Should Coffee be Saved? An interview with Lucia Solis

Among the voices calling for change in the coffee industry, none ring clearer than Lucia Solis’s. As a trained oenologist who studied at UC Davis, Solis uses her expertise as a winemaker to help coffee farmers improve their fermentation techniques. In reality, the better part of a decade spent traveling to coffee mills has made Solis one of the industry’s leading coffee processing experts.

As someone who has spent most of my time in coffee on the consumer-facing side, I’ve learned a lot from Solis’s newsletter and podcast, Making Coffee with Lucia Solis. I’m grateful that Lucia made time for a call over WhatsApp, where we discussed her podcast, the devastating effects of COVID-19 for coffee farmers, and whether or not coffee should be saved.

We’ve really been enjoying, and learning a lot from your podcast. What inspired you to start it?

It was an idea I had for a few years before I got the courage to do it. In 2016 I even sketched out a few episode ideas and was trying to come up with a podcast title. When I gave my 2017 ReCo presentation I thought I had made a basic argument, I didn’t understand why people didn’t understand what I was talking about. It took me the better part of a year to understand where people’s deficiencies were. I didn’t understand why people didn’t understand me.

Eventually I realized that because I was coming from a different industry, we had very different references.

I wondered “Why are we talking about this and not that”? Consequently being an outsider gave a fresh perspective on many things the coffee industry took for granted.
When I finally started to get a handle on some topics, I kept waiting for someone else to write or talk about it. I didn’t believe that I had a particularly unique perspective. Eventually it was 2019 and I thought it was time to make the thing I wanted to see in the world. It’s been a really fun year working on the episodes and connecting with people who resonate with the ideas.

It seems so many coffee podcasts are geared towards novice coffee professionals and consumers, but your podcast doesn’t shy away from more complex subjects. Do you have a target audience in mind?

I consult with coffee farmers and producers, that’s who I have the most contact with in the industry. So when I was thinking of the audience, I’ve always thought of producers first and foremost. I’m trying to talk to the people that own mills and process coffee.

After I record an episode I go back and ask myself ‘Did I talk to the producer enough?’ If not, I try to tweak some things.

If I end up talking about the consumer side of the industry, I’m still thinking of the producer and trying to give them a lens to see this side. It’s a happy accident that there’s that overlap. It’s interesting when I hear from people who listen to the podcast who are not in the industry at all. I even have some listeners who don’t drink coffee but enjoy learning about how things are made.

I think it’s interesting that your back ground in wine often seems to come up when people in coffee misappropriate wine making paraphernalia or techniques. For example, you have an issue with Brix meters.

Brix and refractometers is one of the worst offenders in my opinion. I wanted to shout it from the roof tops, ‘this thing doesn’t do what you think it does!’ Many producers have seen quality go down when they use refractometers.

It’s a complex subject that is treated superficially. It was the supposed to the first episode of the podcast but I had too much to say about it and it’s been weighing on me that I have 24 episodes, a year later and I still have not recorded that episode, it is my white whale.

The trends incorporating winemaking techniques are consumer-driven. Consumers are focused on the beverage, but there is such a disconnect to the plant material. Producers are not coming up with these ideas themselves, they are not organic. It’s coming from the outside in. These misconceptions aren’t happening because of producers, they’re happening because baristas and roasters told producers to do these things.

On the surface it’s seen as “helpful” and “sharing information” but go a little deeper and I believe it’s neo-colonialism. These trends put economic pressure on producers and end up dramatically influencing and controlling the styles of coffees that producers make,

It seems to tie in with something you wrote on your Instagram, that coffee professionals often try to draw this contrived connection with wine instead of letting coffee be its own thing.

Absolutely. I get that it’s well intentioned. I understand that the wine comparisons are an attempt to show reverence for a product we all love. But good intentions are not enough anymore.

İt’s an attempt to elevate the beverage and show our passion, but unfortunately this line of reasoning (putting coffee in wine glasses and/or proclaiming “coffee terroir” glosses over the colonial past of coffee. The history of these beverages is fundamentally different and pretending coffee is or can be, or should be like wine is erasure of so many people in the supply chain.

It’s not a compliment to coffee to try and live in wine’s shadow.

Obviously, in the situation we find ourselves, we have a lot of companies worrying about the impact of COVID-19. What are you hearing from coffee producers?

It’s bad. It’s really, really dark. I just recorded an episode, where I’m talking to a producer in Peru who is talking about exit strategies. The conversation is changing from “how to save coffee” to “how to save ourselves from coffee”. Meaning that staying in coffee is a bad option for many coffee producers.

From the beginning my message to many of my clients who only grow coffee is to diversify “grow anything else”. Even before the pandemic, the future of coffee was grim.

I don’t see it getting better, I see it getting worse. The coffee industry has been in crisis for a very long time. Then you add the layer of unsustainable prices, climate change, where producers won’t be able to grow where they used to. Then add the pressure of diseases and low yields.

Many producers are abandoning their farms for different reasons.

I read recently that although arabica futures are decreasing, robusta futures are rising because people are staying home and drinking more instant coffee.

I don’t think the specialty sector will be able to ignore (and look down on) robusta much longer. Growing robusta is a good option for many producers and I think coffee drinkers will need to adapt. Consumers keep asking producers to adapt to consumer preferences to dry on raised beds instead of by machine, to try novel protocols like carbonic maceration or to grow delicate varieties like gesha. I think the time will flip soon where consumers will have to adapt to producer’s needs. Instead of getting more producers to grow specialty gesha, we consumers might have to learn to like robusta.

There’s so much of an effort to “save coffee” and make it “more sustainable”. But coffee’s history is fundamentally colonial. So when I hear “save coffee” I also hear “save colonial power structures”

I’m not convinced coffee should be saved. Maybe as consumers we want to save coffee because we like coffee, but “saving coffee” (maintaining existing power structures) hurts so many people. I’m not convinced our preference of wanting to have a cup of coffee is enough to justify keeping the system in motion.

Do you have any ideas on how we can decolonize coffee? Obviously, you must think we can since you are still working with coffee farmers.

You’d think it would be obvious, but it’s not to me. I believe the ship is sinking, but maybe I don’t care enough about myself to jump ship. I currently don’t feel the need to save myself, so I keep working in coffee.

I could easily go back to working in the wine industry, but I’m sticking around because I think I can still be useful. Maybe someone a lot smarter than me can figure out how to decolonize coffee. I don’t think it can be, I don’t have those answers.

But maybe I can help a producer lower the cost of production or stabilize their processes to buy enough time for someone smarter to have a better solution.

I’m impressed that your podcast doesn’t have any sponsors or advertisements. You rely solely on your Patreon for funding.

I want to have complete control of what I say. It’s important to me to have that autonomy. For me to feel like I can contribute something of value, I need to be in a situation where I feel the comfort of being honest. I don’t want to spend energy trying to get sponsors or worrying about offending certain sponsors or even to distract my listeners by interrupting the episode to play an ad.

Being a patron is as little as $3 a month. If this is something that people don’t think is worth that, then what’s the point? If I’m not doing a good enough job to convince listeners that it’s worth $3, then I don’t deserve to be taking up their time. This really needs to be community supported and if the community doesn’t want it, I’ll do something else.

You mentioned that there are so many producers who need to have their stories told. Can you tell us one?

It’s an uncomfortable power dynamic when someone nobly proclaims they want to tell a marginalized person’s story. Everyone I’ve talked to is perfectly capable of telling their own story. So my hope is to provide a platform and structure for producers to share what they want to share.

Consumers, baristas, roasters, importers and producers have instagram accounts.

One thing I recently realized is how even when we think producers have access to these platforms like we do, they don’t because the power dynamic in the coffee supply chain is so skewed towards consumers and coffee buyers..

Coffee farmers are at the beginning (and bottom) of the chain, they depend on everyone else. This even translates to social media like instagram. I had a comment on a recent instagram post from a coffee farmer, he said he doesn’t feel like he’s allowed to share his challenges, whether or not it’s been a bad weather year or if yields are down, because the banks might see this information. He depends on the bank to loan him money, maybe if the bank senses trouble they will not approve the loan. He also depends on the exporter and roaster to buy his coffee.

Roasters sell his coffee and use “his story” to differentiate their roasted coffee. If he posted the truth of the hardships and challenges of being a farmer, he could lose business. The roaster needs him to paint a positive picture so that customers feel good about buying this coffee.

He said “I’m just not allowed to tell the truth.”

I didn’t realize how many producers feel that pressure.

If farmers feel the pressure to only talk about the positive sides, then we keep getting this inaccurate picture that makes us feel good but we aren’t making any progress.

You’ve mentioned that some importers and roasters exaggerate their impact at origin.

Maybe they don’t exaggerate the relationships but there’s a certain way many roasters or importers talk about how much they pay for the coffee. Many like to say that they pay double or triple or even five times the C price. This makes them look very good but it’s still based on the C price which is a very poor metric. What matters is the cost of production, not the C price because that fluctuates.

Paying “double” or more for coffees is used as a pat on the back for the roaster. That type of language centers the roaster, and usually distracts from how coffee is purchased in the first palace, and how the C price is disconnected from cost of production and how many producers lose money by growing coffee. That language presents itself as “pro-farmer” but it celebrates the roaster and rarely gets around to the more important questions like ‘What is a living wage for farmers? Or What should coffee cost?’

 

Photo courtesy of Lucia Solis. 

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