August 15, 2011

Coffee Chemistry

Every day, millions of people around the world begin their day religiously with a morning cup of coffee.

Although today we easily identify coffee in its beverage form, it wasn’t always this way in the beginning. Throughout history, coffee has taken on several physical transformations, initially serving as an energy source when nomadic tribes combined coffee berries with animal fat as an early form of an energy bar. Later, it was consumed as a wine, then a tea and finally to the beverage we’ve come to love today. Since the beginning, coffee has always been a product of great mystery, having been discovered accidentally in wild forests of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and consumed in its native cherry form, then later, passed through fire to significantly alter its chemical state. But although coffee has been in existence for thousands of years, it has only been in the past half century or so that scientists have been able to truly identify and understand this beverage. To date, scientists have identified over 1,000 unique chemical compounds, which when compared to products such as wine or chocolate, pale in comparison to that of coffee. Luckily, through advancements in technology, much of coffee’s chemical make-up has been unlocked, and we now have a better understanding of the chemistry contained within these mystical beans.


For many, coffee drinking is simply a delivery medium for a potent alkaloid we have come to identify as caffeine or technically as 1,3,7 – trimethylxanthine. Although caffeine is strongly associated with coffee, its production within the plant kingdom is not exclusive and is seen throughout several other plants in nature. Mate, for example, which is traditionally consumed in parts of Uruguay and Argentina, contains less than one percent caffeine by weight; whereas, tea leafs (Camellia sinesis) which originated in China, contains almost three times the concentration of caffeine by weight than Arabica coffee. But overall, tea contains less caffeine in the beverage form, since less weight is needed to prepare an infusion.

Of all the compounds found in coffee, caffeine is perhaps the most interesting. Thus far, humans are the only living creatures on Earth that readily seek caffeine for both its stimulatory and psychological effects. For all other life forms, caffeine is a potent toxin. As such, scientists believe that caffeine, with its intensely bitter taste, has evolved as a primitive defense mechanism in coffee, ensuring its survival in the wild for thousands of years. It’s no surprise then, that the caffeine content of the more ‘robust’ Robusta species is almost double that of the more delicate Arabica. The belief is that as insects attack the coffee cherry, they are immediately deterred by the bitter taste of caffeine and simply move on to the next crop. Since Arabica is typically grown at higher altitudes than Robusta, where the attack of insects is reduced, Arabica has evolved to produce less caffeine.

With caffeine playing such an important role in the plants’ survival, one may also expect it to play an equal level of importance during coffee roasting. Turns out, the fate of this imperative compound is far from spectacular. Although caffeine sublimes (evaporates) at roughly 178°C, model studies have shown that caffeine readily survives the roasting process even at temperatures far exceeding 200°C. Though the reasons for this remain unclear, it is believed that caffeine’s strong complex with other compounds within the coffee matrix create a strong retention that prevent it from further sublimation and ultimately, decomposition.


Another less known alkaloid that shadows in the light of caffeine is that of trigonelline. In Arabica coffee, trigonelline concentrations make up roughly 1% by weight, with a slightly less concentration of 0.7% in Robusta. Although its concentration is slightly less than that of caffeine, trigonelline plays a significant role in the development of important flavour compounds during roasting. But unlike that of caffeine, which survives the roasting process, trigonelline readily decomposes as temperatures approach 160°C. Model studies have shown that at 160°C, 60% of the initial trigonelline is decomposed, leading to the formation of carbon dioxide, water and the development of a large class of aromatic compounds called pyridines. These heterocyclic compounds play an important role in flavour and are responsible for producing the sweet/caramel/earthy-like aromas commonly found in coffee.








Lipid production and its subsequent survival after the roasting process also play an important role in overall coffee quality. In general, most lipids in coffee exist in the form of coffee oil and are located within the endosperm (bean) of the cherry. Since its composition is similar to that of vegetable cooking oils, it’s no surprise that the vast majority of coffee oil remains relatively unchanged, even at the elevated temperatures found in roasting.

Both Arabica and Robusta coffee contain appreciable amounts of lipids, ranging from 15 – 17% and 10 – 11.5% respectively. But because Arabica contains more lipids than Robusta, many believe this stark difference is one reason responsible for quality difference between both species. Thus far, the claim has remained unconfirmed, until French scientists recently discovered a direct correlation between lipid content and overall cup quality. It turns out that as lipid content increases within the bean, so does overall cup quality. It’s a very plausible explanation when one considers that the majority of important flavour compounds in coffee are also lipid soluble.


Protein content for both green Arabica and Robusta coffee are similar in profile, ranging between 10 – 13% and existing as either free or bound form within the coffee matrix. Although concentrations can vary from bean to bean, its believed that factors such as maturity, post-processing and improper storage may have a significant effect on the form of proteins within the bean.

During roasting, proteins combine with carbohydrates in what is perhaps the most important reaction for all thermally processed foods – the Maillard Reaction. This set of reactions, discovered by a French chemist in 1910, is what is largely responsible for transforming the mere handful of compounds found in green coffee to the complex matrix that coffee is today.

As temperatures reach 150°C, the Maillard Reaction propels free proteins in coffee to combine with sugars, ultimately leading to the formation of hundreds of important aromatic compounds. Of these, pyrazines and pyridines have the greatest aromatic contribution and are responsible for the distinct maize/nutty aromas found in coffee. The reaction also leads to the formation of brown-colored polymetric – melanoidins – the compounds responsible for coffee’s colour. Coincidentally, this is the same set of reactions that give rise to the alluring aromas we generate when toasting a loaf of bread, or grilling a piece of steak and numerous other thermally processed products.

Thus far, this is only a brief introduction to the complex chemistry that occurs within our roasters every day. In Part II we’ll discuss the development of other compounds and discuss their role in flavour perception.

About the Author

Joseph A. Rivera was formerly the Director of Science and Technology at the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). He holds a degree in food chemistry and is the founder of He is a frequent lecturer at numerous international conferences and training seminars. He can be reached at

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