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Cafe with a college education

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In the early 1920s, Samuel Cate Prescott, SB ’94, spent months wandering the halls of MIT, asking every worker or lab worker nearby a question: “Do you like coffee?” ? Most did, so Prescott asked another, “Will you help me solve a problem I have?” “

Prescott, the head of MIT’s biology and public health department, had never addressed a problem like this before. He had graduated in chemistry from the Institute a few decades earlier, had returned to the school’s sanitary research lab and sewage station in Boston, and then studied food science at the same time. where the Institute’s biology department was oriented towards the use of engineering methods to solve problems of health and food quality. Prescott had conducted all manner of research on food preservation at MIT and while serving in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during World War I, but now he was faced with a more qualitative challenge: how to design the mug. perfect coffee.

The project seemed silly and unworthy of an MIT researcher’s time, but the outcome depended a lot on the outcome. This is because the national coffee industry was in trouble.

Coffee consumption in the United States had already increased for decades, largely thanks to low prices rooted in trade agreements and abusive labor practices in Brazil. Bumper crops and overproduction caused coffee to drop to six cents a pound in 1901. A few years later, however, when the Brazilian government began buying surplus beans to stabilize the market, prices more than doubled. And with the rise in prices came a growing feeling that coffee was unhealthy. While most medical experts thought caffeinated coffee was acceptable in moderation, research linking drinking to insomnia and nervous disorders has gained media attention. A doctor quoted in the New York Times said the sale of coffee “should be prohibited by law.”

To fight back, the National Coffee Roasters Association formed the Better Coffee Making Committee, which is dedicated to the scientific study of coffee. The committee conducted preliminary studies on the beverage’s chemical makeup and brewing methods, but the research did not reveal a gold standard for retaining the smell and flavor of coffee, or ways to minimize it. its effects on the nervous system. The roasters needed a well-respected food scientist who could conduct independent studies. In 1920, in partnership with the Joint Coffee Trade Publicity Committee, they asked Prescott to set up a new lab exclusively for coffee research. Some have called the project a “cafe with a college education.”

The project seemed silly and unworthy of an MIT researcher’s time, but the outcome depended a lot on the outcome.

Prescott was hesitant. He knew that a research of this scale would take at least two years, and he wanted to be reassured that the MIT name was not used in advertising campaigns and that the work would be conducted with integrity and published regardless of the findings. . When those concessions were made, he assembled a research team, including future Nobel Prize-winning chemist Robert Burns Woodward, and set to work bitterly for the best coffee.

Over the next three years, the Joint Coffee Trade Advertising Committee invested $ 40,000 – over $ 600,000 in today’s money – in Prescott’s work, which included extensive analyzes of chemical properties. coffee and a review of over 700 scientific papers and studies. To understand the health effects, Prescott’s team mixed caffeine extract from coffee with water and gave it to rabbits using catheters inserted into their stomachs. They found that caffeine was harmful in high doses: Rabbits that ingested at least 242 milligrams per kilogram of body weight – the equivalent of an around 150-pound person drinking 150 to 200 cups of coffee – died. But when the same amounts of caffeine were delivered in brewed coffee, some animals survived. Considered in light of the existing scientific literature on the subject, Prescott concluded, these results suggested that it did not appear “likely” that coffee consumed in typical amounts would have acute harmful effects on human metabolism.

Finding the tastiest way to deliver this coffee took more than rabbits. Prescott assembled a “tasting team” – a group of about 15 women, mostly stenographers and secretaries working at MIT, who met daily at lunchtime in the main building women’s washroom. from the Institute, then headed to a nearby dining room, where they were waiting for someone from Prescott’s team to bring two chemical vials full of coffee and a tray of cups, cream, and sugar. The women, chosen because they were not coffee connoisseurs and therefore did not have strong ideas about the best brewing methods, took samples from each vial. Then they wrote down what they liked best and why, never knowing how the coffee was brewed or what the difference between the two samples was.

This process lasted for months as the Prescott team tested different varieties of coffee, brewing methods, grind granularities, temperatures and water compositions, as well as coffee makers made from everything from copper to copper. earthenware. Fully aware that opinions on this issue were subjective, comparable to soliciting “the quality of a symphony from a group of individuals with varying degrees of tone perception and musical tastes” – Prescott also recruited many other volunteers. Some were fellow professors, once skeptical of the project, who visited the lab after smelling smells wafting down the hall.

Prescott’s report was published in 1924, garnering media attention and some criticism. It allayed fears that coffee could be harmful – if prepared correctly and consumed in the right way, it “gives comfort and inspiration, increases mental and physical activity, and can be seen as the servant rather than the destroyer of civilization. “said Prescott, adding that the drink relieved fatigue, promoted” heart action, “increased mental focus, and was not depressive or addictive.

The report also contained guidelines on the scientifically proven way to brew a delicious cup of coffee: use freshly ground coffee (about one tablespoon per cup) and steep in non-alkaline water between 185 and 195 ° F for two. maximum minutes. The finer grinds were preferable to the coarser ones, and the drink had to be kept in glass, porcelain or stone jars instead of metal jars.

The report changed the industry, leading to the development of vacuum-packed coffee and an advertising campaign touting Prescott’s results to 15 million readers nationwide. The advertising surge, combined with prohibition in the United States, boosted coffee sales and caused a resurgence of coffee shops throughout the 1920s.

The report was also part of a change happening at MIT. Throughout his tenure in the Department of Biology and Public Health, and later as the first dean of the MIT School of Science, Prescott devoted more institutional resources to research on quality improvement and food cleanliness. He also established a new food technology department in 1946. Although MIT moved away from the science of food and sanitation after Prescott’s retirement, his legacy lives on in the meals on our plates and in the drinks. in our cups.

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