by: Trish R. Skeie, Director of Coffee
As January’s frigid Seattle temperatures had just begun to get the better of me, I headed off to sunny Dominican Republic and Costa Rica to taste some coffee. Volunteer work tasting coffee, meeting new and old friends, and visiting beautiful locations…hold on a second, just had to pinch myself. Wow, this is actually my job.
The Dominican Republic’s Specialty Coffee Association, ADO Cafes, hosted an international tasting event. I went as a volunteer for CQI’s Coffee Corps on an assignment to evaluate and calibrate the Dominican national cuppers. Other cuppers from around the world were invited to taste the coffees alongside the Dominicans. Coffee tasters from Japan, Norway, Italy, Holland, and America assembled for two days of tasting followed by a crazy bus ride through the country.
All the cupping took place inside a beautiful Colonial building in the center of Santo Domingo’s old downtown district. Everyday we passed by the “first University of the new world” and “America’s first church cathedral” on our two-block walk from the hotel to the tasting. Santo Domingo is the home of a lot of these “first ever” landmarks. My favorite was the “first School of Art” where I could peek in the windows and see the students’ paintings and sculptures in progress.
We began with a press conference on the first day where the cuppers were introduced to the public. The Dominican Minister of Agriculture spoke to us about the importance of coffee for the Dominican people and then we staged a demonstration cupping for the photographers. Then down to business. We tasted almost 60 coffees during our first two days and discussed each in a round-table format. With a good orientation to Dominican coffees, we ventured out into the landscape. The first stop was easy; we had a tour of the ASOCAES cooperative mill near El Cacao. They showed us the hard work they have been doing to improve the processing of the coffee. We saw new, fresh coffee in parchment drying on the cement patio, and visited the room of meticulous ladies sorting and picking out defects from the green yields.
On to Cafe Samir, a small family farm run by some Swiss transplants. They visited the Dominican Republic on vacation about thirty years ago and loved it so much they stayed to grow some coffee. It was great to see such dedicated people in love with the land and so proud of the coffee they produce.
Long about nightfall, our caravan of jeeps and mini-busses began the treacherous roads that would eventually lead us to our hotel in Jarabacoa. In a strategic move that only makes sense in retrospect, one of our hosts insisted we stop on a deserted roadside and partake of some refreshments. Out came the cooler of beers and rum, up cranked the scratchy music from the car radios, and suddenly everyone was an expert merengue dance instructor. Is it just me, or does every Latin guy know how to dance perfectly?…on pebbles, in the dust, in the dark, under the influence…they’re amazing!
About a half hour later we sat in our busses in disbelief at the roads we were traveling. Boulders and rocks, dips and swings and holes violently jerked us every which way in our seats. At one point, I asked the driver if he was sure we hadn’t accidentally turned onto a dry riverbed. He just turned up the music and laughed. We made it to the hotel at about one in the morning. I never slept so well.
The next day we visited El Finca Alteagracia, an organic coffee farm owned by the author Julia Alvarez and her husband Bill Eichner. She wrote “A Cafecito Story”, a novel about Dominican coffee. It is illustrated with some of the most delightful woodcut prints I’ve ever seen. Each of us was given a signed copy of her book and got a tour of the farm. So many different tropical plants grew along these healthy coffee trees. Some of the shade is pine, which was new for me to see on a coffee farm, but usual at this elevation. This farm sits on the highest peak East of the Mississippi River.
The highlight of the trip was my last day visiting the coffee plantation of my friend Begonia “Bego” Paliza de Ahm. I met her last year in Costa Rica at the Women in Coffee Leadership seminars. On this beautiful farm, she grows some of the best varieties and operates a wet mill. As I passed the giant mound of coffee cherry pulp, I asked how they compost the waste. With Californian Red Worms, of course! I think I actually raised my fist in a dorky “power to the worms” kind of gesture when I heard that, (I was born and raised in California, and I like the idea of those little guys doing their part for the coffee effort on Dominican soil). So I took lots of pictures of them, as well as Bego’s tunnel dryers and the little hummingbird nest we found. Hey they’re bird-friendly!
I guess I was a bit worn out when I boarded my plane to Costa Rica the next day. On my way to meet some of the members of the Roaster Guild, I had another week of crops and cups ahead of me. You may have already seen the video here on the website…but the travel log for Costa Rica is soon to follow!