Davidson Student's Award Should Lead to Better Coffee

Davidson College senior Michael Griffin has received a $22,000 fellowship from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation to pursue his dreams of the perfect cup of espresso coffee around the world.

This coffee connoisseur and scientist has been working for four years in the lab and coffee houses to identify the chemical composition of an ideal espresso. His work has already attracted a great deal of attention from professional coffee manufacturers, who believe that a great cup of espresso is more than a matter of personal taste. "Research is imperative to the quest for better coffee," Griffin stated.

Griffin 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 research on coffee "brightness," which is being published in a scientific report, The Proceedings of the 18th Colloquium of the Association Scientifique Internationale du Café. He has established an authoritative web site about coffee chemistry at www.coffeeresearch.org, and his current chromatographic experiments on coffee acids is being funded by the Specialty Coffee Institute. He recently traveled to San Francisco for the annual conference of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, where he explained his research at a display sponsored by the Specialty Coffee Institute.

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 also stores about 30 pounds of green, unroasted coffee beans, bagged by the pound and labeled carefully to the very plantation from which they originated in a dozen or so countries around the world.

He has studied "latte art," from some of America's foremost "baristas," learning from them how to pour heart and rosetta shapes in the steamy foam of a cappuccino. Griffin refines his palate by studying a coffee "flavor wheel," and by sniffing vials of coffee aromas.

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. "There are at least 30 variables that affect coffee taste," he concludes. "If you're not precise in your brewing methods, you'll never be able to isolate those factors that change the taste."

The Watson Foundation Fellowship will finance Griffin's proposal to travel during the coming year to Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Italy, and Austria for further study about coffee cultivation and brewing it as espresso. In Italy he will visit companies that produce espresso machines, attend a coffee science conference in Trieste, and spend six months learning regional traditions of brewing espresso from local baristas. His travels to Brazil, Guatemala, and Costa Rica begin this summer, and are timed to coincide with the coffee harvest in those countries. He plans to use some of his Watson funds to purchase a video camera so that he can record the entire coffee production cycle and post it to his web site.

Following his Watson Fellowship, he will enroll in a Ph.D. program in chemistry at the University of Texas, joining that department's ongoing research on an "electronic tongue" that can analyze liquids. His eventual goal is to devise a method 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 for."

Griffin feels himself fortunate to live in a time of coffee renaissance, and is eager to find purpose and meaning in a career in coffee science. Despite how much he has already accomplished and learned, Griffin recognizes that the world of coffee is almost boundless, and is eager to explore it all. His proposal to the Watson Foundation concluded with the statement, "My journey is only beginning."

Founded in 1968, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program gives exceptional college graduates the opportunity to participate in a year of independent study and travel abroad. It was founded by the children of Thomas J. Watson Sr., the founder of IBM, and his wife, Jeannette K. Watson, to honor their parents' longstanding interest in education and world affairs. The Watson Foundation has distributed nearly 2,000 Watson Fellowship awards with stipends totaling approximately $22-million since its founding in 1968. A total of 59 Davidson students have received Watson Fellowships since the program began in 1968.

Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 22 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by "U.S. News and World Report" magazine.

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