22 kilometers west of La Vega in the country’s fertile Cibao region, Alisandro Rodríguez is turning the Dominican coffee industry on its head.
Long known for exporting bulk coffee at average prices, Rodríguez is one of a growing number of coffee producers who want to make Dominican coffee famous for quality rather than quantity - in much the same way Dominican cigars are now regarded as among the finest in the world.
Rodríguez is president of Agricafe, a specialty coffee exporter established by himself and six other investors in November 2003. Agricafe occupies a plant previously owned by Café Serrano, which had been the Dominican Republic’s top exporter of quality coffee until that company’s closure in 1999.
“This year, we’re exporting 20 containers, the same as last year, but when it was Café Serrano, they were exporting 250 containers,” he said. “The problem is we need more working capital.”
Quality, however, doesn’t seem to be a problem. Rodríguez claims that the chairman of a large specialty coffee association has said that “Dominican coffee is much better than Jamaica’s Blue Mountain” - which retails for upwards of $90 a pound in Tokyo.
No surprise, then, that Agricafe won a gold medal in the washed Arabica category during the recent Grand Crus de Café competition in Paris.
For more than 265 years, coffee has been part of Dominican culture, with per-capita consumption now at around 3.0 kilograms per year. Coffee is cultivated in four mountain ranges: the Cordillera Septentrional; the Cordillera Central (with the country’s highest mountain, Pico Duarte, at 3,175 meters above sea level); the Sierra de Bahoruco and the Sierra de Neyba.
Kelly Peltier, a Colorado-based coffee consultant who spent four years in the Dominican Republic, says Dominican coffee is generally overlooked.
“Some good coffees come out of the Dominican Republic, but they’re mainly sold to the commercial and premium markets,” she said. “Their biggest barrier right now is in marketing and promotion, getting it into the hands of people who can help promote it as a specialty coffee.”
Peltier said Dominican coffees are particularly sought after for espresso blends because of its mild, soft flavor. “The Japanese love Dominican coffee because it’s from the Caribbean and it’s something that goes well in their flavor profile,” she said.
In contrast to Central America, there are almost no volcanic soils in these mountain ranges. As a consequence, the Dominican Republic produces unique drinking and cupping characteristics. In fact, only the Cordillera Central is of granite origin. The other ranges contain a calcium substrate, which is a very rare distinction in the world of coffee and which provides this coffee with a particular taste.
Average rainfall is 1,800 to 2,200 millimeters a year, while coffee grows at altitudes of 300 to 1,500 meters above sea level. Virtually 100% of the country’s coffee production is washed Arabica; 90% of planted areas consist of typica with shade, and little or no use of chemical products, with the remaining 10% consisting of caturra with regulated shade or no shade in the highest areas.
The Dominican coffee harvest begins in August or September at lower altitudes in the southern half of the country, and continues until May or June at higher altitudes in the north. The great variety of altitudes and numerous flowerings permits production of Dominican coffee almost year-round.
Before the devastation wrought by Hurricane Georges in September 1998, the country was producing around one million quintales (around 45,000 metric tons or 757,000 60-kg bags) a year. Since then, production has dropped by 30%.
Rodríguez says that between 200,000 and 300,000 Dominicans work in the coffee industry, down from 700,000 in years past. Around 60,000 of them are growers, of whom 80% cultivate less than three hectares apiece. Traditional plantations yield on average 500 pounds per hectare, while more sophisticated plantations yield up to 6,000 pounds per hectare.
“Coffee is important in this country not only because of the revenues produced by the industry, but also the people, culture and communities that live from the plantations,” said Rodríguez.
|Alisandro Rodriguez of Argicafe S.A. conducts a cupping session at his plant in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic.
Café Serrano used to export semi-roasted coffee to Puerto Rico. Last year, the island bought 100,000 quintales of bulk coffee from the Dominican Republic, nearly all of it from Industrial Banilejas (Induban), makers of Café Santo Domingo.
“The Puerto Rican market is for semi-roasted coffee, not green coffee,” he said. “At this moment, only Café Santo Domingo is reaching that market.”
Most Dominican producers process their coffee themselves, in small wet mills called “beneficios humedos.” All coffee is wet-processed, cherries are depulped fresh (within 24 hours), naturally fermented, washed and pre-dried in the sun. Coffee beans are then transported to large dry mills where the coffee is prepared for export or for sale in the domestic market. Only a few lots are singled out to be selected by hand.
The Dominican Specialty Coffee Association (known by its Spanish acronym, Adocafes) was formed in 2001. Adocafes has 10 charter members and two honorary members. Its main objectives are to promote Dominican specialty and organic coffees and to establish technical guidelines.
Another organization is the Consejo Dominicano del Café (known by its Spanish acronym Codocafe), a government entity responsible for enforcing the nation’s coffee policy, with the voting participation of producers, exporters and roasters. This agency oversees quality control prior to export, ensuring that no unqualified coffee is shipped out of the country.
In January 2003, Codocafe 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).
The project’s director, Pedro Alcides Morel, works closely with a French technical expert, Jean-Emmanuel Jourde. He says 54% of its funding consists of credits and the other 46% goes to technical assistance, administration, training and investigation.
“Like all countries, we understand that we have to improve,” Morel said. “Dominican coffee has a high potential for quality. We’re in the Caribbean, which gives us certain possibilities. This project tries to develop an image for Dominican coffee.”
Codocafe 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.
Morel said his agency is also trying to develop coffee tourism, a niche market that has been successfully been exploited by other countries including Jamaica and Costa Rica.
According to Morel, annual Dominican coffee production has dropped from around 1.2 million quintales to 700,000 quintales. Exports generate annual revenues of approximately $50 million, though that figure is difficult to verify.
“In the last few years, it has declined a lot,” he said. “Production has been very low, and with world coffee prices so depressed, the local market has become much more interesting than in the past.”
He said that at one time, the Dominican Republic boasted 15 to 20 coffee exporters; these days, fewer than 10 Dominican companies export coffee beans.
One of them is Karoma Estate Coffee S.A., based in the town of Lagunas.
Begoña Ahm, owner of the family-run business, started Karoma in 1992 and began exporting two years ago. Currently, she exports between 2,000 and 2,250 bags of green coffee beans a year to Europe - all of them produced at her 200-hectare farm.
Ahm says her biggest client is Sweden’s Gevalia, which retails her coffee online for $14.95 per pound.
“Prices have improved because now everybody wants coffee. Exporters want high-quality coffee to export, and local companies need coffee for the local market,” she said, noting that around 80% of Dominican coffee stays in the country - translating into the seventh-highest level of internal demand among the world’s coffee-producing countries.
“Even though the amount of production is less, people who are still convinced they want to stay in coffee are trying to improve their quality so they can get more money out of it,” she said. “This is also one of the ideas behind the French project: to help producers who want to stay in business.”
That makes sense to Eddie Ramírez, administrator of Belarminio Ramírez e Híjos in Jarabacoa. He says the company is exporting around 20 containers a year, mainly to Italy and Japan.
“Our volume isn’t that much,” he said, noting that the company employs 350 people and each year sells about $350,000 worth of coffee beans grown at 800 to 1,500 meters above sea level. “We have no plans to increase production, only to maintain the current level of production and find better markets that will pay for high-quality beans.”