Coffee Scientists From All Over the World Gather in Costa Rica

By Marino Petracco, Senior Research Scientist, illycaffè

We humans are social animals. Actually, our ability to participate in teamwork is one of the main factors that allow humans to command the planet. A primordial example of joining forces to achieve greater purpose might be had by visualizing prehistoric hunters gathering to surround and capture a mammoth, a precious food reserve. In present times, much more sophisticated ways of working together to achieve goals are in place, not excluding the science world. Scientists are often pictured as solitary geniuses, lost in their lofty conjectures, and discoveries are seen as the outcome of personal brilliance. Nothing could be more wrong. Scientific development is often the result of a complex effort performed by a well-coordinated group of brains.

Food science is no exception. People active in this field benefit from getting together, sharing information and discussing leading-edge research avenues. Keeping in mind that our beloved product, coffee, helps millions of families make a living, every instrument to enhance the success of our domain is worth pursuing. This philosophy was the basis of the founding in 1966 of a global organization serving coffee knowledge: the Association for Science and Information on Coffee, or ASIC (formerly known as Association Scientifique Internationale du Café).

ASIC has a long history; it was created more than forty years ago under the aegis of the great French tropical agronomist René Coste and the visionary Italian espresso guru Ernesto Illy. The latter used to express his joy for encouraging so many specialists of various topics as disparate as plant genetics, roasting technology, aroma chemistry, and human nutrition to share a full week of intense interaction: an operation he labeled “intellectual cross-fertilization”. Such interplay is even more likely when happening in remote and secluded venues where jet lag plays a role in making sleepless people hang around in hotel lobbies during the dawning hours, providing an occasion for casual conversations in front of some otherwise unnoticed scientific poster hanging from the wall. This may result in real scientific discoveries, thanks to spontaneous escape from the “official” academic channels.

On a more classic psychological level, listening to the lectures of colleagues who specialize in different branches of science than oneself, as well as tackling areas of knowledge where one is not an expert, is a powerful stimulator and can provide minute details from which new ideas may flourish. One example is the higher attention that plant geneticists are paying to selection criteria different from the obvious traits of vegetative vigor, resistance, and yield. After all, what we are all after is cup quality, are we not? To this perspective, the rise of novel analytical techniques that are able to “drill a hole” into a single roasting bean to capture nuances of aroma dynamics, or methods that evaluate the composition of in-mouth volatiles—the very ones we perceive when enjoying our cup—is a compelling reason why we need to keep up with innovations in roasting, packaging, and brewing technology.

This year, the warm hospitality of Costa Rica, symbolized by the presence of the highest representatives of its government, welcomed over 400 scientists from forty countries during the second week of November to celebrate the twenty-fourthconference of ASIC. This global event takes place every two years, and is hosted each time by a different coffee-interested country: either a tropical farming country, or a nation of enthusiastic coffee consumers. As a matter of fact, nowadays it would be difficult to mention a country that is not coffee-friendly, given the great success that this beverage has all over the world.

While I do not dare describe the beautiful and modern town of San José as a “remote” place, the choice made by ICAFE (the Costa Rican Coffee Promotion and Research Institute, acting as local organizer) to locate the event at a grand hotel surrounded by stroll-preventing highways proved effective in holding people together. Other great get-together activities ranged from impressive receptions where the rich culture and folklore of Costa Rica took the stage, to education-orientated field tours. Visiting farms was a rich opportunity to exchange views and ask questions that, albeit possibly made participants look naïve, enriched understanding and provided for the consideration of different perspectives. Moreover, this experience, beyond the scope of discovering first-hand the magic of nature and of careful coffee agriculture, helps to foster networking. How could one not inquire about his neighbor’s interests and activities while sharing a three-hour bus trip?

One of the important topics discussed during the conference, along with sustainability and related environmental issues, was impending climatic changes. There is a tendency in global warming that cannot be neglected—said ASIC president Andrea Illy—which tends to push coffee growing regions higher and higher. Water management was another important theme discussed, with Costa Rica fostering water saving processes and sound effluent treatment.

A spotlight was directed on health-related topics as well, suggesting once more that a regular coffee consumption habit may exert protective effects on emerging public-health-relevant pathologies such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, another highly engaging topic was chemical analysis developments, which showed how leading-edge techniques can be applied to the understanding of quality by discerning components and ingredients. The number of identified coffee aromas has reached the threshold of one thousand.

The excellence of this successful conference will proceed with the next edition, as ASIC has been invited to celebrate itstwenty-fifth anniversary in 2014 in another outstanding coffee sanctuary: Colombia. Thus, the Association will continue to do its part in assuring a bright future for coffee, stimulating research, and extending knowledge dissemination. The latter applies significantly to less developed countries that depend on coffee as an important export good, where the problem of pests is still a major hindrance to productivity and quality. Several subsidies have been awarded by ASIC to scientists coming from continents other than Latin America to allow their attendance in such a unique forum of confrères. To the benefit of the scientific community interested in learning more about coffee, the full body of proceedings containing lectures and presentations delivered during the first forty five years of ASIC is reachable via the website, www.asic-cafe.org.

Besides being an associational organism where colleagues in science can find an excellent “culture medium” for perfecting and evolving their cognitive processes, ASIC strives to become both a vehicle for sound independent information to media and consumers alike, and a spur to industry to develop more modern and environmentally-conscious production methods, be it in agriculture or in transformation enterprises. Actually, an “osmotic” bidirectional transfer of knowledge happens during conferences, with communications to the scholarly community about what is boiling in private laboratories, and with academic innovations taken on board by industrialists. In spite of all the impressive ways that one has now to gather information, the occasion offered by face-to-face colloquia with peers remains a great approach for opening one’s mind, and possibly to lead him or her away from conventional lines of thought, projecting a clever mind into new territory. Inventions—like laughs—do happen this way. Let us wish Colombia 2014 ASIC good luck and best wishes that this event is an incubator for major steps forward in coffee business and quality.

Since 1986, Marino Petracco has served as Senior Research Scientist at illycaffè, a leading Italian roaster, with main interests in espresso coffee quality: from plant agriculture to industrial processes, to beverage brewing and effects on health. Active internationally, he chairs the European Scientific Committee for Coffee and Human Physiology. He is an author of several books and papers, and a lively multilingual lecturer.

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