ELIZABETH DOERR explores how the Dominican Republic’s largest coffee company seeks to change local coffee culture through baristas in Issue 06 of 25 Magazine.
Strong, short, and sweet – made by stovetop with the Greca coffee maker – is deemed “traditional” Dominican coffee. Part of this could be custom, but the sugar could also be a way to cover up the low-quality beans. In James Hoffman’s World Atlas of Coffee there’s an acknowledgement that, perhaps, Dominican coffee quality is lower because of the high local consumption. Indeed, according to the International Coffee Organization, Dominicans consumed around 95 percent of the 400,000 bags produced in the country in 2015. As such, locally produced coffee is most likely to make it to a cup on the Dominican half of Hispaniola Island, which the country shares with Haiti.
The question of quality of locally available coffee could be a sad commentary on local coffee producers’ investment in domestic coffee culture versus the business of export. But the Dominican Republic’s largest coffee brand, Café Santo Domingo (produced by parent company INDUBAN), wants to change that image. And hopefully, with it, they’ll change the culture. But the company recognizes that a long-held tradition of consuming strong-short sweet coffee isn’t going to change just by improving the quality of the bean or the roast – they need to train certain people on the front lines. “To offer high quality coffee,” says INDUBAN Marketing Manager, Omar Rodriguez, “you have to move all of coffee culture.” They realize this can only be done through the barista. And to do that, the barista profession needs to be elevated.
Café Santo Domingo is going all in on this endeavor to professionalize the Dominican barista through the establishment of the Instituto del Café Santo Domingo in 2017 to train baristas in the art of specialty coffee brewing, latte art, and all that goes into a quality cup of coffee. They’re doing this all with locally roasted Café Santo Domingo beans.
Café Santo Domingo
To say that the Café Santo Domingo brand is synonymous with Dominican coffee could be understatement. The company – founded over 70 years ago and still run by the Perello family – represents around 95 percent of the domestic coffee market share. They could’ve continued producing wholesale green beans as they always have done. But then came the coffee rust fungus, known as la roya, which prompted coffee producers to find creative solutions around 2011. In the case of Café Santo Domingo, they focused on innovating with attention to quality and established two farms dedicated to Robusta coffee and one for Arabica. But they needed to find a way to introduce these quality beans to the Dominican public in a way that did the coffee justice, so they launched around 16 coffee shops in 2012.
These coffee shops were but a piece of the larger Café Santo Domingo coffee producing puzzle.
“We had a company that sells and services the equipment and products for the food service sector, we had farms that produced coffee, and we had coffee shops,” says Omar Rodriguez. “But what we were missing was a place to train baristas.” They trained coffee shop baristas and employees working for the brand’s hotel and restaurant clients on site. But they didn’t have a dedicated space to conduct a large-scale education program. “For that,” says Omar, “we founded the Instituto del Café Santo Domingo.”
The company had been setting the foundation for the institute for years. When the coffee shops were opened in 2012, Café Santo Domingo brought on Ronald González, a then 15-year veteran barista from Costa Rica and international barista competitor, as Academic Coordinator. Since starting with the company, Ronald has trained around 70 baristas. Also part of this team of experts is Erica Reyes, who, through consulting with Café Santo Domingo, brings her expertise as a pioneer in Puerto Rico’s specialty coffee industry as founder and President of Puerto Rico Café Cola’o, the Escuela de Café y Baristas de Puerto Rico, a coffee producer, and a barista championship judge. Together, Ronald and Erica aren’t just mentoring good baristas, they’re creating a cadre of champion baristas. Upon launching the institute, the leadership team already had an eye towards sending the first Dominican international barista competitor. While the Dominican Republic has yet to establish itself as a national body — and until then won’t be able to send a barista to an international competition — Erica, Roland, and Café Santo Domingo still see the value of training their baristas to be national competitors.
They believe competition, even locally, plays a strong part in professionalizing the role of the barista locally.
This has been particularly resonant with one of the barista competitors, 26-year-old Gabriel Marte, who, like most Dominicans, didn’t think much of his coffee before finding out about Café Santo Domingo’s barista program several years ago. He went from little access to education and not much of a connection to coffee other than drinking his short, strong, and sweet cups to winning the inaugural Café Santo Domingo Coffee Championship this May.
Before his eyes were opened to the expansive world of coffee, he didn’t even know it was a profession. Now he’s becoming a homegrown coffee expert.
Professionalizing a Little Known Career
The professionalization of Dominican baristas was teased artfully in the institute’s second Instagram post last March on their well curated account. A professional photo of an apron-adorned barista skillfully steaming milk with the caption reading in Spanish, “A barista is to coffee, what a sommelier is to wine. Are you ready?”
The institute was ready, that’s for sure. When Education Delivery Manager for the Specialty Coffee Association, Ben Helt, visited the institute’s campus last March, he was blown away by the quality of the setup.
“Their classroom and training lab would rival many of the corporate training classroom that we have here in the States,” he says. “They have a strong relationship with [Cimbali], so they have the latest and greatest [espresso machine] models.” The pristine training lab appears to be intentionally designed with the red, black, and chrome of the Cimbali brand in a sleek, professional space.
The care put into the space shows that the Café Santo Domingo brand is going all in on this endeavor. “It’s not something they have to do, but it’s something they’re committed to,” says Ben.
SCA certification is a large part of that professionalization.
“We don’t want to just give training as a pass,” says Erica. “We did training in the past for our customers, but it’s not just a training. I want, in the Dominican Republic, to create professional baristas and specialty coffee [experts]. We have the technology, we have the infrastructure, we have the farm, we have everything. We can do it.”
The goal of sending Dominican baristas to an international competition raises the stakes for professionalizing the barista locally. Thus, in February, 40 baristas entered into the latte art competition and 10 in the overall barista competition. Four finalists were selected that month to continue on to a four-month training series (consisting of around 50 total hours of preparation) on international coffee competition rules and regulations while honing their latte art, espresso pulling, and coffee brewing skills needed to shine during competition. As a culmination of that process, they participated in a professionally judged competition to demonstrate their hardwon skills.
“We’ve spent a lot of energy, time, and money [on the institute] because we believe in that part of the market,” says Ronald speaking of Café Santo Domingo’s commitment. “That’s the reason we decided to make the competitions. Because we know that the baristas in the Dominican Republic right now need to go another step.”
By focusing on the competitions, Ronald and Erica are helping these baristas elevate themselves in the profession but also providing an opportunity to see coffee beyond the Dominican Republic.
“The important thing is that the barista in the Dominican Republic needs to believe that they are baristas,” says Erica. “That they can be baristas. Sometimes they don’t have access to see the world, but when we show them the videos and I talk about my experience visiting China, Gothenburg, or Budapest for the barista competitions, they say, ‘Wow, maybe one day I can do that.’ I think it’s the most important part to start with that culture.”
But the training isn’t just looking at global coffee culture, it’s also looking as close as their own back yard. Dominican baristas have an advantage that European and American baristas don’t have: a coffee farm within a couple of hours of their training center. At the coffee farm, baristas see the entire process from planting and germination to harvest. This view of the coffee lifecycle can be transformative. Developing an appreciation for all steps of the process is largely at the heart of specialty coffee culture. These baristas then take this knowledge back to the café and are able to tell a compelling story to their customers.
Competition winner Gabriel Marte says the farm is where his eyes were opened to the world of coffee. “I didn’t know that [the coffee world] was so big,” he says. As he continues to learn more about the process, he says, “I love every day more and more.”
Gabriel is an example of how a passion can grow into something more. What gives him joy on a daily basis is seeing the reactions from his customers. He likes to tell them about the process and where their beans come from and sees their eyes open to a world that they may have taken for granted.
The Barista’s Role in Valuing Coffee
While everyone from Café Santo Domingo admits that Dominican specialty coffee culture is still emerging, they are fully invested in being at the center of developing and expanding that culture. In part, they see it as a process of helping Dominicans truly value a crop that they’ve taken for granted.
“I think the barista is the key. It’s the connections that the Dominicans know the product that they have,” says Erica. “I know that they are going to give more value to the farmers, to coffee, to the industry, everything. I’m sure of that. Because right now in Puerto Rico it’s the same thing. We don’t give that value. They think, ‘It’s our coffee, I drink it,’ but that’s it … It’s [building] the connection with that customer [that transforms the culture]”.
One way they see this cultural transformation occurring is through tourism. Because of tourism’s significant role in the local economy, there’s potential for the value of specialty Dominican coffee to be a draw. Café Santo Domingo already trains staff from hotels and restaurants that serve their coffee and they’re specifically targeting the tourist sector by establishing another institute campus in Punto Cana, a popular beach and tourist area. The company’s now 16 specialty coffee shops around the country could also be a draw to the discerning tourist keen on finding the best locally produced products.
Regardless of where to tap into the market, the barista is still the key to expanding the market and the appreciation for specialty coffee. Erica, Ronald, and Omar all see sending a Dominican barista to an international championship as a way to do that. Omar has an even more specific vision in mind: “a world barista champion in front of a sign of the Instituto Café Santo Domingo and a representation of the Dominican Republic.”
Current Dominican barista champion, Gabriel, thinks he can be that person.
The work and the stress of preparing seemed to only motivate him more. “Every day I learn something new,” he says “and after that I keep learning.” It seems to have grown his passion and his desire to dive in even deeper. He’s already developing a plan to improve his technical preparation skills. He knows there’s a lot to learn, but he’s excited about it.
Maybe in a couple years, Gabriel will be that barista standing in front of the institute’s banner holding an international champion trophy representing the Dominican Republic’s and Café Santo Domingo’s entrance into the specialty coffee world.
ELIZABETH DOERR is a freelance writer and social justice educator based in Portland, USA.
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