Tales from the Dominican Republic

Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, is not just a buyer but a farmer himself. This is his latest dispatch from a trip to visit his own coffee farm, Finca La Paz, in Los Frios, Dominican Republic.

 

Buying coffee is binary. Approve or Reject. For a long time the reigning coffee company in the Dominican Republic, Cafe Santo Domingo, has employed a system which dominates market forces. They often set the internal price for coffee buying at a price that is about 20 above the C market, when the coffee delivered is barely good enough for a C market approval (really low quality).

Cafe Santo Domingo also controls the internal price, and 95% of the internal market. The DR only produces about 500,000 bags of coffee a year. That is half a million, when most countries measure coffee production based in millions. Costa Rica produced 1.8 million last year and Honduras produced almost 5 million. Only about 30,000 to 40,000 bags are exported from the DR. That is a very very small amount.

For a long time we coffee people have wondered why they just didn’t buy cheap Brazil or robusta because local consumption doesn’t demand much quality. Last year, Cafe Santo Domingo purchased 120 boxes of Vietnam Robusta. The robusta coffee is cleaner and has more coffee than the stuff they used to buy as wet parchment coffee locally. For example, I just sold my repela—the final picking of the coffee tree’s cherries, regardless of their ripeness— to Cafe Santo Domingo. Now, what I sold them was barely coffee. It was about half green coffee and most of that wasn’t even “underripe” it was more like not even a bean. As a bean develops the skin is green, but there isn’t actually a coffee bean inside. It is just kinda mushy and might have the shell of the bean, but there is not real cellulose.

This year Santo Domingo has been stricter than ever. They are actually rejecting really bad coffees which means no one will buy it. Now that they have a supply of coffee from Vietnam to fill local market needs, they can use the Dominican coffees for export. One person told me that local quality has gone up with the robusta conversion. Another told me there have been lots of quality complaints. Nerva, my Dominican mother, says that the last can of coffee she had tasted like “nothing”. I found my Cafe Santo Domingo cafecitos to be just as inconstant and dark as ever.

What this means for Dominican coffee is that people will have to increase the quality of their processing or get a much lower price, or not sell their coffee at all. If farmers would invest in their farms and increase yields, then quality and production could be not far away. Of course, if the labor shortage and the constant exodus from rural areas to urban areas continues, there will be no one to bring the coffee to market.

It is rather simple, approve or reject.