In a previous post, I gave background information on coffee growing on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. We gave a some of these coffees a try. First, a selection from the Dominican Republic (DR).
Plainspoken Coffee. A Coffee Review for Ordinary People by Ordinary People, #34.
Café Alta Gracia — Vermont Coffee Company. Certified organic and Fair Trade.
Finca Alta Gracia is a 25 ha farm located at 1100 m on the slopes of Pico Duarte, the highest mountain in the West Indies, 17 km west of Jarabacoa near the town of Los Marranitos. Although the web site notes “volcanic soils,” to the best of my knowledge the last volcanic activity in the region was in the Cretaceous period. So although this is technically correct, Pico Duarte doesn’t have the types of recent volcanic soils typical of Central America, for instance. As I mentioned in the previous post, Pico Duarte is primarily underlain with granite. These soils are said to contribute to a unique taste.
Finca Alta Gracia was established in 1996 by Julia Alvarez and her husband Bill Eichner. Alvarez, a DR native, is a well known author of novels such as the powerful In the Time of the Butterflies, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and the great little semi-biographical tale about coffee farming, A Cafecito Story. Fittingly, proceeds from this coffee help support literacy efforts — the farm includes a small literacy center with a resident volunteer teacher. I had read several books by Alvarez before coming across A Cafecito Story. I was intrigued and knew one day I’d have to see if I could track down and try the coffee.
Café Alta Gracia roasted by the Vermont Coffee Company. It is available locally in Vermont or online, with about 16,000 pounds roasted annually. I believe great coffee consists of two components: a well-grown bean and an artisan roaster. Nobody can do much with a bean with poor heritage, grown in poor soil or low elevation without proper care, and sloppily processed. And an unskilled or hasty roaster can kill the taste of a perfectly good bean (Starbucks accomplishes this on a regular basis). So I was a bit unsure of what to expect from a little farm and an unknown (to me) roaster.
The coffee was a pleasant surprise. Beans appeared to be a medium roast, with a light sheen and a few pinpricks of oil. The aroma was summed up as “spicy nuts.” In the French press, it was mild, light to medium-bodied, smooth, and sweet with hints of chocolate; one reviewer also noted a bit of licorice. One thing we all noticed was a near-minty zing, especially when slurped. One person said it reminded him of a thin mint cookie, a couple others called it “refreshing.” The coffee lost some character brewed, but overall was quite an interesting cup. It garnered a solid 3.5 motmots.
Finca Alta Gracia is now managed by the Dominican Institute for Agriculture and Forestry Research (Instituto Dominicano de Investigaciones Agropecuarias y Forestales or IDIAF), although Alvarez and Eichner are still involved. IDIAF uses Finca Alta Gracia as a demonstration and research facility to help teach other farmers about organic and sustainable agriculture. This strong commitment to sustainability, literacy, and giving back to the community makes this a unique and important project to support. The coffee makes it a pleasure.