Coffee News: from Seed to Cup

What Does It Mean to Be a Roaster in a Producing Country?

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Local roasters have the power to positively transform a producing country’s coffee industry, but it’s not easy.

In my home, the Dominican Republic, coffee is ubiquitous. It is at the heart of our social interactions and a cornerstone of our identity and heritage. Yet I’ve spent years hunting for specialty coffee here – and failed.

My mission is to change this. And as I’ve taken steps toward creating a specialty coffee culture here, I’ve learned many things and faced many challenges.  So let me share with you the ways in which we roasters can drive a coffee’s industry toward quality, better pay, and even greater passion for the drink that symbolizes our nation.

SEE ALSO: Should Cafés in Producing Countries Serve Other Nations’ Coffees?

cafe de la islaHusband-and-wife team Edouard and Coral lead one of their first workshops in the Dominican Republic. Credit: Credit: Gente de la Isla

The Challenges Facing Producing Countries

I started with ambitious goals, but it soon became clear that I had underestimated the challenges facing our local industry.

My initial plan was to, together with my husband Edouard, create a micro-batch roasted coffee subscription service targeted toward the elite coffee connoisseur. I wanted to work with Fairtrade and help producers achieve their potential by giving them more market access. I also wanted to open my own specialty shop where people would come to appreciate the different notes from the different coffee origins.

I made these plans while traveling outside of the Dominican Republic. But once I returned home, I soon understood the sense of despair that I had experienced among buyers abroad.

Many of my country’s coffee farms had been destroyed by the devastating fungus coffee leaf rust. Among those growers who were still in business, many didn’t understand that we were now in competition, not just with other nearby farmers, but all the producing countries around the world. Globalization has changed the industry but we were only just waking up to this fact.

As I made my way through my country, cupping coffee to source specialty grade beans, I was confronted with another harsh reality: like in most producing nations, our quality coffee was being exported to foreign markets. The coffee we consumed locally was, more often than not, imported from abroad.

It was hard to find growers who believed that specialty coffee could provide a living for them. However, every time I found a producer passionate about quality, willing to experiment with production methods and taste profiles, I knew that the world needed to know about them.

And that is where, as a local roaster, I had the power to make an impact.

cafe de la islaView of Cibao, Dominican Republic. Credit: Gente de la Isla

The Role of Roasters

It wasn’t until we started organizing workshops that my husband and I really understood the importance of our role as roasters. It is our job to be the bridge between the producer and the consumer – and the best way for us to bring these two worlds together is quality, consistency and accessibility.

Over time, our idea of an exclusive membership service shifted to becoming a direct trade specialty coffee brand sourcing directly from specific farms. In other words, we went from being origin-focused to single estate.  

SEE ALSO: Everything You Need to Know About Single Origin Coffees

This change was partly because we realized the specific challenges that our market presented. But it was also partly because we understood that this was the only way we could really achieve our goal – making specialty coffee a reality for the Dominican coffee consumer.

cafe de la islaA workshop participant takes notes on tasting and palate training. Credit: Gente de la Isla

Changing The Way People See Coffee

The workshops have been crucial, since they’ve given us the opportunity to present the exciting world of coffee to curious Dominicans – the kind of people who had never had the time or opportunity to learn more about it.

Almost immediately, we noticed acute palates and marked preferences for darker roast levels. This was useful information for meeting our consumers’ expectations and guiding them into tasting different profiles.

Over 30 workshops later, I can tell you that we’ve always received the same enthusiastic response: people are thirsty for specialty coffee. What’s more, the workshops change the way they understand the same coffee industry that is so important to our country’s economy. It’s creating an interest in specialty coffee, where and how coffee is produced, and the way it’s roasted.

As always, education is key.

cafe de la islaCoral (front and centre) with workshop participants; her baby, Inès, looks on from the back. Credit: Gente de la Isla

Building a Stronger Local Coffee Industry

But it’s not just about the consumers. It’s also about the producers.

From the farm to the cup, coffee is about people. By buying direct trade, we can see an immediate effect on the community surrounding the farm. Farmers receive fair prices, allowing them to pay their workers and pickers higher wages. These workers, in turn, spend their money in local businesses.

When you have a good relationship with the farmer, you can also consider producing specific flavor profiles, using different fermentation methods, and experimenting with different coffee varieties – although I recommend only doing it in a small area of the farm to begin with! One of the farmers we work with now produces honey coffee since he is sure of having buyers.

In a territory as small as ours, it might seem natural for small, local roasters and producers to work together. Yet this isn’t always the case – and the local coffee industry is poorer because of it.

Over the last three years, we’ve been in contact with growers and consumers alike. We’ve discovered that there is a paying market for specialty coffee (after all, our coffee is now sold in 50 retail outlets). We’ve also learned that, no matter where they are in the supply chain, people want authenticity. That producers need diversity in their consumers, so they can sell high-quality coffees as well as commodity ones. That customers want to know about the story behind the cup.

And, most importantly, we’ve learned about the power of local roasters to change the industry. We can bridge the gap between two different worlds, that of consumers and that of producers. We can go back to quality – quality in our coffee and quality in our human relationships.

Written by Coral De Camps of Gente de la Isla.

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