Thirst for knowledge: Blending coffee and Science in DLSU’s new elective

Like in many other countries, coffee is one of the most popular drinks among Filipinos, creating and sustaining the country’s coffee plantation industry. Before plummeting to 110th, the Philippines was once the world’s fourth largest coffee bean exporter. Various local efforts have been enacted to revive the industry plagued by coffee rust—caused by a fast-spreading fungus that infects leaves and degrades coffee plants’ yields.

Behind what may seem like a quickly-prepared beverage lie the intricacies of transforming bean to brew. To appreciate and understand this complexity, and to move beyond being a mere consumer of the beverage, the University’s new Coffee Science elective holds exciting promise, set to be offered by the Chemistry Department in Academic Year 2020-2021. Open for students of all colleges, the course envisions to ignite interest in Science and impart more knowledge on the country’s coffee scene.

‘First multidisciplinary elective’

After years of writing research papers about coffee and realizing that the laboratory apparatus used in the University could be utilized in making coffee, Chemistry Department Associate Professor and La Salle Food and Water Institute Director Dr. Emmanuel Garcia presented the idea for the elective to his department in a regular meeting in 2019.

“It was a welcome proposal for the members of the department,” he relays, noting that the elective could “stimulate interest” for their new major program offering—Bachelor of Science in Chemistry major in Food Science. According to Garcia, only one question was asked during his presentation: “Gaano karami ang kayang magturo ng course nayan?”

(How many are capable of teaching that course?)

Fortunately, he knew faculty members from the other colleges who would be able to teach Coffee Science. This will be beneficial as the topic can be examined through the perspective of other fields, but to ensure that the assigned faculty are fully equipped to teach the lessons, including the scientific aspects, the department will also be hosting workshops for them.

“This will be very unique for the Chemistry Department as it would be its first and so far only [real-life], context-based, and truly multidisciplinary elective,” Garcia states. Besides Chemistry and Biology, the Physics, Economics, Data Science, and Geopolitics of coffee, among others, will also be included as supplementary topics. These topics will be “stitched into discussions where they are most relevant and not just trivial information,” he says.

Garcia notes, however, the lack of laboratories limits the number of sections to a maximum of eight with 25 students each class per term.

Science of coffee

According to Garcia, 80 percent of coffee’s flavor comes from aromatic compounds that are involved in different chemical reactions. This, he says, is only one of the many subtleties in coffee-making that people tend to overlook and that the elective aims to bring to light.

From planting and harvesting seeds to procuring the beverage, the process requires years of “rigorous hard work and maintenance”, which could easily go down the drain if even at least a part of the process does not go well.

Through the new elective, Garcia hopes to streamline the whole process starting from the fundamentals. It may cover kinetics of brewing coffee: how factors such as the particle size distribution or grind size, temperature, and water-to-coffee ratio, among others, affect the coffee blend’s taste, smoothness, and overall quality.

Even a seemingly small aspect like temperature, for example, is complex enough to be a main topic. Garcia explains that “the perfect amount [of moisture] is important to be able to deliver the heat uniformly throughout the bean.” Indeed, in drawing out certain flavors, there is much more to just putting the coffee beans in a hot container until they are “cooked”.

The bigger picture

Although not a requisite per se, an enthusiasm for coffee may help encourage individuals to pursue the course, Garcia recognizes, pointing out that using coffee to contextualize Science makes it “relatable, easier to recall, and easier to foster a greater appreciation for Science.”

After all, one does not need to be a scientist or even a coffee aficionado to appreciate coffee, it being a staple drink of many a working adult or diligent college student; yet this casual interest can be enough to propel one into exploring the Science behind the beverage and its many blends.

“[The elective promotes] Science appreciation and Science literacy [toward] the further development of critical thinking skills framed in a systems thinking approach,” he elaborates. “I want people to see and, in the case of students who [will enroll] in this course, experience how we should view things in the world today when making decisions—mundane or profound.”

For Garcia, “an enthusiasm [for] finding ways to contribute in addressing the world’s problems, issues, and concerns, and seeing how one’s chosen field connects with others,” would be essential in cultivating one’s appetite for Coffee Science and Science as
a whole.

By Kenneth Edward Tan

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