60-Second Science

Coffee Tasting Machine Stirs Industry

Quality-control coffee tasters take note: a machine may make you obsolatte. Adam Hinterthuer reports.

These days, it seems no one’s job is safe from computerized replacements. Now it’s time to add coffee experts to that list. Scientists at the Nestle Research Center in Switzerland have developed a coffee-tasting machine that can sip and evaluate a brew almost as well as professional human tasters. The machine takes a sample of the gases produced by a steaming shot of espresso and analyzes dozens of ions associated with taste and aroma. Those ions are assigned to categories in a “sensory evaluation dataset.” But, that doesn’t mean the results are dry chemical formulas. In fact, the machine has a vocabulary that would make any sommelier jealous. After it crunches the numbers, it spits out words like “flowery,” “woody,” and “butter toffee” to describe its drinking experience.

Researchers say machines like this could be efficient monitors of quality control in the food industry. And no matter how many cups a day it samples, the mechanized coffee taster will never get jittery.  Nevertheless, rumor has it that the machine has already demanded a daily 15-minute anything-but-coffee break.

—Adam Hinterthuer

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