Where have your beans been?

January 2014 » Columns » DIVERSIONS
Andy Sciarabba, P.E.

Three minutes – that's how long it will take the average reader to get through this column. It is also the approximate length of "Coffee Song" by the Christian rock band Jars of Clay. If you haven't heard it, look it up online. In fact, searching online for coffee songs results in a fascinating history of odes to the "Cup of Joe." Did you know that The Lovin' Spoonful plucked their name from the lyrics of Mississippi John Hurt's 1963 "Coffee Blues"? Or that Cream – the English blues rock band with Eric Clapton – recorded "The Coffee Song" in the late 1960s but never officially released it? I guess they didn't want any coffee in their cream (rim shot please). Who knew how popular – and addicting – one water-based drink could be.

Well, it's very popular. So popular that it is currently the second most traded commodity in terms of value, second only to crude oil. (Isn't "crude" a fitting name for oil?) But calculate the cost of a gallon of coffee and filling up your gas tank will seem like a bargain. I'm an engineer; I did the math. Coffee is close to $20 a gallon. Regardless of its price, the black, brown, or sometimes "beige" potion is crucial for jump-starting most human engines.

Admittedly, I am a "coffee snob." I am addicted to good coffee. I prefer quality over quantity. I can buy a good cup anywhere, but as an engineer I want to make it myself, at home, in my pajamas. I have purchased and tested almost every java-making device: espresso machines, basic pour-over drippers (some have valves for steeping your brew; engineers love valves), French presses, aero-presses, and percolators – you name it. Some folks collect cars; I collect coffee makers.

What does this have to do with engineering? Well think of it. All of these devices had to be conceived, tested, and produced – they were engineered! Engineers work tirelessly, solving the problems of those in need and (hopefully) meeting their ever-shrinking deadlines. We go the extra mile, sometimes in sleep-deprived comas, to meet these deadlines. How do we get through it? Great pay? Good benefits? Company cars? Maybe, but more than likely we have a little help – lots and lots of coffee! But let's back up, all the way back to growing and processing the fruit itself.

Coffee beans are grown from seed (hence the fruit reference). After germination and planting, the cherries are harvested, sometimes by a mechanical harvester (engineered), before being processed. The two methods of processing are dry and wet. The dry method is a manual method of spreading the cherries to air-dry using hand-tools such as rakes and wheelbarrows (engineered). The wet method is a process by which the cherries pass through a pulping machine (engineered) to separate the skin and pulp from the bean (the birth of the bean). The pulp is washed away with water and the beans are separated by weight. This is accomplished through a series of water channels in which the lighter beans float to the top, while the heavier, ripe beans sink to the bottom. The whole system, from the channels to the water supply, is engineered! Then rotating drums (engineered) separate the beans and they are dried in large tumblers (engineered). Then the beans are milled (engineered), roasted (engineered), and ground (engineered).

I can go on and on, but you get the gist. All these processes require some level of engineering. Hundreds, if not thousands, of hours are spent by engineers just like you and me (Ok, maybe not just like you and me; this is a civil engineering publication after all) so we can enjoy our cup, mug, or carafe of "go-juice."

So next time you grab that plastic scoop, turn on your coffee grinder, drop in your K-Cup, or just roll down your window at the drive-thru, remember how long it took to go from seed to bean; how far those beans traveled; and how each bean has endured the extremes of drying, wetting, pulping, milling, roasting, and grinding all to be bathed one final time, releasing the essential oils that satisfy our palettes, before, finally, being tossed into the garbage (or better yet, a composting bin or garden bed).

So add cream, sugar, have it straight up (espresso), mix it with more hot water (Americano), top it with steamed milk (cappuccino), or drown it in steamed milk (latte). Introduce flavors such as caramel, chocolate (mocha), or peppermint – whatever you like. Then sit back and relax. Revel in knowing that you are part of a broad group of professionals who work hard to make life easy for those around us!

Andy Sciarabba, P.E., is a principal with T.G. Miller, P.C., Engineers and Surveyors in Ithaca, N.Y. T.G. Miller, P.C. (www.tgmillerpc.com) is a consulting civil engineering and surveying firm that serves municipal, commercial, institutional, and private clients throughout central New York. He can be contacted at ajs@tgmillerpc.com.


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