The Inaugural Sensory Summit: A Roasters Guild Event Takes Place on UC Davis Campus

By Lily Kubota

Delivering a spectacular coffee service was just the beginning for the Roasters Guild's inaugural "second event" (the "first event" being Roasters Guild Retreat), which took place last week on the University of California, Davis campus. Over 100 seasoned coffee professionals and academics gathered at the inaugural Sensory Summit: A Roasters Guild Event for an educational program focused on sensory science and sensory analysis. Taking a look at outside industries such as wine, honey, and beer in addition to coffee, students attended a variety of sessions delivered by professors and researchers from UC Davis and SCAA Instructors alike.

Sensory Summit attendees filtered in throughout the afternoon of the first day, with students joining us from the around the U.S. and beyond, from such countries as Brazil, Colombia, and Australia. After getting acquainted at the welcome reception, attendees made their way into the Mondavi Sensory Theatre, where they were formally greeted by SCAA's Sr. Director Peter Giuliano and SCAA's Executive Director Ric Rhinehart, and then introduced to the Roasters Guild Executive Council by current chair Allen Leibowitz for an opening ceremonies that would orient everyone to the event, and to the great work that UC Davis is doing in the world of coffee.

After the opening ceremonies, the first official session brought the group together over a glass of wine–well, four glasses to be exact–in a true "blind" tasting. Attendees were blindfolded and asked to remain so for the duration of the tasting, which lasted almost two hours. It was delivered by Henry "Hoby" Wedler, a Chemistry PhD student at UC Davis, who gave an engaging and provocative talk on fragrance, aroma, and taste, and provided some valuable insights on how we perceive flavors.

"The opening night’s presentation by Ph.D. student Henry “Hoby” Wedler was just fantastic. Hoby, who has been blind from birth, has a highly sophisticated palate. We wore blindfolds for two unusually comfortable and educational hours as we first identified aromas, then discovered them in some of the wine we proceeded to taste," commented Barry Levine, CEO of Willoughby's Coffee & Tea.

The following day, the program resumed with a session presented by Amina Harris of UC Davis, the mastermind behind the Honey Flavor and Aroma Wheel. Harris drew many parallels between the worlds of coffee and honey, as students sampled different types of honey from California Orange Blossom to Hawaiian Ohi'a Lehua. Flavor wheels were a hot topic at this Sensory Summit, with the launch of our own revised flavor wheel on the horizon, and it was interesting to see how other industries like honey evaluate flavor with this tool.

Attendees were buzzing after this session. They remarked at how different the honey samples were, and how they were able to identify flavors that they had not noticed in honey before. "It is so great to see the Roasters Guild taking steps to include higher-level concepts of other craft experts. Bringing in the voices of parallel craft industries that are based on the same sensory sciences feeds the advancement of specialty coffee," said Phil Beattie of Dillanos Coffee Roasters, a past chair of the Roasters Guild Executive Council.

The next session explored product development and food technology, led by previous SCAA Symposium speaker Charlotte Biltekoff and her colleague at UC Davis, Matthew Lange. Teams were formed and students had to work together to develop a product for a target consumer and articulate the value they would deliver with this product. "Behind every new food product is an idea about who the potential consumers are and what they want or need," said Biltekoff in her presentation.

The group then transitioned to the Mondavi Center where they were greeted with yet another stellar coffee service, this time with brew bars from Royal Coffee and BKON. There was plenty of delicious coffee to go around and it was just what was needed after an already packed day of classes. Next, it was on to the first SCAA Pathway class of this event – focused on using sensory techniques in product development and quality assessment – taught by SCAA Instructors Dorthea Hescock of Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA and Maya Zuniga of S&D Coffee and Tea.

This class was the first opportunity for attendees to cup some coffees, which was a bit out of the norm for a coffee event. However, attendees noted that the balance of sensory-focused classes and coffee-focused classes made for a rich and valuable experience. "It was an occasion to briefly step out of our own close coffee focus and experience other artisans who share the same sensory issues as we have: discerning the flavors and aromas of products we make or enjoy and communicating that information through language," said Levine. Fellow attendee Drew Billups of Atlas Coffee noted, "This event is really the kind of thing that will move our industry forward, both in terms of our own self identity as coffee people and our connections with the larger world of specialty food production."

After dinner with the group, it was on to the last class of the day, where Dr. Charles Bamforth spoke to the group about beer and coffee, and how we can learn from each other. It turned out that Charlie was a regular comedian and had many attendees holding their sides throughout the talk. A bit of laughter while learning is never a bad thing, although unlike the wine tasting, students were not given samples of beer in this class. Not to worry, there was an open bar just prior!

On Saturday, the final day of classes, attendees were grouped into three rotations. Two of the three sessions were held across campus in Everson Hall, which is home to the Chemical Engineering and Materials Science department's undergraduate laboratory for their popular chemical engineering class, the Design of Coffee. The session that was held in the lab, led by Dr. Tonya Kuhl of UC Davis, was intended to enhance students' understanding of how chemical engineering principles can be applied to coffee roasting and brewing.

The second session of the day for some, and first or third for others, taught by SCAA Science Manager Emma Sage and UC Davis PhD candidate Molly Spencer, explored the science behind the new Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel, developed by SCAA and World Coffee Research (WCR). The foundation of this work, the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, is the product of dozens of professional sensory panelists, scientists, coffee buyers, and roasting companies collaborating via WCR and SCAA. The new flavor wheel was unveiled first at Sensory Summit and earlier this week was shared with the coffee community.

The final rotation was a class on the subject of using sensory science to measure consumer preferences, presented by Dr. Jean-Xavier Guinard. An olive oil tasting gave students yet another opportunity for comparison of non-coffee food products using sensory analysis.

What was already a full day of classes came to a close with...you guessed it...one more class! The second of the SCAA Pathway classes, Extraction for Specific Sensory Attributes in Coffee, was led by SCAA Instructor Rusty Angell of BUNN. This class had students tasting coffees of various extraction levels to illustrate the importance of consistent brewing.

Before Sensory Summit attendees parted ways and returned back to their cafes and roasteries, a brief closing ceremonies was held to thank attendees for being a part of this inaugural event, as well as tying together the classes and interactions over the previous three days. "I remember when the idea of a second event was tossed around at the bonfire at Retreat a few years ago, so participating in the “first annual second event” was extremely exciting! The sensory experience was very engaging due to the perfect venue, UC Davis," said Mary Tellie of Electric City Roasting Company, Vice Chair of the Roasters Guild. She closed the event by reminding attendees about upcoming events and activities such as the SCAA Expo and Re:co Symposium this April in Atlanta, GA, and of course Roasters Guild Retreat, which will be held at Lake Lawn Resort in Delavan, WI, from August 18-21, 2016. We hope to see you there!IMG_6976

For more information about Sensory Summit, please visit sensorysummit.org.


Lily Kubota began her career in coffee at age 15 with her first job as a barista and became increasingly interested in coffee and cafe culture over the years. As content & communications manager for SCAA, she has been privileged to observe and reflect on the intricacies and nuances of the coffee industry on both the consuming and producing side of the supply chain, and gain a deeper understanding of this exciting community.