(Photo by Jason Smith)

Coffee science

Cell biologist Stephanie Levi’s Night Labs series makes science accessible.

Molecular geneticist and cell biologist Stephanie Levi, PhD'09, wants people to understand what she does. To explain the Golgi apparatus, which she studied at Chicago, she uses a simile: it's "a structure in the cell that is like the cell's post office," she says on her website, Science-is-Sexy.com. "The Golgi takes newly made proteins (the mail) and attaches a sugar molecule to them, which acts like a molecular zip code that tells the cell where to send the protein."

She doesn't stop at similes. To bring science to a wider population, in 2008 Levi, who coordinates Northeastern Illinois University's Student Center for Science Engagement, started Night Labs, a series of public talks about how science fits into everyday life. "Science intersects everything," she says. After leading lectures on the science of sex and attraction and on the science of extinction, in June she hosted a Night Lab on the science of coffee. The talk, led by Chicago-based Intelligentsia's green manager and buyer, Sarah Kluth, filled the second floor at Schubas Tavern in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. Afterward Levi gave an interview about what science can teach us about coffee.

Why do a Night Lab on coffee?

Night Lab is all about helping adults access science in an entertaining, enjoyable way, while highlighting science in their everyday lives. I have long been interested in doing programs on food, since in addition to being a molecular geneticist, I'm a huge foodie who takes full advantage of Chicago's rich food culture.

I don't know of anything more ubiquitous than a morning cup of joe, and I fell in love with Intelligentsia the first time I took a sip of a cappuccino from one of their retail stores. There's tons of science involved in every step of the processing, brewing, and enjoyment of coffee, and I chose to highlight those. I will be having numerous food programs in the coming years, although this was my first.

How do you make coffee at home?

I have always used one of those Italian stove-top coffeemakers—you put water in the bottom, coffee in a metal filter right above that, and put it on the stove, and it percolates to a chamber in the top, which you then pour into your cup. I also have a French press and use that mainly at work. I'm switching to an automatic coffeemaker, however, which, I learned from Sarah, gives the coffee preparer—me—less control.

What did you learn from Kluth's talk? Will it change the way you make coffee?

After the Night Lab event, I'm switching to one of those gold filters instead of paper—the molecules that give coffee its aroma and complexity can stick to a paper filter. I now want to go out and get a burr grinder as well; it provides a uniform grind to the coffee beans, unlike an electric grinder, and I learned from Sarah that you really want a uniform grind to your coffee so that the surface area of each grain of coffee is even, and the extraction of coffee into your water is even, giving a good-tasting cup.

I also use purified water, not distilled or tap. Distilled has no minerals to attach to the molecules that give coffee a great flavor, so you wind up with a really weak-tasting, flat cup of coffee if you use it. Tap is loaded with chlorine, which gives you an off-tasting cup. Ideally, the temperature of coffee needs to be pretty precise too—Sarah shared with us that the ideal range of extracting a cup of coffee is about 195–205 degrees Farenheit.

[Finally] I will never, ever put coffee in the fridge as a way of keeping it. I will try to use my coffee within two weeks of buying it. Sarah gave guests of the Night Lab program a half pound of coffee, and it had been roasted two days prior.