Published Monday, December 27, 1999
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Java junkie has nose for coveted beans
Davidson student convinced research will yield perfect cup
By BILL GIDUZ
Special To The Observer
For the past four years, Davidson student Michael Griffin has
pursued an insatiable curiosity about coffee with the passion of
a connoisseur and discipline of a scientist.
Some of his friends claim he's gone too far.
His student apartment is equipped with "a few grand"
worth of the very finest grinders, stainless steel milk pitchers
and espresso machines in the world. He wants more, too.
"My mom won't let me, but I want to sell my car to buy
an espresso roaster," Griffin said. "They start around
$5,000 I think it's perfectly reasonable, though. I'd save a lot
on car insurance."
He also stores about 30pounds of green, unroasted coffee
beans, bagged by the pound and labeled to the very plantation
from which they originated in a dozen or so countries around the
He brews some of those beans in his apartment as espresso or
cappuccino for personal consumption. But he also subjects them
to experimentation in Martin Chemical Laboratory as he seeks to
discover the molecular components of the ultimate bean.
"Research is imperative to the quest for better
coffee," he said.
This undergraduate chemistry major from Los Angeles is
quickly becoming one of the foremost coffee experts in America.
He has read scores of scientific papers about coffee, and spent
the last two years conducting his own experiments in the lab.
He has studied "latte art" from some of America's
foremost experts, or "baristas," learning from them
how to pour heart and rosetta shapes into the steamy foam of a
cappuccino. He also worked for eight months as a barista in a
Charlotte Starbucks, learning firsthand how coffeehouses both
educate consumers and compromise quality for commerce.
Griffin refines his palate by studying a coffee "flavor
wheel" poster that hangs on his wall, and by sniffing a set
of 24 vials of coffee aromas he bought. The most valuable
lessons come from taste-testing brews from different origins
four at a time.
"The key for me was brewing four at a time and comparing
them," he said. "When you do that, you can begin to
discern their different aspects."
He has held several tastings for campus friends, and many
have gained a new appreciation for the common beverage. But
Griffin is wary of serving his friends.
"If you convert them, you have to make them coffee all
the time," he said with a laugh.
Mochas started it all
Griffin grew up in Los Angeles and began drinking cafe mochas at
"I would have started earlier if I had known what I was
getting into," he joked.
He became a serious aficionado of fine coffee in about 1995,
then launched his career as a coffee scientist two years later
when the coffee world was rocked by an amazing crop of Kenyan
The coffee harvested from the Kagumo plantation in 1997
carried an extraordinary amount of "brightness,"
making it a very hot and expensive commodity. Experts speculated
the brightness was a reflection of the phosphoric acid content
of the beans.
Griffin realized the opportunity to contribute meaningfully
to the science of the subject, and decided to initiate his own
experiments on the Kagumo bean's phosphate levels. He proposed
the study to his academic adviser, David Blauch, associate
professor of chemistry, and conducted it in Blauch's class, and
as part of an honors thesis research class.
"It ended up being quite a detailed study of how
phosphate levels vary with roasting levels," Blauch said.
"Michael did a really nice piece of work."
That initial investigation launched Griffin into a frenzy of
scientific experimentation that has continued for almost two
school years and last summer. He is now being funded by the
Specialty Coffee Institute to conduct experiments on coffee
He plans to continue at the graduate level, with the eventual
goal of learning to identify the origin of any coffee based
solely on its chemical components.
"That's never been done," he said, "but it
would allow you to figure out if you're buying what you paid
Griffin learned HTML and established an Internet domain for
an informal organization he calls The Coffee Research Institute
Its Web pages educate the visitor and impress with their
He approaches coffee with a rare combination of enthusiasm
and discipline. Griffin understands there's a proper way to do
everything, and applies that equally to his work in the lab and
in preparing a cup to enjoy. It is just as important to him to
keep his apartment coffee equipment sparkling clean as it is to
maintain his lab apparatus.
Measurement and technique are equally important in preparing
a cup of espresso as they are in preparing coffee grounds to
analyze with a gas chromatograph.
As he roasts, grinds, doses and tamps a shot of espresso, he
describes in fascinating detail the proper method for each step,
and why it is important to the taste of the resulting coffee.
Griffin feels fortunate to live in a time of coffee
renaissance, and is eager to find purpose and meaning in a
career in coffee science. But as much as he loves the lab, he
knows he can't complete his education there.
Long road ahead
Despite his encyclopedic knowledge, he has never visited a
coffee plantation, held a coffee cherry or smelled the fragrant
jasmine aroma of coffee blossoms.
So he wrote a proposal accepted by the college for
presentation to the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. If funded, it
will take him next year to plantations in Brazil, Costa Rica and
Guatemala to learn about coffee from those who plant and
The proposal also involves travel to Italy and Vienna to
study espresso-making in lands where "coffee permeates the
culture and espresso is a national pride."
Griffin recognizes the world of coffee is almost boundless, and
is passionately eager to explore it all. His proposal to the
Watson Foundation concluded: "My journey is only