for the occasion-is brewed by rapidly percolating a Therefore, arabica and other coffee species cannot be crossed
small quantity of pressurized, heated water through a com- to produce a hybrid plant.
pressed cake of fine! y ground roasted coffee. The resulting con- Robusta is a high-yielding and disease-resistant tree stand-
centrated liquor contains not only soluble solids but also a di- ing up to 12 meters tall that grows best in warm, hurnid dimes.
verse array of aromatic substances in a dispersed emulsion of It produces a cup featuring substantial body, a relatively harsh,
tiny oil droplets, which together give espresso its uniquely rich earthy aroma, andan elevated caffeine content that ranges from
taste, smell and "mouthfeel." 2.4 to 2.8 percent by weight. Although robusta is sold by many
Aficionados consider perfectly brewed espresso to be the ul- purveyors, it does not give rise to the highest-quality coffee.
timate in' coffee beca use its special preparation amplifies and Arabica, which originated in the Ethiopian highlands, is a
exhibits the inherent characteristics of the beans. Espresso is medium- to low-yielding, rather delicate tree from five to six
useful for our purposes as it is in effect a distillation of all the meters tall that requires a temperate climate and considerable
numerous techniques by which coffee can be made, including growing care. Commercially grown coffee bushes are pruned
the Turkish method and various infusion and filter drip pro- to a height of 1.5 to 2.0 meters. Coffee made from arabica
cesses [see box on page 77 for descriptions of alternative cof- beans has an intense, intricate aroma that can be reminiscent of
fee-preparation methods]. To know espresso is to know cof- flowers, fruit, honey, chocolate, caramel or toasted bread. Its
fee in all its forms. caffeine content never exceeds 1.5 percent by weight. Beca use
High-quality coffee arises from maintaining close control of its superior quality and taste, arabica sells for a higher price
over a multitude of factors in the field, in the plant and in the cup. than its hardy, rougher cousin.

72 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN JUNE 2002

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composed of cells with uncommonly goal of either route is the same: the 65 ticated process-control techniques to min. The sorting op- the hu lis and the surrounding parchment coffee bean. The based in Trieste. human hand can match (400 beans a sec- for sorting and bagging. these 30. advanced studies in molecular biology . in which al! the key heat-driven chemical two million illy espressos are served print (yellow-green. In the alternative ducing superior coffee is ensuring that ond) and with a precision that even the approach. A perfect mature green coffee bean is erated from the parchment covering. percent water content of the coffee cher. pulped. thus freeing the beans One of the greatest challenges in pro. these agricultura! and geographical considerations are re- sponsible for the taste differences among the many varieties of coffee beans that suppliers combine to produce the various distinctive blends one can purchase. immature beans feature thinner walls. ltaly . Each cherry contains two oblong seeds-the coffee beans. During roasting. The ultima te quality of the resulting coffee beans depends on the genetics of the plant. Along with the roasting pro- cesses that are applied. the last stages of the ripening process. Producers employ two process- ing methods: sun-drying and washing. a beans. A good rainfall induces arabica coffee plants to blossom. the picker's forefinger and thumb are the best tools to gather just the ripe cherries. Effective sun-drying is accomplished by spreading the cherries out on a patio and stirring the desiccating fruit frequently to evenly heat and aerate it. The dried cher. ductive taste and fragrance. and sorne 210 days af- terward red or yellow fruit called cherries appear. Over matic mapping to genera te a color finger. photo. including ultraviolet fluorescence dom. thick walls: as much as five to seven mi- imize the percentage of defective coffee crons. eration is accomplished ata speed that no membrane !ayer. oration with the English company Sortex Unripe beans also lack the important aro- His goal is to harness science to create is applied as a final control right before ma tic precursor proteins that develop in the truly perfect cup of espresso. and daily temperature fluctuations. llly holds a doc· each lot of beans. most highly trained eye is incapable of. the amount of rain- fall and sunlight. signaling for ries are run through a machine that ry is reduced to the 10 to 12 percent them to be rejected individually with a crushes the hulls and then removes both moisture leve! of a prime raw. Because both flower and fruit can be present simulta- neously on the same branch. and finally dried and lib. such as illycaffe. the fruit is mechanically one starts with exceptional green beans. the soil in which it grows and the filicroclimate. which encompasses fac- tors such as altitude. an exception in the vegetal king- ERNESTO ILL Y is chairman of illycaffe. At illycaffe. Italy. As beans fall into bins. a dichro. Premium producers. puff from an air nozzle. cron-diameter cells serve as tiny reactors that his father founded in 1933. electric cells detect duds.to 40-mi- family business based in Trieste. The cells of torate in chemistry and has completed matic sorting system developed in collab. analysis to spot moldy beans and trichro. 74 SCIENTIFIC AMER I CAN JUNE 2002 . washed. Processing Coffee COFFEE CHERRIES must be processed immediately after harvest to prevent spoilage. red and infrared) of reactions occur that generare coffee's se- every day in ltaly alone. roasting. or green. Stripping en- tire branches by hand or using automat- ed harvesting machines does not discrim- inare between the ripe and the unripe cherries. use many sophis.

The aroma of the roasting. the Cey/on and theír éast /ndían calany of Java. lipids and minerals within ing by gas chro'm atography coupled with negative health effects hove been definitively/inked [se e box on next page]. final result. where one of the plonts thrives. are introduced ta the beverage. which are responsible for severa/ coffee seedlings to his home estates. low roasting temperatures American coffee drinkers consume. lnstead he decides to gíve papal authoríty to coffee. defective • Caffee ranks SECOND ONLY TO PETROLEUI4 in terms constituents by molds or bacteria. bitter. shaped into golf ba/1-size portions.ln Jact. designs the archetype ofthe modern espresso machine. drink caffee every doy. éthiopla ]. Pressure inside each cell in. Di. chemical smell of ro. os o pick-me-up. kíng. Long oanisole (TCA) molecules produce the automatíc espressa machine. characteristic earthy. is the compounds are perceived. creating solo voices of Jessye Norman. ed coffee aromas that ha ve been fraction. procedures applied. H the vol. composition of each odor. vanilla and violets. clties. where éuropean traders. Fermented beans are composed of cells that have been emptied of these crucial er countries in which many consumers can afford only low-priced. Sorne cells eventually burst. peptides and pro. • 3. perfects decaffeinated coffee. a wide variety of low. however. wíth a coffee plant from Java. égypt Simultaneously. The thermodynam. granees evolved during coffee bean roast. the 1690s}. ated by a gas chromatograph is an en. the presence of polyphenols that do not Likewise. cheese.3 (NtNE·OUNCE) CUPS OF COFFEE O doy. the de- Roasting Coffee sirable tastes and aromas flee as well. late. CtRCA 1600 Colling it "the bitter inventian af Sotan. the less desirable the aroma in the U. ization process called Maillard's reaction. 500 The namadic Oramos tribe. and define the smell of each recognizable cajfeinoted coffee. With more than 400 BtLLION cuPS cansumed every year. of a coffee sample are those originating 1727 After having been ca/led to arbitrate a border cording to roasting time. a French naval officer. 1933 Francesco 11/y patents the first ha ve enough time to react properly. O century. Unfortunately. making it low-porosity cell walls and a coating of of 800 singers that includes the strong acceptab/e for Raman Catha/ics. and acidity tends to come to the fore. proteins. oil. the most powerful molecules in the smell is/and of Martinique. Imagine listening to a recording of a choir drink ofthe infidel Ottoman Turks. an /tallan coffee machine maker. coffee bean tend to dominate the ensemble. bean ume of the playback is reduced. residual water in. Sadly. which Molecules such as ethylbutanoate and Outch Guíana and French Guíana. fail to develop fully the welcome aromas. choco- lATE 1400s ro EARLY 1500s Coffee beans. side each cell is converted to steam. caffee is the warld's most popular be ve roge (besides water. methylisoborneol and trichlor. frequently used in poor.C. THE NATIONAL (OFFEE ASSOCIATION IN 2001: process that greatly increases the chemi. 8y 1658 {accarding toso me saurces. Oamoscus and other Near éostern volatile compounds give coffee its famil. teins according toa well-known caramel. creases to as much as 20 to 25 atmo. Mass spectrometry is frequent. particular/y iar fragrance. mixed with Jat and sweet glycosylamine and melanoidins. can last from 90 seconds to as long as 40 beyond a certain point. af caurse]. • Coffee and caffeine hove been the subject of promotes diverse. smuggles requires a great deal of thermal energy. ly then applied to identify the chemical • 1000 B. soup. 1961 érnesto Va/ente oJFaema. from olfactometry. At high heat. in which skilled testers sniff to the moderate consumption (rwo cuPS A DAY] of 185 to 240 degrees Celsius. begínníng with o coffee plont ing coffee. ethylglycolate. complicated chemical Researchers typically analyze the Era. on average. a huge.Jew ars. crushed. on Arobian manopoly. 1723 Gabriel Mathíeu de C/íeu. forces all the off-flavors andEra. the Outch are grawing coffee in volume increases by half or more. 1903 German coffee imponer Ludwig Roselius cup a metallic bitterness stemming from ruin a cup of coffee by their very presence. SURVEY OF ROASTING is a pyrolytic (heat-driven) yielding a rather bitter cup.500 TO 2. Sniffing roast. In the laboratories of illycaffe. roasted coffee can be a gaod so urce of antioxidants. adults {57 14tLLION} drlnk coffee occasionally. living in the klngdom of Kefa {in modern-day The end products are brownish. taste-along with carbon dioxide (up to the aromas of roses. like sauvignon blanc wine but in a con. A short roasting time. com . and so does the from defective beans.S. 3. volatile molecular species. whereas roast. heretofare 12 liters per kilogram of roasted coffee). The higher the final ternperature of Fifty-twa percent of adults {alderthan 18 years] cal complexity of coffee. sugars com.000 A14ERICJo. sweat and even what is and Syria by Muslim pilgrims returningjrom Mecca. abtaíned from Yemen. ed coffee gives rise to more than 800. er-mass aroma tic molecules emerge. Twelve minutes. Luciano 1616 Outch entrepreneurs start ta cultivare coffee the characteristic popping sound of roast. questíonab/e círcumstonces from the Roya/Botanical Gardens on a perilous voyage to the Caribbean traditional duration. Louís XIV. When subjected to the staged heating of a roasting machine (basically.4 bi/lian in exparts in 2000]. With 1. element. Francisco de Me/o Palheta. which AROMA SCIENCE is highly complex. roasting periods. the roasting process luting the aroma of coffee is analogous. mass decreases by a fifth. Smelling Coffee coffee should be promoted to enhance blrd habltots. stronger voices will still be recognizable 1714 The mayar of Amsterdam presents the French Depending on the temperatures and even as the choir's sound fades away. if diluted. Venetians. recent work indicotes that bine with amino acids. Oespite this clase scrutiny.sciam .D. Darjeeling tea. ics of the intracellular reactions differ ac. rninimizes weight loss but imparts to the the unpleasant aroma of irnmature beans. which. centrated sampl~ is disgusting. www. a Portuguese Brazilian official. are brought to Turkey. techni. granees to leave the beans. representlng 107 MtLLION daily drlnkers. • Controversy continues over whether SHAOE·GROWN hot rotating cylinder). eat coffee. • spheres as the steam and carbon dioxide cians focus on the strongest odorants. these called cat scent.NS CONDUCTED BY ACCORDING TOJo. only the strongest carries three coffee seedlings obtained under minutes. During roasting. smells Arabian-influenced coffeehouses apen in Constontinople. dispute between two coffee-growing colon/es. Another 28 percent of green coffee contains sorne 250 different will be and the stronger the bitterness. which give rise to coffee's dominant lightening experience: one may recognize CtRCA 600 Coffee is brought by traders ocross the Red Sea into Arabia {modern-day Yemen].000 PAPERS PUBLISHEO EVERY YEAR on the tapie. advisers urge Pope Clement VIII to reject the favor/te try to escape but are sealed in by the thick. af dallars traded warldwide [abaut $10. extensive scientific study during the post quorter of reactions among the cornucopia of sug. beans. as well as truffles. Conversely. Pavarotti and severa! other virtuosi who commercially. ro A.

espresso is the extraction of the active water passes through a loose aggregation ception threshold to the human olfactory components in the roasted and ground of medium-size coffee grounds. howev. TCA. is placed in a perforated basket cell structure. is shown in an enlarged c91ss Brewing espresso requires specialized section . The compressed Cumulative Chemical Composition of Espresso with lncreasing Extraction Time grounds adhere to one another thanks to THE OVEREXTRACTION of espresso (beyond the recommended 30 seconds) leads to the a thin coating of oil. the water o 10 20 30 40 50 60 temperature too low or the time too Extraction Time [ seconds) short. ethylgujacol 2-ethyl-3. If the color of the foam ¡¡ isovaleraldehyde SWEET u 0. er into a condensed maze of minuscule air -- Compound Aroma passages. o . Experimentation has shown OPTIMAL e 3 1 2. During system is shockingly low-six millionths coffee by heated water. subtly different when making common Rio taste beca use it was first discovered in THE NEXT MAJOR STEP in the trans.6· a rate of around a milliliter a second. probably be- ~ u linalool FLOWERS cause the grind was too coarse. The oil binds the particles togeth- [printed in red) . a skilled barista (coffee bar technician) produces about 30 milliliters --- u b-damascenone TEA of dense coffee liquor covered by the all- e 1 o DMTS SULFUR u important crema. it is likely that Chemical Composition of Raw and Ro asted Arabica Coffee the consistency of the coffee grounds was (percentage of dry matter) too fine or the quantiry of grounds was • Caffeine too large.5· SMOKE coffee grounds must be slightly less than the pressure of the steaming-hot extrac- - 11) 1 c.4-decadienal RANCIO that the hydraulic resistance of this bed of ~ -~ 2.. The percolation process also washes out components present on the surface of the coffee grounds. In contrast. ~ 1 • --- dimethylpyrazine CHOCOLATE Using the recommended 30 seconds e . large quantities of THE CHEMISTRY highly soluble acids and caffeine dissolve into the cup. ground to a fine to mediurn con- aromatic compounds [particles with red borders) and dark fragments of the coffee bean sistency. An overextracted espresso ex- Trigonelline •• hibits either a white froth with large bub. allowing it to flow through at i"' 1 2 2·ethyl·3.5 2. hot be found in corked wines as well.. which is as viscous as incorporation of undesirable and less soluble aromatic compounds into the drink honey.5 UNDEREXTRACTION 1 1 1 OVEREXTRACTION .. Composed mainly oftiny carbon equipment that can heat water to a tem- dioxide and water vapor bubbles [large eire/es) perature of between 92 and 94 degrees e surrounded by surfactant films. which is also called Preparing Coffee er. coffees grown around Rio de Janeiro.4-nonadienal methylsalicilate RANCIO CINNAMON of percolation. boiling water. If the crema is very dark in hue and has a "hole" in the middle. reddish-brown foam that feine to dissolve into the brew. includes emulsified oils containing key Coffee.5 topping is light. The high pressure generated by the espresso J UNE 200 2 .. it means that the espres- e - 11) a·ionone FLOWERS so has been underextracted. -' w Proteins and Ami no Acids bles if the water was too hot or just a "'z ¡¡: < Sugars (mostly z white spot in the center of the cup if the z polysaccharides) •• Acids Lipids Carmelization and brewing time was too long . Its per. most of the soluble sub- stances present in the roasted coffee pass into solution. tops an espresso. the much short- OFCOFFEE er percolation time of espresso allows less acid and only 60 to 70 percent of the caf- CRéMA.. the crema al so and pressurize it to nine atmospheres. the dense. drip coffee than when making espresso.busta coffees. 1 dimethylpyrazine CHOCOLATE tion water.. and firrnly tamped clown to crea te a com- pacted bed of particles. hot water and coffee grounds is. Thus. ~ e 1. The interaction of the tour to six minutes of contact with the of a billionth of a gram per milliliter. can formation of roasted beans into a cup of When filter drip coffee is prepared. including aroma-filled Condensation Products Green Beans (average water content 8%-12%) Roasted Beans (average water content 0%-5%) • Volatile Aromas Minerals (as oxide ash) oil and bits of the cellular structure..

Repeat the process at least two additional times. are less than five microns in size.org our tongues and continues to release the Coffee industry-supplied information on coffee.com SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 77 . all of which Caffeine. gentle bolling receptacles lined with filter paper. R. Academ ic Press. A medium grind should be used of the coffee is desirable when using this method. Clarke andO. Stirthe mixture as boiling water to remove the papery smell. Espresso thus visibly coats lnternational Scientific Association of Coffee: www.OTHER COFFEE-BREWING TECHNIOUES FILTER DRIP METHODS (automatic drip. droplets and so lid fragments. MORE TO EXPLORE The final result is a polyphasic col. sweet brew. R. llli1 which endow the foamy crema with what is called the tiger-skin look. segregating the grounds at the bottom of the pot. Tap the ibrik to reduce the foam extraction levels. sc i am. Then press the wlre-mesh fllter/plunger slowly through machine emulsifies a small amount of the aromatic volatiles dissolved in the emul- A broadcast version oils. A. Castle and in the hot water befo re the grounds are flltered out. French press or plunger pot.1 grama cup. Ca/if. Biochemistry and Production of Beans and Beverage. second. high viscosity and low lnternational Coffee Organization: www. 1985. GEOGRAPHIC [ will a ir May 28 which is derived from gases (especially great taste and aroma of a good espresso CHANNEL onNational carbon dioxide) passing through tiny can be savored for as long as 20 minutes Geographic Today.org www. There are two keys to making superior amounts of pulverized coffee. 1995. Chemex pots).1999). ensure that the it comes to a slow boil.. Clarke and R. water and sugar in a special pot coffee using these processes: first. Melitta. 1-6. Vi ani. The can be controlled by tailoring the quantity of water so that it flows result is a uniquely thick. rinse the paper filter with called an ibrik. Espresso Coffee: The Chemistry of Ouality. drink high body. depending on the desired strength. in which water molecules Coffee: Botany. J . M. Coffee. This apparatus steeps the coffee Adaptedjrom The Great Coffee Book. Edited by S. Elsevier Applied Science. Croom Helm. Unlike other brewing processes. pores in the cell walls. Blackwell Science.coffeescience . loidal character of the dispersion gives the Coffee: Recent Developments. loidal system. 1985.ico. oil K. Willson. These populartechniques employ finely ground coffee in Turklsh method. Pie ase check your locallistings. J. by Timothy J. Coffee and Health. about 0. Vitzthum. Combine Joan Niefsen {Ten Speed Press. remove the ibrik from the heat. which sits directly overthe heat. These NATIONAL of this article the grounds create a fine effervescence. Stop stirring when the powdered coffee no near-boiling-hot brewing water takes no more than four to six longer sticks to a spoon. complex chemistry of coffee to enjoy it. heated water and coarsely ground coffee in the pot and allow it -to infuse from two to flve minutes. beverage. forthe recommended fourto six minutes. caffeine and health: www. As the brew just begins to boil and foam minutes to pass through the grounds. Intact cells in sified oils as long as it remains there.org surface tension. Raven Press. oily flavor/fragrance carriers mean that the . C. llly and R. Mix equal with a reusable gold filter. Sorne very fine after it has been drunk. The brewing time of an automatic drip machine somewhat. Garattini. thereby producing optimal up. N. the a program on the National Geographic grounds can also find their way into the drinker need not know anything about the Channel. Luckily. London.asic-cafe. the infusion. along with cell wall fragments. Macrae. The col. Vo ls. 2001. 1993. Clifford and are bound to the dispersed gas bubbles. Berkefey.