Whenever we encounter a coffee professional who has a scientific degree and background, we see that they have a slightly different spark in their eyes when they talk about coffee. It’s not only about the more geeky, analytical approach but rather the fact that such professionals just see more when it comes to coffee and understand the processes on another level.
It also applies to the amazing Dara Santana Hernández, who is a Chemical Engineer and an engaged educator born in the Canary Islands. Her passion for people and quality steered her into the coffee world where she makes a real difference by engaging in projects tackling various areas of the supply chain and coffee ecosystem.
Dara runs projects at coffee origin, is an ambassador of various coffee brands – Orea, Sibarist & Oatly – and hosts various activities and competitions. Not only in Madrid where she is currently based but also way beyond. And it’s impossible to just chat with Dara about one coffee topic. Since she bridges and connects to always see new opportunities and ideas for networking or inspiring ventures.
Dara, what is your first memory of coffee?
I will never forget the day when, on my way to the library, I entered a coffee shop looking for a shot of caffeine and came out with an explosion of flavours and a passion to discover.
Can you tell us about your journey in becoming a chemical engineer and how it led you to the coffee industry?
Since I was little I have really enjoyed the fun side of Science and how to experiment with it. Studying Chemical Engineering was quite a challenge, I always liked chemistry and what lies behind it but I couldn’t quite see myself working for a large multinational or as a researcher.
I come from a family of teachers and my education has been based on the methodology called “Project Education”, a type of unconventional teaching that gave me different tools to learn. Coffee was the spark that, after finishing my studies, gave meaning to everything I had learned. Coffee literally gave meaning to my life,
I realized that I could use my background in each of the stages of the production chain (processing, post-harvest, quality control, roasting, extraction and distribution…). That makes me constantly feel motivated and curious, I found my playground in the world of coffee.
Tell us a bit about your work. You have quite a few amazing roles!
Jajaja! The truth is that I don’t have time to get bored. Being a freelancer is complicated but it has many advantages, I can work on projects. I divide my work into training and consulting, research and development, and collaboration with different companies to develop the market in Spain, Europe and Colombia (currently). That is, I work with producers, baristas, and consumers, being the bridge that connects those links.
Can you tell us a bit more about your projects at origin?
My work with origin can be summarized as helping to build tools to improve the quality of coffee. From the importance of the quality of coffee water in the fermentation process to quality control. This last step is very important because it is the process by which it is decided whether coffee is up to par or not, what score and price it deserves and which market is willing to consume it.
I encounter many cuppings/tastings at the origin where a bad result is attributed to poor processing or roasting, with the problem at that time being the quality of the water used for tasting. The last visit to Pitalito, Huila in Colombia left me with a lingering question “How many coffees have we lost due to bad quality of water?”.
On the other hand, I collaborated with the company CDR Food Lab in the development of an analyzer (CDR Coffee Lab) that helps measure the chemical traceability of coffee. We know the traceability of coffee, but how can the chemical composition of coffee change from origin to extraction? How do we relate it to quality?
Dara on a coffee plantation in Colombia.Photos by @nolobotana.
Wow, these projects are so impressive! How do you stay motivated and inspired to keep improving your skills and knowledge?
I have always been a very curious and passionate person, I think they are two key attributes to keep us motivated and constantly learning. When I dedicate myself to teaching, I find in my students a constant source of inspiration. I am passionate about finding each one’s potential and putting tools on the table so that each one, for themselves, can find their path.
I am also lucky to share time and space with friends and colleagues in the industry who have the same values. Javier Ghersi – Head of Education and QC at Hola Coffee Roasters, for example, is one of my partners in crime. It is impossible not to want to continue learning and improving when you work with people who are constantly growing.
Can you tell us a bit more about Caffeine Race? Can anyone participate in it?
Wow, this has been a dream. I always talk about coffee as a game and this year I found the opportunity to create an experience that brought together my key pillars: teaching, sensory & brewing skills, fun and sharing. On my last trip to Colombia, I came across a coffee that blew my mind, every sip was an experience… a game with the senses. They encouraged me to do something with that coffee and it didn’t take long for us to get to work. A game inspired by the Polar Express where, through a passport, you will have to overcome 3 stations to reach the final station. You must put your sensory skills, general knowledge and brewing skills into play.
I wanted to make Caffeine Race accessible and, although it requires minimal knowledge and having barista tools such as (a grinder, kettle and brewer) anyone can play. The game has teaching guides that teach you how to taste or how to make a recipe in a simple way.
Some of the components of Caffeine Race set.
Given the increasing emphasis on sustainability, how do you integrate environmentally friendly practices in your work and promote them within the industry?
I think the first step to understanding sustainability is to be aware. Where am I? What activities do we do as a community? What economy do we have?
For example, in my activities as an educator, I try to convey a balance between being perfect (getting the best shot, recipe, etc.) and being sustainable. We waste a lot of raw materials and the coffee grower’s work in our attempts to get the best. We forget, within perfection, about the flexibility. Each coffee bean is a different experience and we must not forget about it.
How do you approach teaching about coffee, considering the diverse backgrounds and skill levels of your audience?
I believe that teaching is about providing the student with tools so that they can learn on their own. Educators spend countless hours with students but it’s just a fraction of the time in their lives. We are just a step along the students’ path. We are not going to teach them a lot of knowledge in 2, 3, or 4 days. But we can teach them solid foundations and tools so that, on their own, they always continue questioning themselves and remain critical, curious and motivated. For me, that is the best way to learn.
With it comes to coffee it is very clear to me – the sensory foundation is key. If we do not learn to generate a flexible common language, it is impossible for us to understand each other or coffee. We depend on a subjective analysis that, although structured with a tasting/cupping form, it still depends on the human being. With a good foundation of sensory learning and sensory tools, everything can be learned and communicated more efficiently and in a kind manner.
Dara while hosting a talk during the OUT OF THE BOX event in Lisbon. Photo by @piposph.
You have quite a unique and innovative approach to coffee education. Can you let us know more about gamification and other creative ways in which you teach?
Of course, it’s in my blood. I have more or less been answering this question throughout the interview but fundamentally each student is different. When you have 4 students the way of teaching is one and when you have 50 it is another.
If I teach you with a speech just to memorize, it is easier for you to forget it, disconnect or not know how to innovate on your own. If I offer you tools and guidelines that we build together through games, challenges and exercises, your brain will perceive it as something fun and not torture or a trial. It will be easier for our potential to emerge. Every person at his/her own pace and with different learning methods.
What trends do you see emerging in the coffee industry, and how do you think they will impact how coffee is produced, brewed, and enjoyed?
I think the word that first comes to mind is: experimental processing methods. Faced with a market that has already left behind coffee as a “strong, intense and dark” drink, there is someone who wants experiences, to be surprised and to choose.
At origin, more and more experiments appear in the processes and menu of flavours in coffee.
In a consumer country, even if we want to continue being geeks inventing 400 different filtering methods, we all tend to simplify our lives and obtain the highest quality and complexity with the fewest resources.
“Each coffee bean is a different experience and we must not forget about it”. Photo by @nolobotana.
What coffee challenges are you looking forward to? Any new projects or collaborations?
Apart from the projects that I mentioned previously, I am very excited about the role I have in Madrid thanks to Oatly. Developing the barista market and being able to educate and share with the community is incredible.
I am also excited about the return of competitions to Spain because I think it will bring us together again from another stage. I hope to contribute as a coach, judge or who knows… as a participant.
Of course, my specialization in water will always be with me and in every competition worldwide.