The photo for this article was provided by the interviewee.
There are so many questions left unanswered in the speciality coffee industry. Many of these questions relate to the science behind coffee—why does coffee react in a certain way in certain circumstances—and not everyone has the know-how or the equipment to answer said questions.
NP's Coffee Science, maintained by Nasko Panov, is devoted to answering questions in the speciality coffee industry through experiments. I read Nasko's paper on turbidity in an Aeropress and I had some questions I wanted to ask about NP Coffee Science. Nasko got back to me over email and answered my questions. Our interview is below.
For my audience, could you briefly explain how you got involved with coffee?
It all began five years ago while spending my vacation in Italy. It was the first time I had ever tried a SPECIALTY coffee. Till that time I was drinking only espresso with sugar. After this vacation, I was searching for a place for specialty coffee in Sofia and I found Dabov specialty coffee. I went there and tried espresso from Ethiopia. I was stunned by the complexity of tastes and differences from a regular espresso. It was like discovering a new world and I was hooked from the first sip. I started looking for other places in Sofia and Bulgaria and traveled to taste the coffee there. When I was on a business trip to a different country I started searching for the best place for specialty coffee – trying more and more from the coffee world.
What is NP's Coffee Science?
NP’s Coffee Science is a coffee science blog for independent coffee research and experiments. My long experience as a service engineer and application specialist in the field of analytical chemistry, physics, and instrumental analysis gave me the opportunity to work with high-end and a wide variety of analytical techniques and instruments. And now I'm trying to combine my work with my passion for а better understanding of the science behind coffee.
What was the inspiration behind starting NP's Coffee Science?
I was planning it for about a few years but never took the first step. One Saturday morning I opened my Instagram and saw a blog post from Barista Hustle. It was about CO2 delaying the extraction in an espresso machine. I read it and didn’t like the explanation. More, the explanation was controversial and not well described and supported by experimental data and literature. In the next two days, I was constantly researching the topic and started writing my first blog post and I didn’t stop until I finished it. My first article was a kind of response or reply to their article.
Soon after during a conversation with a former colleague from the university, I got a great idea of how I can measure the CO2 concentration in coffee. This led to my second experiment and second article called “To bloom or not to bloom”. From there it just became a second job or a hobby. The main inspiration for NP’s Coffee Science is my passion for coffee and my daily job as a service engineer and application specialist.
You recently wrote a paper on the factors affecting the cloudiness—turbidity—of an Aeropress brew, answering many of my questions. Could you walk me through the process you followed to devise your experiments?
It all started in a conversation with Jeremy Challender from Barista Hustle. The initial idea came from him as he was interested in finding the factors affecting the Aeropress turbidity. Turbidity is hard to measure. The first step is always to research the topic. I try to find information related to the given problem and from there I’m starting to create some kind of a schedule or plan. I try to look at the given project from all directions and evaluate all the variables and possible weak points in the experiment. Next is to find a reliable, accurate, and precise way to make the measurement.
The ideas for all the experiments come from many different things, but in most of the cases are based on popular themes related to coffee that are discussed in videos, forums, or articles.
What happens after you decide on an experiment to conduct?
I have to find a proper laboratory equipped with needed analytical instruments. Talking to the lab manager to get permission to use the lab is something that is the most stressful for me. I have a good relationship with many, but asking to do something for free on an instrument that could cost tenths or hundreds of thousands of euros is a responsible job that I have to take seriously. I don’t want to make something wrong that could cost my customers a lot for something that is just a personal hobby.
Sample preparation is also something that could take a lot of time. I create some kind of a plan on how to prepare all the samples and what kind of consumables I’ll need for the experiment. In most cases, sample preparation is a short time prior to the sample measurement in the laboratory. Again, it is very important to think about all the different possible outcomes, weak points, or flaws that could ruin the whole experiment, because sometimes I have one shot possibility to use the needed analytical equipment.
After measurement comes the data analysis and data evaluation. Only then I can see the final results. Based on them I start thinking in what direction will the blog post turn and creating the concept for the article.
What audience do you have in mind when you write your posts?
I’m not focusing on a particular audience. I do what I think will be interesting, what I want to experiment with, and what will provide some additional value and knowledge to the specialty coffee field. Some of the projects are made for coffee lovers, baristas, and coffee geeks, others are more scientific and may be hard to be assimilated from someone coming without a scientific background. Nevertheless, I’m trying to be innovative and contribute to the coffee community with my experiments.
To what extent does Patreon affect the availability of your posts? Why did you decide to use Patreon with your blog?
Sooner or later I post my articles from Patreon on my website free for the public. But every project took me a lot of time, energy, and resources. I do all the experiments in my free time with my own fundings. I’m using very expensive analytical instruments that need some expensive consumables that I have to provide by myself. Sometimes I have to take a day off work to travel 400km in one direction in order to conduct an experiment on particular laboratory equipment. As a scientist, I believe that one of the most expensive things is know-how and intellectual property. Behind one article of 3-4 pages lays tenths or hundreds of hours of hard work, professional expertise, and experience.
What is your favourite experiment you have done so far?
It is the article called “Should We Reconsider Espresso Machine Descaling/Cleaning” because it has big scientific value. It was performed for an academic article that if I want, I can publish in some scientific journal. But also, this experiment aims at something as important as health and food safety.
You recently wrote an interesting article on TDS measurement at home. To what extent do you think TDS measurements should play in the evaluation of coffee?
TDS measurement is a great method for quick quantitative evaluation for extraction repeatability or comparison. But as a scientist, I know that TDS is not everything in coffee. Coffee is so much more complex and fascinating than a simple number. It is like evaluating wine only by the colour. If you are focused only on TDS, then you are missing so much more.
What is your favourite snack to have with a cup of coffee?
Nothing. I like to enjoy coffee as much as possible. I even try not to drink water right after a good espresso. I prefer to drink water prior to the coffee so I can enjoy the aftertaste as long as it goes. The same is with food but even more strict. I try not to eat strong flavors before the coffee because it could change the coffee taste and experience.
I saw that you have used a laser diffusion particle size analyser on your Instagram. What is the best tool you have used so far in a coffee science experiment?
The most expensive one is an instrument called Supercritical fluid extraction – Supercritical Fluid Chromatograph coupled with a mass spectrometer (SFE-SFC-MS in short). It has a huge potential for analysis of many different compounds in green coffee, roasted beans, or coffee beverages. I’m working on a project to find particular compounds related to coffee astringency with this instrument, but the method development is hard, slow, and could take months. Especially when I have limited time working on this instrument.
What coffee(s) are you drinking at the moment?
I’m mainly drinking a double shot of espresso when I have time to enjoy it at home. But recently my day starts at around 6 AM so I often I don’t have enough time. When I have business travels I prepare Aeropress or Chemex. I’m buying beans from some local specialty coffee shops that every month are delivering from different roasters from all around the world.
You can read the NP Coffee Science blog at www.npcoffeescience.com/blog. I found the post on measuring TDS without a refractometer interesting and I would recommend giving the post a read.