The bean belt contains over 60 coffee-growing countries, and within those sixty countries there are an immense number of producers. In the Dominican Republic alone, there are more than 50,071 coffee farms in only 48, 311 km². And every coffee farm is different, from the soil to the varietals grown and the processing methods.
So as a specialty roaster, how do you find the best farmer to work with? With thousands of choices, narrowing down your options isn’t easy!
A little over two years ago, I set out to find specialty-grade producers in the Dominican Republic with the aim of roasting the coffee locally. This cupping quest has led me to many unexpected parts of the island. After long trips, surprises, and many questions asked, I found my producers – and along the way, I learned the three essential steps for locating the perfect farm.
1. Know What You Want
As a roaster, you need to know what qualities your coffee will need – and what kind of farm they will grow best on. This starts with the technical aspects, such as the altitude, biodiversity, choice of varietals, soil quality, and pluviometry (rainfall). Yet it also goes far beyond this.
Planting, growing, harvesting and processing are the hardest part of the coffee chain: it takes the roaster 20 minutes to roast a great batch while it takes the producer years to produce quality green beans.
And this means that a specialty-grade farm doesn’t exist by accident. They are the result of careful planning, knowledge, and hard work, all on the part of the producer.
In my opinion, the perfect farm should be one that constantly strives for a better cup profile through the perfection of farming methods. The producer doesn’t only work towards economic sustainability, but also a consistently good cup of coffee.
So decide what you want – the varietals, the location, the technical aspects, and the producer’s aims – before you begin searching. This will help you to recognise the farm, and the farmer, that you want to work with much more quickly.
Cherry picking a Creole Typica at Spirit Mountain Farm.
2. Ask the Local Community
Whether it’s a small country or an expansive coffee region, there will be a community of growers, traders, and roasters. In the Dominican Republic, there’s no classification system for the quality or organization of coffee farms, so word of mouth is vital. And it might not sound very precise, but simply asking around has allowed me to find amazing farms.
When I started looking, I began by approaching buyers for big, local coffee companies. They pointed towards regions and cooperatives, which allowed me to start exploring and visiting places in the south of the country. I haven’t found many farms in that region that meet my requirements, but the more I find out about the region from the farmers, the closer I get to the perfect match.
It’s also been great for discovering the specific conditions affecting different producing regions. For example, I learned that the south of the island had had a decline in its coffee quality in the last five years because of La Roya, or coffee rust, but that higher altitude coffee-producing sub-regions have been less affected – vital information in my search for high-quality coffee.
Trade shows and fairs are also great way to connect with the community. I’ve also noticed that most of the farmers visiting these events tend to be better organized and more informed. In fact, I discovered one of the best coffees I have found so far during a trade show – and I didn’t even have to hunt for it! The farmer approached me and presented her outstanding coffee, grown 1250-1400 m.a.sl.
Orange blossom flowers from Spirit Mountain.
3. Connect with International Roasters
Yet there’s only so far local insight can take you. Most high-graded coffee is exported to foreign markets. As a consequence – or perhaps a cause – the specialty coffee market sadly remains less developed inside the coffee belt. And so, if you want to know where to find the best producers, we’ve found that it is the roasters and importers based outside the territory that you need to speak to. You don’t just need local knowledge; you also need global knowledge.
My search for a producer in the Dominican Republic took me to Paris – well, almost. Email takes you a long way in today’s world. And so I spoke to Gloria Montenegro of La Caféotheque, a Guatemalan coffee connoisseur who has been building a network of specialty farms all over Latin America for over a decade.
Gloria introduced me to a specialty coffee exporter in the Dominican Republic, who in turn introduced me to producers who only export their high-grade coffee. And finally, through them, having emailed people all over the world, I was able to get in touch with coffee farmers willing and able to sell specialty grade within the national territory.
In this way, I met Samuel Baltensperger, the owner and farmer of Rancho Samir. The elegance and cleanness of his coffee blew me away – as did his farm. Ranch Samir is self-sustained, processing different quality grades and using the waste generated after the harvest as biofuel. The organization of the farm, the treatment of the coffee trees, and the processing of the coffee beans are what I would call textbook perfect.
I also came across the Spirit Mountain farm through this international network of roasters. This farm is run by Chadley Wallace, a Texan who has been living in the Dominican Republic for over 20 years and is well-known for his involvement in projects for the improvement of local living conditions. His farm is also the only one in the Caribbean that is certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Birds Center.
I took a tour of Spirit Mountain, and Chad and his employees’ detailed planning and knowledge of his farm astounded me. They knew every coffee plant as well as if they all had a name, and had even planted sweet-lemon and orange trees around the farm to add fruitiness to the cup.
Chad Wallace at Spirit Mountain, speaking about cross-pollination and coffee farm bees.
Coffee: It’s All About People
You’ll notice that all three of these steps focused on the human aspects of finding the perfect farm, whether that’s learning the producer’s attitude towards coffee or speaking to the coffee community.
I started this adventure thinking about databases and complex quality tests – and yet I have managed to build great relationships in the simplest of ways: by reaching out to people and listening to their stories.
As a roaster, having a personal relationship with producers and knowing their methods has brought a new aspect to my work. It has helped me choose roasting profiles that reflect my experience of their farm; I like to think of this as a compliment to their hard work.
Remember, when you select your farm, you’re not just choosing a coffee growing environment: you’re building a relationship with a producer.
Feature Photo Credit: @smedleyshots
Perfect Daily Grind.