An MIT Alumni Association Publication
Professor Samuel Cate Prescott 1894. Photo: MIT Museum

MIT alumni are obsessed with coffee. So much so that graduate alumni documented it on their class ring, the Grad Rat, and in 2013, an MIT startup raised more than $200,000 on Kickstarter to develop a coffee-infused dress sock.

But the origin of MIT's coffee fixation may have began in 1920, when the National Coffee Roasters Association gave MIT Professor Samuel Cate Prescott 1894 a $40,000 grant to develop the perfect cup of coffee and help dispel prevailing myths that coffee could be poisonous.

Prescott's formula, perfected after three years of study? "One tablespoon of coffee per eight ounces of water, just short of boiling, in glass or ceramic containers, never boiled, reheated, or reused," according to the MIT Museum.

The research by Prescott—who later became the first dean of the MIT School of Science—ultimately showed that, properly imbibed, coffee could augment mental and physical activity, and ads related to Prescott’s work appeared in over 1,200 newspapers and magazines with a daily circulation of 36 million.

Jeremy Kuempel '10 Jeremy Kuempel '10. Photo: JD Lasica 

And nearly 100 years later, another MIT alumnus, Jeremy Kuempel ’10, is attempting to once again perfect the technology of coffee-making.

A recent article in Fast Company profiles Kuempel, a Course 2 major at MIT, and his attempt to maximize the flavor of coffee beans. His product, the Blossom One Limited, is a single cup brewing-device that sells for around $5,000 (many traditional brewers sell for around $100) and aims to give professional coffee makers more control of the variables that contribute to how a single cup of black coffee can taste.

The argument behind a flawlessly-brewed decoction: coffee beans have twice the genetic complexity of wine, so baristas may be wise to act more like sommeliers.

According to the article, Kuempel’s coffee-related research began during his undergraduate time at MIT, in between internships at Tesla and Apple. His goal: to extract peak taste from a particular coffee bean using individual brewing formulas controlled by a specialized device, not unlike the research that uncovered the Higgs Boson.

Can Blossom's MIT-enhanced brew win over skeptical baristas?Fast Company:

“It's sort of like what they're doing with the large hadron collider in physics,” says Kuempel of those early MIT experiments. “They look at the space of subatomic particles and they can predict where they're going find them, but then they say, ‘Well in order to test this, we need to create these unique conditions that allow these particles to appear,’ and thus they build the large hadron collider to discover the Higgs Boson particle.”

The research and methods of Prescott and Kuempel are vastly different. (In Prescott's defense, the Higgs Boson wouldn't be discovered for another 90 years.) But their ultimate goal, however far-reaching, is one they share with thousands of alumni who came in between them—the perfect cup of coffee.

Read the full Fast Company article, which sheds light on the evolution on coffee brewing, the unique brewing methods of monks and cowboys, and how the steam technology that modernized trains led to the creation of espresso.



Mon, 09/22/2014 10:02am

This is an interesting news article for me to document as coffee's history.
I'm going to include an appropriate entry for the above paragraph which says, "But the origin of MIT’s coffee fixation may have began in 1920, when the National Coffee Roasters Association gave MIT Professor Samuel Cate Prescott 1894 a $40,000 grant to develop the perfect cup of coffee and help dispel prevailing myths that coffee could be poisonous." in my website page as a Key Milestone. Thank you.

Mon, 09/15/2014 3:24am

The Fast Company article only hinted at where cafes and roasters could get the then benefit out of the Blossom One machine; and that is in micro-lot batch roasted beans. Imagine the tasting "parties" one could have.

Nice to see the price come down. Still a little out of my price bracket at the moment.

Sun, 09/14/2014 5:04pm

Different people have different preferences regarding coffee. How does one define "best" in such a situation?

Next Up