CQI’s Mario Fernández on myth busting

Coffee Quality Institute’s Technical Director Mario Fernández is determined to bring coffee processing into the forefront of flavour control, but warns it comes with full responsibility.

Mario Fernández has a growing list of more than 50 problems, but his determination is not one. Rather, his spreadsheet of issues consist of common coffee processing myths he says are simply rumours that have circulated like a bad case of Chinese whispers.

For the past few years, that’s included the poor quality and mistrust of natural processed coffees, false claims about yeast fermentation and honey-processing methods, and one of Mario’s particular favourites – people preferring solar drying over mechanical drying just because it’s “more environmentally friendly”.

“We have to start myth busting. People process coffee all over the world, but no-one taught us how to do it properly,” says Mario of Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), a non-profit organisation working internationally to improve the quality of coffee and the lives of those who produce it. “There is no school to study green bean production and harvesting. Everyone has managed thanks to parent or peer information, learning from books, trial and error, and experience. We need a base of common knowledge and theoretical understanding about coffee processing and practices to help improve overall coffee quality.” 

For the record, Mario says there’s no valid reason to give natural processed coffees a tainted name. 

“Thanks to CQI’s research and extended knowledge over the past few years, we’ve learned that low quality naturals are not due to the processing method itself, but a series of production mistakes,” he says. “In particular, the Australian market likes the flavour profile of naturals.”

To curb the fabrications one by one, CQI launched Q Processing in 2017, a new program to train and certify coffee professionals on correct methods of coffee processing. Participants undertake a series of skills tests and assessment that Mario says are just as challenging as CQI’s well-recognised Q Grader assessment, which certifies specialty coffee cuppers.

“The original purpose of the Q Grader was to have certified people who we trust in the industry to grade specialty coffee accurately and share that with industry professions around the world to set global standards. That remains the spirit of the program,” Mario says. “The course is challenging because we want to make sure we’re producing cuppers who are up to the role and standard, and the same applies for our Q Processing certificates. I don’t think it would benefit the industry if the level of difficulty was any lower.”

Q Grading has just one level for daring participants to tackle, whereas Q Processing has three. 

Level one is a two-day course targeted to coffee professionals living in urban areas with no direct relationship with processing, such as baristas and roasters. It teaches a generalist level of processing knowledge that focuses on lectures, group activities and cuppings to understand how processing expresses itself in the cup. The first level one Q Processing course was taught in Portland in August 2017. 

“Level one deliberately targets roasters and baristas because they’re the ones who tell customers about processing but often it’s not the right information,” Mario says. “This program will help set the record straight and transfer the right knowledge about classification of processing methods with one single multiple choice test at the end of the course.”

Level two is a six-day processing boot camp, or “origin retreat” as Mario describes it, for the coffee professional who deals with post-harvest processing on a regular basis. The course provides deep theoretical knowledge and technical practices for participants to learn how to monitor variables and quality control. After the intense course, 15 tests await participants. 

The first level two program was taught in Colombia in March 2017, the country where CQI’s Q Arabica course originated more than a decade ago. Others have since followed in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Taiwan, and El Salvador’s footsteps to produce four Q Processing instructors. This year will see the maturation of level one and two in Asia and Africa. CQI hopes to launch level three in May 2019, a year-long excelled program that’s not for the faint of heart. It involves studying how cupping can direct process optimisation, and experimenting with different processing protocols. 

“It’s for people committed to exploring processing and how it plays with coffee flavour, similar to studying a university diploma in terms of its duration and depth,” Mario says. 

Like CQI’s core purpose, Mario says Q Processing aims to improve coffee quality, starting at ground level. Already 222 people have enrolled for the Q Processing courses. Sixty-one people have completed level one, and 118 professionals have completed level two. As much as the course is about investment in skills, Mario says it allows the industry at large to gather solid data to advance production procedures.

“As a whole, we really don’t know much about processing. We’ve only scratched the surface,” he says. “We believe there is a lot of value that can be added to the average producer through applying better knowledge and technologies to their processing practices. There are whole regions or countries that have poor quality coffee due to poor harvesting practices or drying practices, and if we can make those coffees score five points higher we will have accomplished our mission in that remark.” 

Mario will travel to Australia from 23 to 28 August for the first time to speak to audiences in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne for Toby’s Estate’s Knowledge Talks. He will educate audiences about his role as CQI Technical Director in constructing and supervising projects at origin and the challenges around creating new certification and education programs.  

Mario lived in New Zealand for three years where he obtained his PhD in food science at University of Otago. He now lives in Portland, Oregon and says if Australian café culture is anything like the few Australian-operated shops he’s experienced in the US, then he’s excited for what’s to come. 

“As well as understanding the Australian coffee community better, I really want to share that correct knowledge on processing methods can help sell your coffee and improve your quality coffee message to the consumer. Often in some countries, baristas can pass on information that’s not factually correct and that confusion is not good for anybody: the industry, barista, or consumer,” he says. 

“As an industry, we are very proud of how we roast and brew our coffee, but it’s not the only way to express your style. Yes, it has such a big impact on coffee flavour, but so does processing. It’s an art,  the same way roasting and brewing is.”

This article appears in the August edition of BeanScene. To read the story in FULL, subscribe now.