Morten Münchow’s mission

As a scientist and researcher, Morten Münchow believes in experiments having a cause and effect, and results that are black and white.

In 2002, he recalls brewing a coffee in a small moka pot. While most coffee drinkers savour the brew and determine if they like it or not, Morten had a deeper train of thought.

“I tasted the succession of flavour characteristics during the brew,” he says. “I thought about it. I understood it, and I realised I could explain it.”

Thanks to a ‘coincidental connection’ with his morning brew, Morten used his understanding of chromatography, a technique used to separate a mixture of chemical substances, to explain the flavour succession of coffee brewing. His task was to take a complex subject matter and present to a non-academic audience for 45 minutes as part of his university course requirements. He used visual aids (Macromedia Flash) to describe how coffee flavour transitions, thanks to molecules of water which coffee comes in contact with, and its organic chemistry. 

“Sugar and small organic acids are highly water soluble so they move with the first part of the brew and other substances move slowly in water so they arrive in the last part of the brew,” Morten says. “Balancing a brew is [about] deciding the balance between sweetness and acidity that comes out in the beginning and bitterness at the end. This is why there is such a justified obsession with measuring the concentration (TDS) of a brew and calculating the extraction percentage by taking dosage into account. TDS does not explain everything but it points to the most fundamental – and often neglected – quality control parameter of coffee brewing.”

His presentation was well received. Morten became hooked on exploring scientific theories of coffee, and he hasn’t stopped. An academic with a master’s degree in biology and philosophy, Morten has paved a science career with coffee at the core. From 2005 to 2007 he worked as a roaster with Kontra Coffee, and spent a few weeks behind the coffee machine at Cofé Europa as a barista to get a feel for the other end of the production chain. For the past four years – and counting – Morten has also worked as a part-time lecturer in the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen. 

After two years in 2007, Morten started teaching at London School of Coffee, which he followed with consultant work, in what he describes as a career highlight. Coming home from a consulting job in South Korea, Morten saw a broader market with the same needs and issues when it came to coffee roasting, and developed teaching criteria to improve roasting processes. 

“I started by making an introduction to coffee roasting, then focused on the craft of roast master, how to grow a coffee roastery, and how to teach statistics,” he says.

What most people don’t teach emerging roasters, Morten says, is what not to do. 

“[Roasters need to] focus on their concept and not everything they don’t have,” he says. “If you build your business from passion, no one else will have anything like it. Normally fear takes over. Roasters need to continue to work on their passion for business, nourish their entrepreneurship, and have a vision.”

Morten says vision is something that should not only be addressed when starting a business, but evaluated constantly.

“No one’s vision is ever the same. Spend time doing the boring stuff, like management and expenses, but then spend hours dreaming of where you want to go in the future, and plan,” he says.

Morten adds that many new roasters will mimic the business structure of famous brands and rush into buying a roaster. Very few do their research and look at how to lower the risk of failure. 

“There is a lot of suffering in business. I’ve been there. Even if you can perfect coffee – are you profitable or are you making a loss? Why not roast somewhere else first, learn about your product and your audience?” Morten says. “Only 10 per cent may share your preference for specialty but the other 90 per cent are paying your bills. You need to understand your customer base and what they want first, then slowly you can win people over to your preferred side.”

Morten says in order to maintain longevity, roasting businesses need to invest in building the right culture and systems, and spend more time “dreaming their personal dream” rather than seeking market opportunities. 

“People tend to forget the picture and emotions of the dream that started it all and regress to all the technical and systemic necessities of a business,” he says. “Be yourself. Everybody else is taken.’ This takes ongoing work in a dynamic process between self-discovery and business development.” 

What excites Morten about this common scenario is the opportunity to help roasters reconnect with their calling and settle the technical and systemic aspects of their business so they can rediscover their dream. Morten says the difference between dreaming and planning is good old fashioned project management. Such advice is part of the consultancy services Morten provides at Coffee Minds, a Copenhagen-based Coffee Academy that focuses on educational coffee courses, research, and consultancy.

“The purpose of the research we’re conducting at Coffee Minds is to map the relationship between roast profile and flavour. We want to help the community by establishing facts on roasting rather than myths, and create set curriculum to teach coffee roasting in the future,” Morten says. “We focus a lot on science as a method to get precise results deliberately which is also a technique which is rising in demand in the specialty coffee community.”

Morten is particularly passionate about using cognitive training to improve sensory skills and roasting technique. 

“I think sensory learning is the next phase in coffee,” he says. “Attention and memory is important when cupping and these can be trained specifically. [Sensory learning] is equally relevant for all links in the coffee production chain… but also because the methods used in business practices and exam systems are a bit rusty from a scientific point of view, which is what we’re trying to do something about.”

In addition to helping roasters build their business and practices, Morten is committed to research. In 2009 he published one of the most recognised scientific papers to date, an analysis on cappuccino foam using a camera to track  the dynamics of foam. 

“We received €300,000 from dairy producer Naturmælk and funding from the Danish government to play with cappuccino foam for two years at the university. It was pretty cool,” Morten says. “The foam quality of a cappuccino actually changes from low to high as the natural variation of protein goes from low (3.0 per cent) to high (3.8 per cent) with the natural seasonal variation in protein.”

Morten started to volunteer at the then-Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) in 2013 and developed the new three-level system at SCAE (now Specialty Coffee Association) in coffee roasting certification. 

In its simplest form, Morten says coffee roasting is just “using a heat source and modulating colour versus time to achieve flavour”. However, without set curriculum it’s easy for roasters to focus too heavily on components that aren’t important.

“[So] much time is wasted discussing opinions that might not be relevant or true. If there is no evidence to settle the discussion it can continue for years and will waste a lot of time for the community to be caught up in nonsense discussions,” he says.

Morten is on his way to setting the record straight. He has completed more than 20 SCA research projects covering such topics as roast defects, water quality, processing methods, starter cultures, sensory science, roast degree preferences, and behavioural economics of consumer preferences, a topic he presented at Re:co in 2015. Morten says the Re:co talk was a bit controversial at the time because it showed that you can actually dissatisfy consumers by serving them high quality. 

“I felt that it was a much needed wake up call for the specialty coffee business. I do not see it as the end of specialty,” he says, “I see it as a contribution to our approach to product development that will make us a bit more intelligent/strategic when approaching a customer.”

Morten shared these sentiments when hundreds of industry members gathered at Toby’s Estate’s Knowledge Talks venues acoss Australia in February to hear him speak about his research. He captivated and challenged the audience’s perspective around science-based roasting and the importance of training to improve roasting and sensory skills.

Australia has a thriving roasting community, but Morten says there’s still a need to educate a new generation of roasters, especially on the ranked order of importance of product development, quality control and product-consumer mapping. To assist, Morten anticipates a SCA Sensory Guild will form, but the challenge for now is teaching simple roasting skills and analysis.

“[We need to be] completely clear about what is important and what are just community anecdotes,” Morten says. “[We need to] give [roasters] confidence in walking the path with the technical understanding they need, but also open their eyes to the importance of enjoying the process, and designing and choosing your own life despite being pressed for time and resources, which is always the case for small start-ups.”

Morten’s future is entwined with coffee. He’s excited for the opportunities that lie ahead, including his biggest find to date on sensory and chemical aspects of roast profile modulation with the SCA, which is coming soon. He also wants to take an in-depth look at the relevance of differentiating organic acids in coffee, map consumer methodology and behavioural economics of coffee, and discover the relationships between roast profiles and the resulting sensory modulation of the coffee. 

Speaking like a true scientist, Morten says there’s still more to uncover. 

“The specialty coffee business is growing in size and also in the consciousness about the necessity of education, which happens to be where I sit in the coffee business,” he says.  

For more information on the next Knowledge Talks, visit www.tobysestate.com.au

Image credit: Melissa So.