From the Lab, All the Rest

Monday, July 11, 2022

10 Minutes with Lucia Solis

Interested in coffee fermentation and processing education? Then you’re probably familiar with Lucia Solis. In recent years, Lucia’s name has become synonymous with innovative microbial processing, equal-opportunity education and fairness in the coffee industry.

The stars have aligned and The Center is proud to be sponsoring a coffee producer who’s attending Lucia’s upcoming fermentation workshop in Colombia. The Center, whose mission is to make coffee education accessible to learners across the coffee supply chain, is proud to support Lucia in her work at the forefront of making fermentation education accessible to producers. The workshop is 5 days and will take participants through every stage of coffee processing, from selecting cherry to fermentation to drying.

 Lucia studied Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis and worked as a winemaker in Napa Valley. After nine years in the wine industry, she transitioned to coffee production. Today, she’s a fermentation and coffee processing specialist who focuses on using microbes to make coffee fermentation reproducible and stable. She works with producers across Latin America.

Lucia is a fount of knowledge about everything from fermentation techniques to supply chain sustainability, so we couldn’t pass up this chance to sit down with her and hear her latest thoughts. 

What inspired you to offer this course? What do you hope participants will take away?

Lucia Solis: I have wanted to do a workshop like this since 2019 when I realized how exhausting it is to constantly travel and do one-on-one consulting. I wanted to flip the way I work and instead of doing multiple one-on-one visits, I wanted to stay in one place and gather coffee professionals so I could reach more people. The other benefit of learning in a group is that instead of just learning from me, attendees can learn from each other as well. I want to create a space of collaborative learning and give coffee professionals a network of processing enthusiasts so that I never feel like a bottleneck to learning.

What is the structure of the workshop?

Attendees will arrive Monday morning July 18th in Colombia. After getting settled in their hotel, we will start to sort cherry together that evening. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are full days of hands-on processing, classroom-style presentations of microbiology and theory, and cuppings. The event ends Friday by noon when we have a shuttle back to the airport. So, it's 3 full days and 2 half days (Mon and Fri) that are arrival/departure days with light activity

What are three things that you’ve learned through your work?

Lucia: First, something I talk about a lot is how coffee is not like wine. I come from a background in wine production and worked in the wine industry for 9 years before transitioning to coffee. I have a very intimate knowledge of wine processing and how inapplicable it is to coffee. We really want coffee to be like wine - to honor the producers and the product by elevating coffee to the status of wine - but it’s actually really disrespectful to coffee to do that.

I see people laying coffee over wine’s structure: using terroir, the flavor wheel, even serving coffee in wine glasses. But it’s kind of a way to erase the really ugly and colonial history of coffee. Wine doesn’t have that.

Second is the importance of trying to listen more to producers. A lot of the time we talk about producers, but we don’t really talk to them, and we don’t really listen that much. There’s always this gung-ho of ‘let’s solve the problems’ and a lot of the time, we don’t listen to what their problems actually are.

Third, I think to slow down. A lot of our youthful energy is about trying to do things quickly. Our attention spans are so short, but the time scale of agriculture just doesn’t work that way. It’s a long-term process. Changing over a new variety will take years. I’ve learned to work on being more patient. I’m not naturally patient so this is the industry reflecting on me.

What are the components to an ideal coffee supply chain?

Lucia: Without payment you can’t really get to the other stuff. Without that foundation, how do you get to the other things. If you’re not being paid a living wage for the work that you’re doing, then what does access matter? I see so many producers just in survival mode, or they’re so much in debt that it feels hopeless.

At the same time, simply throwing more money at the problem just isn’t the whole answer.

I was in Honduras and doing consulting work and we didn’t have any cherry. We were offering to pay five times the going rate for cherry. It was literally five times the price of daily wages, and it still wasn’t enough to cover their debt. They were so in debt that even with those prices they’re still 15 years in debt.

So, what’s a potential answer?

Lucia: I see your point, that when you’re talking to consumers, you want to give them hope and make them feel like they matter, but I [also] see the gravity of the problem and the depth of inequality that is present in the supply chain.

I feel like my role in this whole thing is to bring awareness and have a bit more of a conversation so someone else can have the answer down the road. Maybe the answer is 500 different answers with everybody doing things a little bit differently.

What do you think are the most effective ways to communicate information to producers?

Lucia: I’ve seen a lot of success in Latin America with Whatsapp. Lots of producers have Whatsapp, even more than Instagram, so it’s easy to target information directly to them. I’ve seen projects that are focusing on that model and it seems like it’s really working for producers.

Let’s talk about varieties. What do you think about all the new varieties entering the scene right now?

Lucia: I’ve been really critical of focusing too much on varieties. Genetic diversity is really important, and we should have more varieties, but what I’ve seen is a lot of time invested in breeding new varieties without empowering producers with knowledge about what to do with those varieties. They’re not being taught how to take care of these new plants. It’s kicking the problem down the road a bit. We’re disease-resistant for a bit, but no one has been taught the skills to manage diseases and pests in the long run.

Additionally, I’m frustrated with the narrative that focusing on new varieties is helping the farmer. New varieties are a solution for the industry. It makes sure that people will still have coffee, but is it really helping producers?  I’m glad they’re producing new varieties, but this important component of how it’s actually affecting the farmer and what they’re gaining (or not) is still missing.

How about high-scoring varieties? Are those good for producers?

Lucia: There’s definitely a place for them. What’s missing is the communication that they’re not always high-scoring if you don’t know how to treat them. I’ve had a lot of Geishas that were just meh because the processing wasn’t matching with the variety. Producers think that the variety is going to save the day, but it’s not just about the variety, it’s about how you grow and process it too. I just wish there was more information for producers that many of these varieties are lower-yielding and more finicky. You’re not going to get 90+ coffees just because you plant them and now you’ve invested 3 or 4 years in a plan that might not even still be ‘hot’ in 4 years’ time.

What do you think is the future of coffee processing and fermentation?

Lucia: I think specialty processing is in its infancy and there is still a lot to learn about the fundamentals and how to get consistency or scale new processing techniques. I think we are still going to see a lot of confusion before the hype dies down and we can separate the signal from the noise.

When people talk about microbial fermentation, what’s important to keep in mind? What’s not being emphasized enough?

Lucia: I think it's important to put coffee fermentation in context. Yes, it's a powerful tool for producers to apply their signature to the coffee, but it's not like other fermented beverages like beer or wine. A wine fermentation can be 5 to 25 days. A coffee fermentation can be 12 to 48 hours. And coffee cherries do not need to be fermented at all to get a brewed beverage. On the other hand, grapes MUST be fermented to become wine. I think it's tough in coffee because the fermentation of coffee cherries is simultaneously overlooked and overhyped. It can absolutely make a big difference in flavor AND it's not necessary at all to produce good coffee.

I also wanted to add something to your question about varieties. I think the question we overlook is "should farmers be growing coffee at all?" Perhaps for many, it's not about finding a better disease-resistant variety of coffee to grow, but giving farmers options about other crops that might be less intensive to grow or have better market access for them. We care about helping farmers as long as it still helps us drink coffee. I would like us to evolve to the point of wanting to help farmers even if it means helping them get out of coffee.

Lucia’s fermentation workshop will take producers through every step of processing, from selecting the best cherry to fermentation techniques and drying methods. We’re proud to sponsor a female producer’s ticket so she can attend the workshop and learn from Lucia’s extensive experience. Interested in learning more? The July workshop is full but Lucia plans to offer another course in September. Find more info on her website. Lucia also offers online courses for coffee enthusiasts and professionals on everything from processing techniques to cupping.