I was rather excited to attend class for the week because we were going to get an inside look at the Cornell Agricultural Station just 5 minutes from HWS campus. The facility not only works on the genetics of apples in their extensive orchards, but also provides a number of classes on wine making along with facilities to prepare a homemade recipe for commercial markets.
We were given a tour of the vinification facilities of the agricultural station. In these places, grapes from the station’s lands and some local wineries are processed and placed into some rather large walk-in refrigerators. When our guide opened the door, you could smell the wine-smell in the hallway. These refrigerators are meant to allow fermentation of the wines along with storage of other products, such as apple ciders.
We also got to see a very fancy distillation system for making alcoholic beverages. The instrument was composed of copper and was about 15 feet high. It looked like an old fashioned wood oven. It was wide at the bottom, where the original liquid would be placed, and then flowed into a chimney that had some knobs on the side of it. The knobs allowed for the movement of various plates at different angles within the chimney which resulted in better separation and purification if you wished. The liquid that went up the chimney was then cooled down and collected in fractions, or sections of liquid that came off the distillation system.
We were also shown a room where foods are born. The agricultural station provides the equipment and expertise for developing foods if the locals request it. The room, which was currently empty, consisted of large processing machines of multiple varieties, conveyor belts and mazes of pipes. We were told that if someone had a homemade recipe that they thought could survive in the marketplace this was the place to come to test the product in important areas such as shelf life, spoilage conditions, and more.
The last part of the tour included the most interesting experience of the class and a little lesson on chocolate. I was going to get the opportunity to experience GC/O: Gas Chromatography-Olfactometry. This machine takes a tiny bit of liquid sample, say coffee, and super-heats it to break it into much smaller and volatile compounds. These volatile compounds then come through a long tube that you put against your nose. These compounds are aromatics: compounds whose aromas combine to form the distinct smell of coffee.
I was the only person to experience the GC/O because it takes at least 20 minutes to run a sample, which was going to be coffee. I was told that the 20-minute run was similar to GC/O on steroids (increasing 10 °C/min when it is usually 4 °C/min), and it did not take long for me to understand why. I was instructed to breathe like a rabbit, inhaling short quick breaths so that I would not miss any of the smells coming from the machine. I placed my nose to the machine and started breathing, waiting for the first smell to arrive. When it did, it was not something I would have associated with coffee.
The first volatile compound smelled like incredibly stinky socks and I had to move my nose away from the machine to clear my nasal cavity of the smell before I could go back to inhaling the smells. The compound associated with that smell is actually a thiol (sulfur-hydrogen group) that is a main component of coffee. There were so many different smells that included but were definitely not limited to: butter, skunk, something burnt, candy, woody, smoky, nail polish, organic solvent, green tea, and grass. There were some smells that I could not indentify because they came and went too fast. In addition, there was more than one smell coming out of the GC/O at once making it even harder to distinguish each volatile compound’s smell. Afterwards, my nose could not decide what had just happened to it, which made smelling the cacao beans in the last part of the tour a little hard to do.
Chocolate is easily one of my favorite foods, especially dark chocolate. I had never encountered whole cacao beans before and was surprised to find that whole unroasted beans smelled a little like chocolate, but had a nice vinegar smell to them as well. The raw cacao nibs smelled more like chocolate, but still had hints of vinegar. We ground up some of the nibs in a mortar and pestle and then tasted them. They were coarse (finer than grains of sand, but still detectable on the tongue), bitter, and very astringent. It felt like it was sticking to and removing all the water from your mouth. Although the taste to me was not horrible, it was understandable why companies process chocolate before selling it to consumers. The smallest a particle can be in order to feel it on your tongue, whether chocolate or some other substance is 25 microns. A micron is a micrometer or one millionth of a meter. To give you some idea of how big that is, red blood cells are about 8 microns in diameter. Throughout the commercial processing of chocolate, the vinegary smell is removed along with the astringency and coarseness of the raw nibs.