This Edmonton Student Applies Science to His Coffee Brewing Techniques

A life-changing cup of coffee inspired Ply Pasarj to bring his scientific skill set to the coffee bar.

Illustration by Mai Ly Degnan

All it took was one cup of coffee, brewed exactly the right way, to completely transform Ply Pasarj’s life. Sitting in a local cafe several years ago, his eyes were opened to flavours unlike any he’d tasted in coffee before. Having previously worked in an olive-oil-tasting room, Pasarj had already begun to develop a palate for delicate flavours. But to have the experience in coffee was something different altogether.

“It was a clover-brewed cup,” he says, explaining the single-cup brewing process used, “and it had depth like I hadn’t had before in coffee.”

He didn’t know it at the time, but that cup was the beginning of a journey that would soon take him around the world.

“It’s all quite unexpected. I never would have predicted where this would end up,” he laughs.

As a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, Pasarj spends his days searching for bioactive compounds extracted from marine organisms that could be potentially developed into immunosuppressant drugs. But after that life-changing cup and some discussions with Rogue Wave Coffee Roasters, he decided to bring his scientific skill set to the coffee bar.

“It comes down to science. Ultimately, coffee is just extraction, which is what I do in my research anyway,” he says. “Of course, the difference here is that you’re looking to extract the good flavours out of coffee, and there are many variables to consider that have an impact on that.”

The types of beans, the size of the grind and the mineral content and pH of the water all impact extraction. Over the past several years, Pasarj has taken a deep dive into the science of each of these elements (and more), tinkering with different combinations to uncover new possibilities. And his approach is paying off; last year, he won out over coffee enthusiasts from across the country to take home the title of 2019 Canadian AeroPress Champion. He also managed to snag the top spot at the 2020 Canadian Brewers Cup, and was scheduled to compete at the World Brewers Cup in Melbourne this November.

Pasarj became a partner at local coffee roasters Rogue Wave in 2019, and since then has been using his position there as a platform to share coffee knowledge. The shop serves as the hub of a coffee community, where everyone from novices to aficionados can learn more about the drink. On a semi-monthly basis, pre-COVID-19, Pasarj and the team of highly knowledgeable staff at Rogue Wave offered classes exploring topics ranging from brewing basics to latte art.

“There was one class I was running in the past, on the differences in coffee filters, and I spent an hour just talking about what effect the different types of paper and their composition or thickness will have on your coffee,” says Pasarj.

One of Pasarj’s favourite events to host is coffee cupping, where attendees sip varietals they might not otherwise try. These drop-in, casual events are a chance to ask questions, learn more and just appreciate all things coffee.

“The intent of our events is not to say, ‘This is the best cup of coffee.’ It’s more about helping people find their own personal palate,” he says. “We want to give people a chance to try something new, and maybe learn something that will have an impact on the way they brew at home.”

This article appears in the June 2020 issue of Avenue Edmonton.

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