Every year in January, the UC Davis campus outside of Sacramento, California, hosts a unique event on the coffee calendar. Sensory Summit is a two-day conference “designed to educate, inform, and inspire the Specialty Coffee sensory professional”, according to their website. The goal is to combine scientific rigor with coffee’s inherent subjectiveness in order to better understand the biological underpinnings of the brewing process, as well as the coffee bean itself.

The summit is, at its core, an attempt to comprehend the phenomenon of taste and how it relates to coffee, and to develop the sensory skills of those in the specialty coffee industry. Mighty Good has been privileged to attend the past two conferences (the Summit began in 2016). Over the course of a weekend, we moved from discussions on fermentation in cheese to an exploration of ingredients and flavor in beer, with lectures and talks from academics and scientists, wine experts and coffee roasters.

The UC Davis Coffee Center is the first research department to focus exclusively on the scientific study of coffee. With support from La Marzocco, Probat, Peet’s and the appliance manufacturer Wilbur Curtis, the Center is a pioneering force in coffee research as the industry attempts to improve coffee’s prospects in the longer term. Eventually, the Center hopes to include a pilot roastery, a cupping and sensory lab, a green storage research facility, and a coffee greenhouse.


This year, the event started with  tasty samples from Winters Cheese while discussing the effects of fermentation on the flavor of cheese. It was an incredible variety from mild goats milk to a gouda with a wine-washed rind. As coffee is also a fermented product, we explored this again the next day when Dr. Rosane Schwan from the University of Lavras in Brazil presented coffees that used a variety of fermentation techniques, including adding yeast to the coffee in production to facilitate microbial activity. No surprise, when we tasted this coffee compared to several other techniques, it tasted fantastic.

A presentation on product design and consumer sensory experience was hosted by Richard Harrod, a senior designer at Breville based in Sydney. Exploring the design of their home espresso machines from napkin sketch to finished product was an insight into the incredibly complex world of manufacturing a product for the world-wide market.


Another fascinating topic was the extraction of coffee and flavor depending on the shape of the filter basket and what type of filter is used. When Dr. Bill Ristenpart described freezing the spent coffee and filter and then taking core samples (just like they do of the earth) to examine which part of the coffee was most or least extracted depending on the filter used, you can get a sense of how serious these coffee scientists are.

Further activities included exploring the variety of grains and hops used in beer production (another fermented product) changing weather patterns and global warming are affecting tea production from China to South Carolina. How this affects coffee production is fast becoming an important topic as well.

All in all, it was another fantastic event focused on bringing diversity, ingenuity and innovation to the subject of coffee research. How we approach the study of coffee today will impact how it is grown, harvested and brewed in the future, something that will have an effect on all of our enjoyment of this most delicious of beverages.