The Science of Coffee

Hannah Johnson ’12 holds a degree in biology, but you won’t find her in a lab full of microscopes and test tubes.

She spends her days alongside coffee beans and espresso machines at Cabra Coffee, the coffee shop she opened last year in Cedar Crest, N.M.

It’s true that most students pursuing a biology degree don’t often include the coffee business on their lists of potential career paths. But Hannah, whose father owned a coffee shop and introduced her to coffee at a young age, saw things differently. “Coffee came very naturally to me,” Hannah says. “Biology, I loved, but I could never seem to get it quite right.”

As a student Hannah spent most of her days in science classes in Harned and Thompson halls. She got her caffeine fix at the glass-walled Oppenheimer Cafe, which occupies the quad formed by the two buildings. When she needed a job, the cafe seemed  a natural choice. “I was spending so much money on coffee, I figured I might as well work there,” she says.

Both Oppenheimer and Diversions cafes offer professional training opportunities from the roaster’s representatives to student employees. When Caffe Vita, Oppenheimer’s coffee supplier at the time, offered one of these trainings, Hannah was in. “I remember specifically asking if I could be there,” she says, recalling her excitement. “I enjoyed good coffee and wanted to serve it to people.”

Caffe Vita’s intensive training focused on pulling espresso shots and steaming milk. “That seems pretty simple, but making sure everyone is doing it correctly and consistently is the hardest part of specialty coffee,” Hannah says. She remembers the trainer standing with student employees as customers ordered, and walking the students through the process. “It was very hands-on, learning by doing and teaching in the moment,” she says. 

After graduation, Hannah moved back to New Mexico and worked as a lab technician before taking a job with the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The conservation work with piping plovers brought her to the island shores of Nantucket, Mass. “It was probably one of the best jobs I could have had,” she says. “I was talking to people, I was making a difference, and I was working on the beach.”

Even so, loneliness and homesickness set in. She craved the bustling energy of the college cafe where she had thrived, so she started moonlighting at Nantucket’s brand-new Handlebar Cafe. Soon the owners, Courtney and Jason Bridges, became close friends and mentors. “They saw my love of coffee and gave me the opportunity to explore. That’s what shifted my mindset to pursuing coffee as a career and not just a hobby,” Hannah says.

She juggled the Audubon and Handlebar jobs for two years before realizing that work at the cafe left her happier than her conservation work. She returned to New Mexico with renewed focus and opened Cabra Coffee in April 2017. Business is brisk, and she now has six employees.

“It’s wild,” Hannah says. “I love it. There are definitely some challenging aspects, but overall I think it suits me very well.”

Hannah isn’t the only scientist who feels at home in a coffee shop. Smithsonian recently explored the science behind the perfect shot of espresso and noted that baristas possess the ability to “harness the principles of chemistry and physics,” and control variables such as temperature, water chemistry, and coffee-to-water ratios. 

“There’s so much science in coffee,” Hannah says. “I’m using my degree all the time.”


By Anneli Fogt
Published April 25, 2018
Photo courtesy of Hannah Johnson ’12