My collection of small batch products is growing again, this time adding Jay D’s Single Origin Coffee to the mix. The project is one about which I have a multi-faceted excitement. While the coffee isn’t born out of Louisiana flavors like my Barbecue Sauce and Molasses Mustard or crafted with a Louisiana-grown product like my Blanc du Bois wine, it is still a project of passion, creation, collaboration and this time, caffeination.
I’ve always enjoyed coffee. It is a natural energy booster and there’s a reason that it is one of the world’s most consumed commodity products. It’s a particularly valuable agricultural resource to the developing nations in equatorial regions of the globe where coffee can be grown. Parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and Central/South America are the largest growers and exporters of coffee, and a lot of the their economy depends on the world’s coffee market.
Recently an opportunity came up that lit a fuse in my entrepreneurial spirit, and all things global are local somewhere. I have the pleasure of working with one of my most treasured friends, without whom I wouldn’t be the same person that I am today. I have the chance to support a farm in a country to which I have traveled a couple of times and whose culture I hold dear. I have the opportunity to make an impact on the lives of American college students who are studying political science, international relations, developing world economics and sustainable agriculture (I used to be the president of FFA in high school, after all). Finally, I have the fortune of being able to team up with a local Baton Rouge company that’s doing amazing things with care and the artisan craftsmanship that I respect, while collaborating on something unique and delicious.
Caroline Payne, who got me through grad school at LSU (I finished my masters in Political Science while she went on to complete her Ph. D.), belongs in a special classification of human beings reserved only for the most revered and respected. As my former officemate on the third floor of Stubbs Hall, she’d keep my desk stocked with whiskey and would finish her reading assignments early so that I could borrow her book; she’s that kind of special. And of course, I never bought the books.
A group of us would routinely gather for political science nerd nights where we’d consume copious amounts of alcohol and play Risk, the board game where you strategically move armies to conquer the world. One night, after proving that I could drink more than our friend Natasha (who was studying Russian politics and is by far the best vodka drinker I’ve ever known), we never reached the conclusion of the game, but Caroline was there to nurse me through the night. It was painful, but a victory nonetheless.
When I taught high school math and coached baseball after grad school, Caroline would volunteer her time to tutor my Cuban-born baseball players so they could make good, honest grades and be eligible to play the game that they love.
So obviously now, having received her doctorate from LSU and moved on to be Professor Payne at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania, I try to find every excuse possible to visit and continue our friendship. Today, Caroline leads expeditions of her students to the developing world to help them get a first-hand account of poverty and development and how their people can climb out of it. Through this, I saw a golden opportunity for us to work together again.
For several years, Caroline and her crew, including fellow political science professor Jonathan Williamson (who I’ve also met and very much respect and admire), have traveled to El Naranjito, a remote community in the mountains of central Dominican Republic where coffee growing and harvesting is pretty much the only means of revenue.
When Lycoming College makes the trip each spring with around a dozen students, they help the coffee growers with their efforts to farm sustainably by planting shade trees that improve the quality of coffee and provide them with secondary products to sell including avocados and macadamia nuts. They also help the farmers improve record-keeping, perform tests to determine water quality, improve access to clean water and purchase and plant new varietals of coffee.
Shade-grown coffees, which account for less than 1% of the global coffee supply, not only taste better but preserve natural habitats and help ensure the health and safety of coffee growers and coffee drinkers. The coffee from El Naranjito is grown using environmentally safe practices which will allow them to obtain Organic Certification in the future.
El Naranjito’s isolation has meant that the coffee farmers have been beholden to middlemen that pay them as a little as 5 to 8 cents per pound for the coffee they produce. As a result, the coffee farmers there are some of the poorest in the world. The majority of this coffee has traditionally been neglected, with little oversight on quality, and all purchased by one company which mass-produces Dominican coffee. Most of that coffee is then consumed in the Dominican Republic, so there’s no reason to strive for higher quality and the ability to hit the global specialty grade coffee market.
Historically very little of the coffee grown in the Dominican Republic leaves the island, and most of what does hasn’t come to America, making Dominican-grown coffee a rare commodity in the states. Caroline tells me that only 3-5% of Dominican coffee is exported out of the country, and of that, over 90% of what does goes leave the borders goes to Europe. The opportunity to get our hands on Dominican coffee beans couldn’t be passed up!
By working with the El Naranjito community to improve their agricultural practices and processing techniques, Caroline and her Lycoming team have enabled the production of high quality coffee and increased the farmers’ earnings to around $2 dollars per pound, thus greatly improving their standard of living in the process.
I’ve been to the Dominican Republic twice now and I’m hoping to go again in May to join the Lycoming team at El Naranjito. I wrote a four-part blog series about my first trip to the DR in 2013. It included one of the most memorable meals of my life. I went back earlier in 2016 for a wedding in Punta Cana. The food did little to inspire, and though the pirate ship booze cruise was indeed a good time, I longed to get off the beaten path and explore the real Dominican Republic.
The people make the Dominican Republic what it is. Their joie de vie reminds me of Louisiana, celebrating life and what they have rather than a focus on what they don’t. Everywhere you look there are smiles and people having good times, and there’s usually food. Good home cooking, which is seldom revolutionary but always soulful, is the Dominican food that I got used to — the stuff that memories are made of. Pollo guisado and fried plantains highlighted the menu. Sure, most of it was peasant food, born out of poverty and necessity, but isn’t that where most of the great food cultures come from?
Hawaii is the only coffee growing region in the United States, so I couldn’t make a Louisiana coffee. However, the people of Louisiana are no stranger to a good cup of joe, and if I couldn’t grow coffee beans in Louisiana, the next best thing was to import Dominican coffee beans and roast them here at home.
I teamed up with Chris and Stevie from the Cafeciteaux Coffee Roasters. They know a thing or two about how to treat a coffee bean. So after the beans got sent from El Naranjito to Baton Rouge via Pennsylvania (perhap we’ll streamline that next year), the next step was to roast them with Cafeciteaux.
After doing some testing we decided that a medium roast would treat this coffee with the respect it deserves. It truly is a lovely coffee with flavors of milk chocolate, fig and nutmeg. We could also taste hints of toffee, creme brulée and citrus. I’m extremely excited about drinking more of it and sharing the hard work of the farmers and roasters alike with everyone I know.
The purchase of Jay D’s Single Origin Coffee supports Lycoming College’s sustainable development initiatives. Simply by purchasing the green (unroasted) coffee beans we’ve already jump-started that process by helping the farm. We’re also donating $1 per bag sold back to Lycoming College which will be split between their Transition Fund which helps develop El Naranjito (planting trees, water/soil chemistry, etc.) and making it possible for Lycoming students to travel to the Dominican Republic. There they will get the hands-on experience to learn how creative and mutually beneficial partnerships can produce coffee with amazing flavor while advancing responsible agricultural practices and provide family-sustaining incomes for remote farmers in the Dominican Republic.
Together, we can do what’s right by making educated and responsible decisions as consumers while drinking amazing coffee.