Dr. Coffee to reveal the secrets of a consistent cup at pub talk

As a scientist who appreciates reproducible results, Christopher Hendon is troubled by the idea that a barista would ever brew a cup of coffee that isn’t perfect every time.

“My biggest nightmare is when you have a great coffee one day and then you come back for another one and it’s not the same,” said Hendon, a professor in the UO Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry who is sometimes referred to as Dr. Coffee. “That idea for a chemist is like, you did the same experiment twice and you failed.”

Reproducibility is just one of the topics that Hendon will be delving into when he delivers a Jan. 9 Quack Chats pub talk on “Coffee: The Chemistry and Physics of Brewing a Perfect Cup.” He will explain everything from how water hardness affects coffee flavor to why you should never freeze your beans without vacuum sealing them first.

Chris Hendon The talk will also feature a complimentary coffee tasting by the Eugene micro-roastery, Tailored Coffee Roasters.

Hendon’s observations on coffee have captured the attention of the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Nature, Science and The Atlantic, which called him “specialty coffee’s resident scientist.” And he literally co-wrote the book on the water chemistry of coffee: “Water for Coffee,” which grew out of Hendon’s collaborations with a champion British barista, Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions, even for people who have been working (in the coffee industry) for a long time, ranging from microbiology problems and how flavors develop in roasts to extraction kinetics,” Hendon said. “The problem of producing more consistently higher-quality coffee is something that academics don’t usually think about, but research in the coffee industry is incredibly valuable.”

If you can make even a minor contribution to the coffee industry — which in the U.S. is a $225-billion-a-year enterprise — you can make a major impact, he said.  

Hendon wasn’t hired by the University of Oregon to study coffee. He’s a computational chemist — think chemistry with computers instead of chemicals — who studies energy storage and conversion and is playing a key role in the UO’s Energy and Sustainable Materials Initiative. As a member of that team, he is building on the UO’s strengths in green chemistry, sustainable materials and renewable energy and searching for innovative ways to make better batteries, solar cells and other forward-thinking products.

Hendon says he loves materials science too much to ever become completely focused on studying coffee, but in hearing him talk about the cryogenics of coffee grinding, the pleasure of a good Panama Geisha or why there is no substitute for a conical or a flat burr grinder, it becomes clear how committed he is to using coffee as a scientific teaching tool. After all, whether you’re talking about coffee or carbon or C8H10N4O2, — that’s caffeine to you and me — many of the same scientific principles are at play.

“It’s partially an academic interest, but it’s more of a teaching tool,” Hendon said. “Students can connect with it really well.”

To leverage that connection, Hendon has a green light to develop a public coffee lab at the UO, which will bring together undergraduate students from a variety of disciplines to work under the direction of graduate students from his lab. He describes it as a cross section of chemistry, physics, biology and even psychology.

“I want undergrads from each of those disciplines to be working on coffee problems,” Hendon said. “Make no mistake, this is real science. I’m excited about what the future holds for coffee science.”

Hendon is a UO Expert in computational chemistry, materials science and energy conversion.

Hendon’s Quack Chats talk will begin at 6 p.m. at the Ax Billy Grill & Sports Bar on the third floor of the Downtown Athletic Club, 999 Willamette St. Admission is free. Food and drinks will be available for purchase.

Quack Chats is a program of University Communications. For more information, see the Quack Chats section on Around the O. A general description of Quack Chats and a calendar of additional Quack Chats and associated public events also can be found on the UO’s Quack Chats website.

By Lewis Taylor, University Communications