Back In the DR
May 26 – June 5, 2004
A Narrative Trip Report
I was sent to the Dominican Republic as a volunteer for the Coffee Corps, an organization funded by USAID for the purpose of helping coffee farmers gain access to the information they need to improve their return on investment in the coffee world.
The Request for Assistance that brought me to “The DR” (as it’s called by the verbally lazy, myself included) was made by a Peace Corp volunteer on behalf of The Juncalito Coffee Growers Association. The association is a group of about 250 coffee growing families in and around the small town of Juncalito, high in the Central Cordillera of Hispaniola about two hours down a very bumpy road from the City of Santiago. Over the last few years the Growers Association in Juncalito went bankrupt and lost its mill to the banks. With the help of Peace Corps volunteer Gigi Fordhan, the association is attempting to reorganize, improve its quality, and build a name in the international coffee market for Juncalito Coffee. I was there with Kelly Peltier, a former Peace Corps volunteer who her two years as a Peace Corps volunteer working with a different Dominican coffee producer, and stayed on after her assignment to work the next several years for a coffee exporter in Santo Domingo. Between Kelly and myself, we were able to offer the Association valid input on the whole coffee chain.
Juncalito is one of those great little coffee growing villages perched on the shoulder of a massive ridge, with narrow streets meandering through houses painted in bright whites and accented with a “Miami Vice” palette of pale pinks, blues, and greens. Donkeys sporting home-made rag saddles share the road with battered 4x4 trucks, mud-splattered motorcycles and proud girls with elaborate hair, heavy make-up and sparkling clean outfits. From all over town you enjoy sweeping views across heavily forested valleys leading all the way back to the distant city. Most mornings thick clouds slide along the valley floors, and on my first morning there our host, Hilario (the president of the Growers Association) pointed down at the clouds and said in Spanish “Look – the valley is wearing a blanket of silver.”
We spent our first day touring coffee farms around Juncalito, and were impressed by how well-kept the farms were despite the financial troubles of the farmers. The growers here generally mix Caturra and Typica plants, keeping proper distance between the coffee trees, and shading them with a variety of native trees. The coffee plots are well-weeded and the coffee trees were vibrantly healthy. Since the plants are so carefully tended, and since most of the coffee grown here is above 3,600 feet, Juncalito has tremendous potential for producing great coffee. Sadly, at this point the high grown coffee is mixed with low-grown coffee, which “softens” the cup by reducing the overall acidity and nuance of the coffee. To make matters worse the coffee isn’t well-sorted for defects, so what most of us see as Dominican Coffee is by no means representative of what the country is capable of producing.
Whenever we stopped in on one of the coffee farmers they would offer us a “cafecito”, which is a tiny serving of heavily sugared coffee presented in a beautiful demitasse. After several stops, and several cups of what I called “sugar flavored with a bit of coffee” I asked a farmer named Ramon to please leave out the sugar. Ramon was baffled, but politely agreed. Kelly later told me I made quite an impression when I proceeded to drink six or seven cups of the unsweetened coffee. I figured I might as well enjoy it while I could since I didn’t know when I might get more drinkable stuff. After finishing the pot I asked if I could see how they brewed it, and was shown into the kitchen, where Ramon’s wife proudly showed me the old brown sock which served as the coffee filter.
While drinking our many cafecitos, Kelly and I quizzed the farmers about their coffee husbandry, their milling practices (getting the coffee to pergamino) and the costs associated with their work. When we asked the farmers what their cost of production was per quintal, we were met with blank stares. Nobody really knew their cost of production. So we spent a great deal of time working through the steps taken throughout the coffee year, and came up with a reasonable guess as to the cost of production. Once we knew the cost of production, we found out what people were being paid for their coffee, and finally we tried to get an idea of what people wanted to make for their work. It turned out – after many, many questions, and a lot of time on the calculator – that the coffee growers at Juncalito could get by if they earned just an extra dime per pound. That’s not a lot to ask if the coffee is any good, so Kelly and I headed out of town feeling pretty encouraged.
At the end of our trip we were going to present our findings and make suggestions for the future of the Association, so we left Juncalito to talk with intermediaries, exporters, and CODOCAFE, the Dominican coffee association. Over the next few days we learned that the Dominican coffee market is unique in that more than 60% of the coffee produced there is used internally. Basically, Dominicans drink a lot of cafecitos. Since most of the coffee is sold directly to roasters without being exported, the base price paid for the product is “artificially high” relative to the rest of the coffee exporting world. Also, the basic defect spec on the coffee is… uhm… really bad. Ultimately, we learned that coffee growers aren’t motivated to produce a clean, high grown coffee because they can make almost as much for producing a mediocre and defective product. One intermediary (the guy who pays cash for the coffee in Juncalito, then loads it on his truck and sells it to exporters or roasters) said “I make just as much selling bad coffee to roasters as I do selling good coffee to exporters. So I just do what is easiest.” Since this guy had a 35 caliber pistol sticking out of his blue jeans I tended to believe whatever he said – at least I nodded my head really hard and smiled as much as possible while he was talking.
One exporter set up a cupping of various high quality Dominican coffees, and I was favorably impressed with what I saw. I wasn’t too surprised to see that the coffees had nice floral tones and hints of dark chocolate, but I was amazed to see the coffee was capable of bold acidity and relatively heavy body. I headed back to Juncalito feeling very hopeful about their future in coffee.
We came back to Juncalito with a big presentation and lots of visual aids. Gigi invited 30 farmers to attend, and we ended up with about 45 attendees. Kelly and I began by explaining how the coffee system works around the world, and then I spent some time talking about what my clients look for in a product. Then, after a quick explanation of cupping procedures we presented coffee from Sumatra, Colombia, Guatemala, and Ethiopia for them to taste. It’s always a great experience to see coffee farmers try coffees from other countries for the first time. Once the samples started flowing, the conversations got extremely lively. Each of the different origins had a group of supporters (and a group of detractors) but the bottom line was that the growers were amazed at the range of flavors they saw. We followed that cupping by presenting a defect-free Juncalito coffee, and a standard Juncalito (full of blacks, sours, chips and quakers). Once again the growers had a heated discussion about the experience, but this time people were generally more impressed with the clean product. I suggested to everyone that from that day forward the coffee growers of Juncalito should swear off sugared coffee because it was bad for their teeth, and was disrespectful to the coffee itself.
Before leaving Juncalito I made a list of suggestions for the future, which included experiments with processing, separating the coffees by elevation, and processing the Typica separate from the Caturra. I hope to receive samples of pure high-grown Juncalito coffee in the near future. If you are interested in trying this never-before-seen specialty coffee, give us a call. Hopefully we can get some roaster opinions on the product.
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