Eleven of us gathered in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic for our 7th Coffee Hunter Field trip. Our host was José Ureña from Regiomontano. Mercanta has been working with José for more than 8 years. Our annual purchase of specialty Dominican Republic coffee has been stable at about one container per year.
We feel that the conditions and potential for production of specialty coffee are all present in the Dominican Republic (fertile soil, high altitude, four distinct mountain ranges, long history of coffee production, clean water sources).
Having visited the Dominican Republic in 1999, this trip would be the ideal opportunity to see what developments had taken place in the last decade.
First, however, it is important to consider a fact that has a significant effect on the Dominican Republic coffee industry. Although the country produces between 350,000-500,000 bags per year, only about 20% (70,000 to 80,000 bags) is exported. Since coffee consumption inside the Dominican Republic is so high, relatively little raw unroasted coffee is exported. The high internal consumption means that the quality parameters tend to be set by mediocre internal standards, rather than by today’s higher specialty expectations. Nevertheless, the potential for finding more fine coffees and learning more about the growers and regions led us to explore the two thirds of the beautiful Caribbean island that is the Dominican Republic.
Coffee here grows at between 600m and 1450m. Given the extreme diversity of the island’s microclimates and topography, coffee is being harvested almost all year round at one place or another on the island. There may be as many as 25 distinct production zones around the island – centred amongst the four mountain ranges. Our group visited small growers around Peralta and Constanza. Remote, inaccessible and isolated, it reminded me of the region where our Peru El Guabo comes from.
Most Dominican producers process their coffee themselves, in small wet mills called ‘beneficios humedos’. All coffee is wet-processed, cherries are de-pulped fresh (within 24 hours), naturally fermented, washed and pre-dried in the sun. The beans are then transported to large dry mills where the coffee is prepared for export or for sale in the domestic market.
Codocafé is a government entity responsible for enforcing the nation’s coffee policy, with the voting participation of producers, exporters and roasters. The agency oversees quality control prior to export, ensuring that no unqualified coffee is shipped out of the country.
Mercanta has been importing a number of types of Dominican Republic coffees in the past years – Montaña Verde, Santiago, Las Lagunas, Juncalito, Colonial – sourced from many smaller (and a few larger) farmers around the island.
Given our modest quantity requirement for specialty beans from the Dominican Republic, we can comb through many samples and select each season on cup quality. Our customers use the majority of the coffees in fine espresso blends (as an alternative to fine estate Brazil and India). However, this season’s Juncalito was superb as both a filter drinking coffee as well as an espresso ingredient.
This season, we plan to import some micro lots from individual farms, as well as continuing to develop the main range for fine espresso. Our group had the chance to cup at the Consejo Dominicano del Café (Codocafé) laboratory and we will be following up the cupping with a further review in our lab.
In January 2003, Codocafé inaugurated a five-year, 17 million-euro project funded by the French government. In Spanish or English, its title is a mouthful: Proyecto de Mejoramiento de la Calidad del Café Dominicano y Promoción de Cafés Especiales (project to improve the quality of Dominican coffee and promotion of specialty coffees).
Some 54% of its funding is made available to growers as pre-financing and the other 46% is invested in technical assistance, administration, training and investigation.
Codocafé employs 175 technicians at the farm level, and also operates Finca La Cumbre, a training school for the coffee industry located in Santiago de los Caballeros, the nation’s second-largest city.
Our group also visited the Regiomontano dry mill in the capital – a new facility in a zona franca (free port customs controlled area) where the coffee is milled for export. Regiomontano has instituted a wide-ranging healthcare, environmental protection, quality improvement and technical support programme called Defensores de las Montañas in the Peralta region.
The island is beautiful with fabulous beaches and dotted with resorts. Areas of the island have been overdeveloped but the places we visited were beautiful and it is easy to see why tourism is the most important industry on the island.
I came away from the trip both hopeful and disappointed.
Without a Cup of Excellence programme, the small growers in the Dominican Republic are more influenced by the relatively low quality levels of the internal market rather than the quality pyramid aspirations elsewhere in the Cup of Excellence community.
For many specialty roasters, Dominican Republic is not a ‘must have’ coffee. We have been able to develop a following for the best selected lots we have been importing for the past 8 years. Hopefully, trips such as the Coffee Hunter Field Trip will raise awareness and help anchor an idea in roaster’s minds to ask “When is the next Dominican Republic arrival?”