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Exploring Culture and Coffee in the Dominican Image

Exploring Culture and Coffee in the Dominican

Monday, February 13, 2012

Brian Steehler, Peace Coffee Van Driver

Hi, Brian Steehler here, van driver for Peace Coffee, car aficionado, history buff, and, now, world traveler. Last October I was thrilled to go on my first producer trip to the Dominican Republic to learn from the farmers, get to know them, and see coffee cultivation firsthand. I made this trip with Lee Wallace, Queen Bean at Peace Coffee; E.J. Dawson, Co-op Coffee's cupper from Montreal; and Dan Bailey, owner of Café Ama Vida in Seaside, FL, who was our translator and had been to the DR (as we called it colloquially) at least four times previously.

Lee and I arrived on a Sunday afternoon after two flights with a combined flight time of less than 6 hours. Most people are surprised to know how close to the United States the Dominican Republic is, since it's less than 2.5 hours from Miami by air. Our trip took us to the capital of Santo Domingo, the oldest continually inhabited European city in the Western Hemisphere and the largest city in the Caribbean, and the southeast portion of the country, east of the port city of Barahona. That evening, we explored the Zona Colonial, the oldest part of the city, and got a taste of the European vibe of the neighborhood: many old churches, convents, chapels, cafes, upscale bars with pulsing music, museums, and plazas filled with Dominicans enjoying the evening.  We enjoyed the first of our delicious Dominican meals, most of which included beans and rice (the national dish), plantains (either fried or mashed like potatoes), a portion of meat or seafood, freshly squeezed tropical juice, and Presidente Pilsner beer (perfect for a breezy, 80-degree Dominican night).

Monday morning, we met our driver Esteban outside the hotel and rode in his pickup to Polo, our first stop. Like most farmers, Esteban's truck was a compact diesel pickup with a stick shift, four wheel drive, four doors, and, luckily, air conditioning.  After about four hours driving mostly along a coastal highway, we arrived in the mountains, at the beneficio or dry mill for the Polo cooperative.  The dry mill has huge concrete drying patios, in this case about the area of three football fields. On these patios, pergamino (coffee beans with a layer of parchment) are dried to help separate the parchment from the bean. The organic and conventional beans are segregated and regularly raked to ensure that they dry evenly and do not develop mold. Then the pergamino is brought to the dry mill and the parchment removed by machine, and placed in a bag for shipment to port. The beneficios we visited were usually at the very edge of the mountains, and were fed into by multiple wet mill facilities higher up where farmers would bring their cherries for initial processing.

We went up to the town of Polo itself and stopped at the house we would occupy for the next two nights. Less than a quarter mile down the hill was the wet mill of Polo. Both the wet and dry mills were constructed and upgraded with the fair trade premiums that the coop had received from sale of their coffee. 

That evening we ate at a farmer's home, another healthy and delicious traditional Dominican meal, and then met with Corporino, head of the nucleo in Polo, and Israel, the new president of the co-op. These men reminded me of my farming relatives in Nebraska: big, rough hands, soft-spoken, loved their community and their fields, and wore caps and shirts of their co-op or another agricultural organization. We discussed issues of pre-harvest financing: Currently, farmers are borrowing at 20% interest, a rate that eats in hugely to the price they get for their crop, and are looking to find ways to save on loans. They also sought input from Lee and Dan specifically on packaging and marketing of coffee, because they wanted to begin marketing their coffee directly in their home country. Currently, a single Dominican company, Induban, controls 95% of the domestic market, buying lots of the lowest quality coffee and selling it for the equivalent of $5 a pound to customers, which is very high for that low-quality product. We had a very productive and friendly meeting, and all of us felt like we had learned things and appreciated our relationship as producers and roasters more.

The next morning, we watched the wet mill in action, then headed up into the more remote mountains to visit a government-sponsored training farm and facility. There were wet and dry mills, patios, "tunnels" that looked like little greenhouses for drying coffee in wet weather, dorms for farmers attending trainings, meeting facilities, and a cupping lab for evaluation of coffees. The farm was a working farm, and had both red and yellow bourbon coffee.  At the station, we cupped various cups of only defective beans and  others that had been perfectly sorted, giving everyone an opportunity to understand how the nuances of processing impacted the cup. That night, we talked again with Corporino and Israel about what we'd tasted, and they were excited at the prospect of finding new ways to make their coffee better without the input of money or infrastructure.

Wednesday morning we set out for a co-op in Neiba, north of Polo. On the way, we traveled the highway that leads from Barahona to Haiti, and were passed by a number of semi trucks with U.N. markings. Israel told us that although the Dominicans and Haitians don't usually get along because of their history, when the earthquake happened, the farmers in Polo immediately loaded up their trucks with all the supplies they could lay their hands on and drove over the mountains to help. He was proud that his country had done so much to support the Haitians after the earthquake. 

We also encountered one of the unfortunate realities of the Dominican Republic, which are some corrupt politics. Santo Domingo has just built the newest and most advanced subway system in the world, but our trip was interrupted by a washed out "temporary" embankment that had replaced a bridge destroyed by a hurricane in 1994 and never rebuilt. Several entrepreneurial men had made a makeshift wooden bridge that people could walk across and were charging them to cross a 5-foot wide gap of raging torrent. The co-op at Neiba responded to Israel's phone call and sent a truck out to the other side of the bridge to pick us up. After bidding farewell to Israel and Corporino, we set out across the almost desert-like salt marshes toward Neiba.  A quick tour of the beneficio and wet mill were followed by a drive back to Santo Domingo.

Thursday morning we headed to the city of San Christobal to visit the FEDECARES offices and then drove up into the mountains to La Esperanza co-op, which had a women's co-op as a part of the overall co-op, and were members of the Café Feminina project. The facilities were well-built and the large dry mill and drying patios were supplemented by two mechanical dryers for when the weather was inclement. They had a very sophisticated system of collecting and burning the parchment from dried beans to fuel their operation, thus saving themselves from buying fuel. 

Our meeting with the members of the co-op was informative, especially concerning the women's cooperative. As the women around the room took turns talking, we heard the common themes of gratitude for having her own land to work with her family and pride at contributing to her family's livelihood.

Friday was our shortest day, with the morning occupied by our visit to the offices of Codocafe, the government's coffee arm. This lab tests a sample of every coffee that is exported from the country and stores every sample in a climate-controlled facility for six months after export in case it is needed for reference. E.J., our consummate cupper, marveled that this was one of the nicest coffee labs he'd ever seen. There were eight sample roasters, a number of grinders, and a fully equipped lab to test every aspect of the coffee. 

Lee and I were set to leave on Sunday, so we had one day to roam the Colonial Zone. I geeked out about the history and architecture of the place, as well as the great energy of the Zone, which was a regular neighborhood, historical monument, and place to go out on the town all in one. Exploring the oldest European city in the Americas, I saw the Church of Santa Barbara, patron saint of the artillery, next to the old powder magazine; the city gates stormed by Sir Francis Drake; a Basque restaurant; the mansion of the Columbus family; and the Casa Real, used by governors from Columbus to dictators like Trujillo 'til 1961. Most of all, I enjoyed the Dominican people, who were extremely laid back and friendly to me everywhere I went.

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