MILAN – From wine to coffee following the file rouge of fermentation: this is the professional story of Lucia Solis, who decided to move from the United States to Colombia in order to teach green producers a process that could help them have more control over the raw material. Fermentation, as readers are well aware, is a phenomenon that is also increasingly involving and intriguing the other side of the supply chain, particularly micro roasters. Let us try to shed some light on what this trend entails from a scientific point of view.
First of all, let us make the necessary introductions: who is Lucia Solis, what is her professional experience and why did she enter the world of coffee
“I started my carreer making wine at UC Davis, that’s an University in California very near to the Napa Valley where they produce wine. I went to school and I’ve always loved the sciences, such as biology and chemistry. Once I was at UC Davis and doing a science degree full time, I felt so lonely. Science can be very solitary and it didn’t suit my personality. As a woman I enjoyed more collaborative work. – I’ve felt so lonely, because to find other girls studying science it’s very difficult.
So, I was already at Uc Davis and they had a program about wine, and I thought to attend that because it just seemed to me the most secure path to follow. I graduated with a wine making degree called Viticulture and Enology. Viticulture focuses on plant biology and Enology is about the chemistry of creating wine.. Then I went to Napa Valley and I just started working in this sector, really loving that.
I managed a lot of fermentation processes inside the winery. It was after that period that a coffee company reached out to me, asking me to travel to different coffee mills in Central and South America and try different yeast strains on coffee. Basically, they recruited me: because of processing, through that experience, I got into the coffee industry, and only after I’ve learned to drink it, love it and it became a big part of my life.
I’ve made the total switch from wine to coffee in 2014 and since then my job is to travel to different fields, showing the producers the principles and the basics of fermentation in a controlled way: many coffee producers already ferment their coffee, but they dont know what’s going on in the tank, in a way they are blind. If we can’t learn to manage this process, ferment with intention, we can’t have reproducible results.
I went all over Central-South America and parts of Africa. My whole business model included traveling. After the start of the pandemicI realised that I needed to develop a new business model: that’s when my husband and I went to live in Colombia. That’s where I’m now. Doing every week a long travel wasn’t a sustainable business model anymore: Now I work to create workshops where people come to one place, instead of me constantly traveling.”
Let’s talk specifically about microbiological fermentations (i.e. those obtained by yeasts and bacteria): why are they making their way from the world of wine into coffee lately?
“I think we’re in a really interesting moment as consumers: the trend now is to care about where our food comes from.Conscious consumers want to know where everything has its origin, not only for coffee. In addition, there’s a lot of interest in health among our generation: food is not just a fuel, but also a medicine. It’s a process that consumers now in some way perceive as something more linked to the concept of pro biotic and organic and so they buy it because it seems helthier. People are really interested on those aspects: in some way that’s a good thing, in the other sense it could ben totally confusing, because there’s things that are totally nonsense and just marketing or branding.”
What are the major problems in applying this process to the green bean?
“That’s a really good questions, that nobody is asking enough: people are often excited about why we’re doing fermentation, but if you don’t question the process you can’t improve the method itself. Focusing on what are the main difficulties it’s where I spend the most of my time. For me the biggest difficulty is in the level of education of the farmers: a lot of coffee producers make this job because their families did the same for many years but they don’t have an academic point of view. Very few of them went to university and have a degree in microbiology and then come back to the farms. Many of them just inherit the company, it’s a family business.
So trying to put together these very technical coffee fermentations is a real challenge: they don’t fully understand what they’re doing, they don’t know what most of the technical terms they use really mean. Coffee is grown in 70 countries, we all seak different languages and eve the same languages have different words for the same thing. We dont have a common language and a lot of things get lost in translation.
Another issue is the accessibility: a lot of equipment that is necessary to develop the fermentations are not widely available. We can find them more easily in Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, some in Australia, otherwise you need to invest a lot of money to have them shipped to you.. Of course, in addition to that, nowadays there’s some shipping delay, but normally there are a lot of barriers and red tapes that you have to cross to get the right equipment. And many people also misunderstand the real importance for farmers to work with them.”
What still needs to be improved and studied when it comes to coffee?
“Hygiene. We don’t have a proper culture of cleaning in coffee, because many people are very relaxed about bacterias: they often rely on the fact that they are going to be burned during the roasting. Because of the roasting process, you will not ingest harmful pathogens but during processing, you can still reduce the quality of the fermentation. but they don’t consider that if all of this stuff is dirty, then they’re losing the real effectiveness. In this way fermentation becomes more decomposition.
The difficulty comes also from the charm of labels: what’s more popular is to be able to talk about a coffee that had a 400 hours frozen cherry fermentation. What has more value in today’s culture of specialty coffee are the amount of words you can use to describe a coffee. are the words and people forget that the important thing it’s not how much sounds cool, but in the end, if it’s good or not.”
So how many types of fermentation exist?
“It depends on whom you’re speaking with: if you are speaking to a scientist, she will answer that there is only one type of fermentation, that is the one when the bacterias and microbes are consuming a fuel source and as a by-product, producing aroma and flavor precursors.
But when you talk to coffee people, the trend is to qualify, so we have a lactic fermentation, an acetic fermentation, an anaerobic fermentation, a double fermentation: they make them sound like they’re different processes, but if we want to remain scientific, it’s always the same thing. Fermentation is like people: superficially we can seem different, but in the end, we’re all human beings.”
What are the greatest results in terms of quality and aroma?
“My experience: I like to work more with volume and with mid rage coffees (from 80 to 84). I don’t really like to work with specialties of 90 plus. Because I don’t think that most farmers could work with those products and instead, I want to have a bigger impact. What I’ve seen with the type of fermentation that I used: I have seen as much as a 6 point difference, starting from a 78 points. However, I don’t believe you can take a 85 point coffee and make it a 92 point coffee with fermentation techniques alone a 85 and making it a 92 one.
I think that you can’t make a real difference above this level. When I’m starting with an 85/86, it only usually goes up to 86.5, a very small benefit. There’s only one great value for farmers adding fermentation, because through that process they can get more stability and have the same quality every single time. I try to get people to have real expectations: I believe that if you have a 90 point coffee, you could avoid fermentation, because you have an interesting variety and it’s very healthy because of good practices on the farm. On the other hand, producers that have made commercial coffee all their life can use fermentation techniques to enter into the specialty market.”
The koji used for coffee fermentation has been a reality for some time now: what can you tell us about this further experimentation?
“It’s a fungus: it’s not a different kind of fermentation. The difference is to identify the microorganism: is it a bacteria, or a fungus? So speaking about Koji: I’ve tried the result of this process and I liked it very much, because it’s very delicate. I just don’t use it, because it has very narrow temperature requirements. It has to be set around 25 degrees, it needs to be warm and you have to keep the fermentation very consistent. If it gets too cold or too hot, the fungus dies. It’s very difficult to reproduce, so I do not recommend the technique for beginners”.
What should we expect in this world from your point of view in the coming years? Fermentation in wine has many years of practice, but it’s not the same for coffee
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better: there’s going to be a reaction from people that get bored from funky flavours. We’re just at the beginning and before to know better about fermentation, in the future we will have more wiredness and confusion. I mainly talk to coffee producers and not coffee consumers, so I tell producers to avoid the trends and I tell them to try to avoid the trends because people are going to look back to more traditional tastes. In coffee we’re not at the same level of information and education as in wine.
I also don’t think that fermentation is really necessary for having a good coffee, as is true in wine. If you have coffee and you don’t ferment it, you will still have a good cup. It’s not necessary. Coffee doesn’t’ need the fermentation, it’s an additional value, but not totally necessary.
Many farmers come to me because they’re confused and I try to give them a map to get to the result they want to achieve in the best way. How much money do you have to get there, how do you want to reach these goals? On the other hand, I don’t want to explain everything to the consumers: I get many requests from them, but I don’t think it’s my role. I don’t own a farm, and I think that producers whose lives depend on coffee, should have more say and balance out the traditional power dynamics.
I don’t want to give consumers more weapons to use. They only have to worry about if they like or not. And if they like it, then they will pay for it. We have more important problems to focus on, such as climate changes that are threatening coffee production. And also the costs of equipment in disposale for farmers. We have a lot of things to do and problems to solve. Fermentation, good processing, it’s something that I’m passionate about, but it’s not saving coffee.”