Q Processing 3: Kate Fischer

Kate Fischer, Ph.D is originally from Connecticut but has lived in Colorado since 2006. She is a professor in the Honors Program at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where she teaches classes in anthropology and women & gender studies and directs a program in leadership and diversity. She is also one of the first matriculates of the new Q Processing 3 program.

The Q Processing 3 course fosters industry leaders who will help define processing and lift those around them. Our QP3 students learn the state of the art of coffee processing, and be expected to contribute to it. This program is by invitation only, takes about a year to complete and involves three stages. The first is the remote semester, where students learn the necessary background and read the most recent scientific literature on relevant topics. Next, students attend an in-person field intensive, where students learn experimental methods, innovative processing techniques, discuss selected processing topics in depth, and design their project for the harvest season. Finally, students complete a Capstone project, in which the students aim to impact the cup flavor in a deliberate way, experimenting with processing protocols.

CQI: This is quite an achievement, what inspired you to commit to this rigorous program?

Kate Fischer:  I took QP2 to better inform the work I was doing with Catracha Coffee producers. I had joined the Catracha team to help with qualitative data and ended up fascinated by the possibilities and contradictions in processing. I took QP2 and then accepted the invitation for QP3 because I was tired of processing being just about stories. I know coming from an anthropologist this is ironic - my work is all about stories. The difference is that those are stories with evidence behind them, with context, with caveats, and much of what I was hearing from people in coffee was not. (this isn't just true for processing either.) It was, hey, this cool thing worked in Rwanda, so I want you to do it in Guatemala. There was little sense of what kind of knowledge or equipment that required, whether it was a request or a demand (hard to see it as a fully rejectable request with the power dynamics involved between small scale producers and buyers), or whether the thing that 'worked in Rwanda' really worked for the reasons described.

This is my long way around of saying that I got a Ph.D because I couldn't stop asking questions and from being frustrated with the state of answers I was given, and I signed up for QP3 for the same reason. I also hope to push specialty coffee to pay more attention to social science and not just the (apparently) sexy chemistry and microbiology side of things.

CQI: The capstone project is one of the things that adds rigor to the Q Processing 3 curriculum. Tell us about yours.

Kate Fischer: I returned to Honduras and did experiments with washing. Producers in this part of Honduras are very small scale and almost all have their own micro-mills, or share them with family. They also do a washed coffee with a dry fermentation - coffee is depulped dry and sits in a tank for a day or two without any water, then is washed (usually three times) to remove any remaining mucilage before being dried. The immediate goal was to see what would happen if there was no washing or if the coffee was only washed once. Could producers either save water or achieve a different taste profile?

The secondary goal is to answer a question I think we're just beginning to really pose: when does fermentation end? Because if fermentation is done when the fermaestro says it is, or when the coffee sounds like rocks in a river, then washing is just to make the coffee easier to handle. If it's not actually "done" at that point, then the unwashed coffees should be closer to naturals because they're actually still fermenting.

While I hesitate to take the conclusion too far, we didn't find much difference between the three levels of washed in the cup. The unwashed and washed 1x were definitely more of a pain to handle and took longer to dry. There did seem to be some difference between the two days we picked, and the only clear difference is that we picked at two different parts of the farm, and the older part scored lower than the newer section.

I should also note that I wanted to make sure any experiments I did could be replicated by others in Honduras, and that they would be practicable. Besides not being a microbiologist, I didn't want to do anything involving fancy equipment or setups that are not found in the area. This is a place that is severely underresourced in terms of electricity at mills, money for machinery, etc. and I was clear throughout the process that I wanted to do work with small farmers who usually can't get to the one moisture meter in town with any kind of reliability, who aren't mechanically demucilizing, etc.

CQI: What is on your coffee horizon?

Kate Fischer: I hope to be involved in the newer iterations of Q Processing courses. As a co-creator of the SCA Sustainability Program I also want to work to adapt and revise some of that curriculum and to continue reaching more and more people. I also plan to continue being annoying in pushing for more social science research and for research into the taken-for-granted questions in specialty coffee.