University in China brews up a caffeine hit with country’s first coffee science major

A course outline on the university website said the major would cover such subjects as coffee flavour chemistry, processing, quality and safety testing, factory design and environmental protection, world coffee trade, engineering principles, and nutrition and health.

It was the “the first major in the country to offer undergraduate coffee professional talent training”, the university said.

China is the 13th largest coffee producer in the world, though it accounts for only 1.1 per cent of global production, or around 1.8 million 60kg (132lb) bags of coffee a year, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Around 98 per cent of that coffee is grown in Yunnan province, Chinese-language news site Science Times reported last week.

In 2022, Yunnan had a total coffee cultivation area of 84,600 hectares (209,000 acres), and its annual output of 114,000 tonnes of raw coffee beans is valued at 41.8 billion yuan (US$5.7 billion), according to state news agency Xinhua.

Yang Xuehu, dean of the College of Tropical Crops, told Science Times that although the northern hemisphere accounted for much of the world’s coffee companies and consumption, most of the production took place in the southern hemisphere.

“Why was the world’s first coffee major not born in these [southern] places? One of the biggest reasons is that research and development is separated from planting,” Yang said.

Students of the new degree will learn things such as coffee flavour chemistry, processing, world coffee trade and engineering principles. Photo: Handout

Liao Xiugui, a boutique coffee farmer in Yunnan, said the biggest drawback for farmers hoping to expand production was a lack of talent and technology, according to Science Times.

“Only through the professional intervention of education in colleges and universities and the continuous strengthening of the quality training of new coffee farmers can their planting, management, harvesting, processing [and other aspects improve],” Liao said.

As part of the degree, students will learn techniques like how decaffeinated coffee is made – a process that relies on chemistry, as green coffee beans are soaked in solvents to remove the caffeine.

While an undergraduate degree in coffee science is something new, China is not the only country offering specialised coffee-related higher education.

In Switzerland, the Zurich University of Applied Sciences offers a certificate of advanced studies in coffee excellence which incorporates the science of coffee into its curriculum.

In the United States, the University of California, Davis opened the country’s first coffee research centre in May. The institution already offered elective courses in coffee, although it does not have a dedicated coffee major.

William Ristenpart, a professor of chemical engineering at UC Davis and the founding director of the UC Davis Coffee Centre, said in a university video that despite coffee being “extraordinarily complex”, it had not been the subject of a lot of academic research.

Ristenpart said that in the last decade or so, researchers had begun thinking about chemical engineering in the context of coffee, which is what they hoped to study at UC Davis.

Meanwhile, Yang said that Yunnan Agricultural University hoped to open up the coffee science and engineering programme to global internships and exchanges.

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