What does one do with a degree in biology? Well, if you’re Byron Holcomb, you take a job as a barista, then you work in production for a coffee roaster, then you become a green buyer for a large coffee roaster, and then you move to Brazil to work with coffee farmers on improving quality. But first, Peace Corp.
When Byron, Olam’s Manager for Specialty Coffee in Guatemala, received his degree in biology, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do exactly, but he knew he wanted to help people, possibly through natural resource management, so he went to the Dominican Republic with the Peace Corp, where he encountered coffee farmers for the first time, the spark that would lead to 15 years and counting in coffee, eventually bringing him full circle and back to farmers. He has always believed that improving the quality upstream with the farmers will improve the coffee and lives as that coffee flows downstream, eventually landing in our cups.
Today, Byron draws on his coffee experience to work with coffee farmers on all aspects of quality improvement. He is one of only a handful of people in the world to reach level 3 certification for the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) Q-Processing program.
In. The. World.
According to CQI:
“Through this program, CQI will provide a highly scientific and technical approach to processing coffee that improves quality, standardizes procedures, increases competitiveness, reduces risk, and creates a system that can be trusted throughout the supply chain. At its core, this program works to lift status of trained coffee processors who are able to add value through differentiating coffee through processing techniques. Adding a formal training and certification scheme to this important topic will contribute to and push the entire industry forward.”
One of the program goals is to “Provide a deeply scientific understanding of coffee processing to consistently improve quality and reduce risk,” so it helps if you know how to study science because the academic rigor is significant.
In fact, the program required a full year of homework, field work, project work, experimentation, testing, and lectures. The homework and reading alone took up 15 hours a week.
The first class of Q-Processing 2 offered in Brazil happened to be close to one of the farms Byron was managing. He enrolled and achieved Level 2 in 2016. When the Level 3 course was ready in 2019, he was invited by CQI to participate. Note, CQI does not use the word “expert” lightly:
“An Expert in the Q processing program is a true leader and innovator within coffee processing, and not only comprehends the scientific work being conducted in this field, but regularly contributes to them. Experts who hold a level 3 certificate will be asked on continually be contributing to the study of this field in order to maintain their credential.”
Byron’s expertise is not only a part of continually improving the quality of Olam coffee throughout Central America; he also plays an active role in Olam’s ongoing innovation efforts. The homework might be over for now, but there is plenty of real work ahead. Congratulations Byron!