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Coffee shop project brews lessons

Published: Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 6:00 a.m. CDT
In this Jan. 25, 2014 photo, Monmouth College chemistry professor Brad Sturgeon (left) and student Chris Knutson stop for a cup of coffee at Olivia's Cookie Jar and Kitchen in Monmouth. Sturgeon is faculty advisor for the Monmouth Coffee Project, which is comprised of students interested in subjects from chemistry to business to design. The project roasts and packages the coffee, where it is available on campus and at Olivia's. (AP Photo/The Register-Mail, Steve Davis)

MONMOUTH (AP) — When Rae Conolly opened Olivia's Cookie Jar & Kitchen three and a half years ago, she had an image of what the perfect cup of coffee should look and taste like.

"I grew up on really strong coffee," said the Monmouth business owner. "I wanted that bold coffee taste without it being bitter — something that would wake you up in the morning — and that's exactly what we have today."

In line with the reputed quality of the baked goods, the freshness of Scots Roast coffee at Olivia's comes as no surprise to patrons, Conolly said. What does, however, is the coffee's origin.

The Monmouth Coffee Project is comprised of Monmouth students interested in subjects from chemistry to business to design.

They, with the help of their faculty adviser Brad Sturgeon, spend gaps between classes and free time to produce and sell their own coffee — an interdisciplinary project that helps integrate chemistry, business, and the students who major in those subjects.

On Feb. 1, the group shared their meticulously-concocted morning beverage with the public at Olivia's, which is located at 112 S. First St., Monmouth.

It is the only Monmouth establishment to serve the coffee outside the college campus, so the shop was full of coffee-curious people. Sturgeon, a professor of chemistry, explained that the project came about in 2010 when the topic piqued a chemistry student's interest, and it has since involved around 15 students overall. He also went through the various ways the team roasts its creations in one of the Monmouth lab spaces.

Sturgeon demonstrated how coffee is brewed from a percolator, a French press, an espresso machine and the standard coffee maker, as students passed out samples for guests to taste.

Monmouth student Ellen Hanes, 21, said she wasn't much of a coffee drinker, but she thoroughly enjoyed the product and the event nonetheless.

"I think it's all really interesting," Hanes said, "especially the way the business students get the experience of being part of the process."

One of those students was Matt Smith, a junior majoring in business and economy. Though he knew it merited no pay — the sale money goes back into the program's equipment and experimentation — Smith took on the role of account representative for Olivia's, purely for experience. He commits a couple days a week to visit the shop and check to see that their business partnership is in order.

"I'd come, take inventory, relay information to the roaster, then I'd package it up and deliver it," he said. "But as time went on, I also started getting into the roasting and science side of it."

Which is precisely the purpose of the small operation.

"The collaboration between science and business is somewhat unique," said Sturgeon, who's able to invest his time while on sabbatical, "partially because we have different languages and objectives, and generally, science students don't get a chance to talk academically with business students."

That's a barrier the coffee project has broken — at least for Smith and chemistry student Chris Knutson, who transferred from Carl Sandburg College last year.

When the two began their work together, each had his own part to play. As the project has continued throughout the year, however, their jobs became more intertwined as they learned about the other's topic of interest.

And now, their teamwork produces 4 to 6 pounds of coffee every week, which becomes more impressive with the knowledge that their equipment can process only 16 ounces at a time.

Sturgeon said that's exactly why he wants to keep the business side limited.

"It's one of those rare situations where our motivations are not what typical business' motivations are," he explained. "I don't need marketing because I don't need more clients.

"We don't need to get bigger because that would just add more work, and there's no additional educational component to having more clients."

So for now, they'll keep providing for Olivia's, and other individual orders that happen to come along.

"It's not a class," Sturgeon said. "They don't get paid, they don't get credit for it, so when they stop showing interest in the project, I'll stop with it. They're the ones driving it."

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