BEHIND “DART CAFFEINE”: DISCOVERING COFFEE THROUGH THE SENSES OF A CHEMICAL ENGINEER AND HER IMPACT ON WATER QUALITY DEVELOPMENT FOR COFFEE. THIS IS THE STORY OF DARA SANTANA.
Whoever said chemistry is essential for falling in love and crucial in a relationship was not wrong. And Dara Santana, a chemical engineer originally from the Canary Islands, is the living proof of this. She discovered the significant potential her studies have to considerably improve a cup of coffee through water while still at university. This is how her love story and committed relationship with caffeine began, as well as her passion for teaching others in the industry.
Dara remembers her coffee crush as if it were yesterday. It all started in Madrid, where she attended university, on a hot day in July while she was at the library studying for exams and decided to go for a coffee. But little did she know that moment would be life-changing for her. A passionate cafe owner poured three different coffee origins for her to try: Colombia, Kenya, and Brazil, respectively, while describing the characteristics of each one.
When it came up that she was studying to become a chemical engineer, he explained to her the meaningful impact chemistry has on an outstanding cup of coffee, from modifying pressure, temperature, and concentration to the extraction process. She was so impressed by the science behind coffee and how she could make good use of her career studies and knowledge to change the taste of this amazing beverage.
Back then, she confessed, she was not sure about what to do after finishing her studies, as she had not found a real sense in it. Until that day, when her brain just connected all the dots and suddenly knew what she wanted to do.
“Coffee saved my life,” she says. Five years later, she still feels super emotional about this eye-opening moment back then.
She has been working in the industry for three years now, but the truth is that her journey started back in 2018 while experimenting by herself at home 24/7 with different brewing methods. Moreover, she attended classes organized by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) and actively engaged in coffee workshops in Spain. This initiative proved necessary, as there was considerable room for improvement in the offerings of the coffee industry there. She then saw a great opportunity to take action on it and decided to create both sensory and brewing workshops her way. This is how “Dart Caffeine,” her brand, started.
A DIFFERENT WAY TO TEACH AND TALK COFFEE
Dara Santana’s method was to be more of a guide than a teacher. Both of her parents are professors of an alternative kind of education; therefore, she acquired this “outside of the box” teaching approach. She encourages the exploration of the senses at one’s own pace, providing innovative ways that motivate students to pursue the acknowledgment of different notes in a cup of coffee. For example, she asks them to connect each aroma and flavor to a memory they have for their basic tastes. This approach makes it easier for individuals to relate that to a specific food and, therefore, enables them to better describe what they perceive in a cup of coffee.
MASTERING THE ART OF WATER
Water has always been very present in her life as the island girl she is, growing up next to the ocean and practicing surfing. It connected her to this element in a very mindful way. She started to develop curiosity in learning more about ways to make good use of it as well as ways to make it more sustainable, such as renewable energy and other environmentally friendly practices related to this element.
Later on, with the knowledge acquired from her chemistry studies through subjects such as water chemistry and water hydrogen, and through experimenting with water at home, she realized that this element was an essential ingredient for the quality of the sensory and brewing workshops she was teaching. The outcome of the extractions improved significantly due to the right choice of water used for them.
While constantly engaged in research and experimentation, the opportunity to work as a barista in a specialty coffee shop presented itself. During this time, she found it fascinating to gather insights from end consumers about the coffee she prepared for them. It was highly rewarding for her to apply her knowledge of water quality in delivering exceptional client service. The customers’ response was overwhelmingly positive, describing their cups of coffee as clean and delightfully flavorful.
What was the secret behind this? Well, Dara developed and utilized her own water for coffee extractions. At the same time, the water revolution had begun. Mastery of the science of water for enhancing coffee quality started to capture the attention of professionals in the specialty coffee scene, an aspect that was not previously given due importance, considering that coffee is primarily composed of water. Word spread rapidly about her profound understanding of water, from Madrid to various locations in Spain, and then expanding to different countries across Europe. Interestingly enough, some individuals even began referring to her as the “Aqua Woman” of coffee.
Since then, she has flourished with her workshops and coaching, providing additional value to the coffee community and offering numerous coffee professionals and enthusiasts the opportunity to learn about the importance of water in coffee and enhance their sensory and brewing skills. In addition to this, she is frequently sought after to design water for baristas participating in prestigious championships, with the most recent one being at the World of Coffee in Athens.
NOT JUST ABOUT COFFEE
Her expertise in water has led her to venture into the culinary industry. She collaborates with Michelin-star restaurants through a specially designed program called “Bonding with Water”. This program offers a water menu that complements the restaurant’s offerings, highlighting how hydration and water intake can enhance our sensory experience with food. Just as wine is paired with dishes, water is also paired to create a harmonious combination.
AN ENTREPRENEUR: PASSION FOR RESEARCH AND CONSULTANCY
Dart Caffeine, her brand, is a community; it has been created with values that Dara herself reflects on. As a female entrepreneur in the coffee industry, the journey hasn’t always been smooth. Yet, one must discard outdated speech and celebrate women’s achievements while acknowledging their vital role. She has been doing a great job of changing this vision and representing women with high standards.
She is constantly involved in Research and Development projects that help the coffee industry and community by improving techniques that benefit the entire supply chain. From assisting with innovation in origin to the fermentation processes, and later in roasting and extractions. She believes in and puts into practice traceability in her work.
At the moment, she is participating in an exciting project about innovation and development to enhance quality and chemistry in coffee with FOOLAB, a company that offers a range of chemical analysis systems designed for quality control purposes in the food and beverage industry. This collaboration started last year with her trip to Colombia, where she visited a family business of coffee producers and exporters from the Manizales region. They are working together with a company that offers a range of chemical analysis systems designed for quality control purposes in the food and beverage industry.
Her desire to find innovative ways led Dara to become part of the Research team of FOODLAB as a Product Specialist, managing both Spanish and Latin American teams. She proposed the idea of working at Origin with the wonderful coffee family she traveled with to Colombia, and they are more than thrilled to collaborate. By joining their forces, technology, and skills, this team will make better coffee, testing this Lab system from the origin in the fermentation chain, all the way back to Spain in the roasting and extraction processes.
ABOUT HER LATEST ACHIEVEMENT
Becoming a Q Grader has always been one of the main goals for many coffee professionals, and of course, she is more than happy to have achieved it after undergoing numerous rigorous tests. This certification is provided by the Coffee Quality Institute and grants one the license to professionally evaluate and score coffees.
PLAYS JURY AND TALKS COFFEE
Judging is not always a bad thing. In this context, Dara fulfills the role of a judge for various championships and awards. From roasters to baristas competitions, such as the globally renowned Aeropress Championship, she is consistently invited to be part of the judging team. This is due to her extensive coffee background and expertise gained over the past years.
Recently, she traveled to Portugal, where she served as a judge for the Aeropress competition in Lisbon, and right after she flew to Spain for the 2nd edition of the Barcelona Coffee Awards, where she also served as judge for the Best Barista Award. As she is always on the go, you might be lucky enough to encounter her during her travels across Europe representing her brand while also collaborating with other coffee companies.
COLLABORATIONS WITH BRANDS
Regarding her collaborations, she actively works together with Oatly as a Barista Market Developer. She assists with market activation in Madrid, working very closely in the planning, development, and creation of events to build relationships between baristas, specialty coffee shops, and end consumers.
With Orea UK, she collaborates as a market developer and distributor. She has been contributing to product development since its early beginnings. After trying different brewers in the market, she truly believed in the brand’s potential and gave her full support.
Sibarist is another brand that she constantly cooperates with. She was the inspiration for the brand to create the quality label called S-Grader (Sibarist-Grader). This is an acknowledgment of the dedicated professionals who place their trust in the brand and its products without any expectation of personal gain. As a gesture of appreciation, they are authorized to endorse and share their views about Sibarist.
INSPIRATION FOR WOMEN IN COFFEE
As a female entrepreneur, she serves as a role model for women in the coffee scene. Dara Santana constantly receives heartfelt messages from many women, thanking her for being such an inspiration and a role model in their professional coffee journey. Dara kindly shares a piece of advice for women and emphasizes the importance of connecting and finding an environment where they can freely and deeply learn. “Knowledge is a powerful tool to grow, identify, and motivate our individual potential,” she states.
“We must seek what we deserve and set aside the ‘speech’ to challenge the outdated sexist message, constantly striving for an atmosphere that empowers us.”
WHAT SHE LOVES OF HER DAILY WORK
Dara greatly enjoys finding the potential in her students during sensory and brewing workshops. All the daily work she does to keep her knowledge up to date is with the objective of helping her students discover their ability to shine on their own after the workshop. She always aims to provide an exceptional experience for them.
She believes that the impact of a good trainer is to equip their students with the tools they lack and to transmit her passion, just as others did for her. As a form of gratitude, she sees education as her way of giving back what it gave to her when she discovered the world of specialty coffee.
The key to her workshops is to provide the tools, basic theory, and practical training that motivate each student to chart their own path and leave them wanting more.
“That’s the attitude that will make them good coffee professionals: the love for what they do and the constant learning.”
Thanks to Dara’s commitment to research, development, and innovation for coffee quality, the specialty coffee industry in Spain is making significant strides in understanding the impact of water on a cup of coffee and how it can improve businesses at different levels. It’s no wonder she is often invited to participate in coffee events and competitions.
Spain, as well as other countries in Europe, are fortunate to have such a dedicated and passionate coffee professional who puts all her efforts and knowledge into the constant growth of the industry. But beyond that, we can say that Dara is not only a chemical engineer who fell in love with coffee, but also a beautiful person and a sweetheart who is always open and willing to help anyone who shares her passion for this amazing beverage. Don’t hesitate to reach out to her on social media; she will happily reply as soon as she has a bit of free time.