How does Dominican coffee work?
Dominican coffee is short, very sweet and extremely strong. Short because it is served
in a small, espresso-sized cup, sweet because it is made with generous enamel-
stripping amounts of sugar, and strong enough to make your eyeballs pop out if you‟re
not used to it. It goes without saying that Dominican coffee is delicious, and a well-
deserved source of intense national pride.
Coffee is the Dominican national non-alcoholic drink. Everybody drinks it. To refuse an
offer of a cafecito is seen as ungracious at best, and sometimes downright unpatriotic!
Sweeter than sweet coffee is the standard way of drinking Dominican coffee, and most
Dominicans brew it together with the sugar. There are some rare cases where the
drinker prefers it amargo, or bitter, but these individuals are looked upon with some
suspicion. Sugar is the Dominican Republic‟s main cash crop, even more important to
the national economy than coffee, and to refrain from consuming it may be seen as an
insult. As for people who don‟t even drink coffee, they are considered to be lost causes.
Coffee is almost always drunk black, or „solo‟ (by itself). A café con leche (white coffee)
is confusingly known as a ‘medio pollo’ – literally „half a chicken‟. There is no particular
time of day for drinking coffee – you may be offered a cup at any hour.
Coffee beans are cultivated in several parts of the Dominican Republic – the remote
lush mountainsides of the south western provinces of Azua, Bani and Bahoruco, and the
verdant slopes of the northern cordilleras in Moca, San Francisco and Salcedo, among
others. Coffee is originally from Africa and was brought over to the island of Hispaniola
in the eighteenth century by the Spanish colonists and soon became a lucrative farming
product as well as a national obsession. The coffee that is produced in the Dominican
Republic is Arabica, generally held to be the superior variety.
Coffee beans are actually seeds of coffee cherries. These cherries grow on coffee trees
and turn bright red when they ripen. They are found in clusters along the branches of a
coffee tree. The outer layer of the cherry is bitter, however, the fruit underneath is sweet
and has the look and feel of the inside of a grape. Below that is a heavy, slimy
substance which surrounds the bean and helps to protect it. Below see pictures of how
coffee cherries look before and after they have been dried.
Trimethylxanthine or what is more commonly known as caffeine is what gives coffee its
kick. It is an addictive stimulant that affects the brain in the same way that more powerful
drugs do. Caffeine not only occurs in coffee but in a number of other plants as well. The
average 6 ounce cup of coffee contains about 100mg. of caffeine.
Dominican coffee, along with its Caribbean counterparts, is described by coffee
connoisseurs as “full-bodied with moderate acidity and uncomplicated flavors”.
According to them, these wet-processed coffees are best suited for dark-roasted
espresso blends. Coffee cultivated at lower altitudes tends to be softer and less acidic.
In the Dominican Republic, a simple cup of coffee manages to cross all barriers of class
and wealth, and is equally revered and adored in the wealthiest mansions of the
sophisticated urban rich as it is in the poorest rural campesino shack, as well as
everywhere in between. In fact, caffeine‟s properties as an appetite suppressant and a
stimulant probably accounts for much of its popularity among the poor, but everyone,
whether they own a mule or a Mercedes Benz, can testify to the richness of the taste.
Visit any Dominican household, and however poor it may be, you will always be offered
a cup of coffee at the very least, and it is not customary to refuse it, even if you are not
usually a coffee drinker. If you are a coffee lover but are averse to so much sugar, you
will still need to drink at least a couple of token sips in recognition of your hosts‟
hospitality. In the humblest houses this is often all your hosts can afford, and therefore
an important point of pride.
The traditional „campo‟ way of making a cup of authentic Dominican coffee is by drying
the beans out in the sun, grinding and roasting them in a pilon, and then straining or
sieving the ground coffee with boiling water through a device called a colador, a
colander resembling a small butterfly net. Café de pilon, as it is known, has a
characteristic rustic taste, and evokes considerable nostalgia for the old times. One of
the ultimate compliments a Dominican can make about a cup of coffee is to say that it
tastes like café de pilon.
In modern, urban Dominican homes, „colar café’ endures as the expression meaning „to
make coffee‟, even if you are using the ubiquitous greca, the aluminum stovetop Italian-
style espresso jug found in practically all Dominican kitchens. At one time, the story
goes, „greca’ was one of the most famous brand names for this particular type of coffee
pot, and Dominicans have adopted it as the generic word for this utensil. Other methods
of making coffee are rarely seen, except for in restaurants and cafeterias where Italian
espresso machines are used with sublime effects.
Coffee as an export crop is making a comeback these days, and the Dominican
Republic is finding a promising niche as demand grows on the international market for
organic coffee. As well as bringing renewed prosperity to the coffee growers in the
campo, it is helping preserve the rural environment. In areas threatened by
deforestation, coffee cultivation has the added bonus effect of reforestation. Coffee
bushes need shade, and trees have to be planted to provide this.
The coffee growing areas of the Dominican Republic are also worth a visit for their
scenic value. Panoramic and highly photogenic cascading slopes of green vegetation
dotted with the orange-red blossoms of the „amapola‟ tree, named by the Spaniards
because it reminded them of the poppy fields of their native land, are the characteristic
landscape features. High up in the mountains where the coffee grows, the air is fresh
and clear, offering some respite from the steamier lowlands.
If you are in the north of the Dominican Republic, you may consider visiting the Coffee
Ecological Park in La Cumbre, on the Luperon Tourist Highway between Santiago and
Puerto Plata. It has gift shops and craft workshops, as well as a parking area and
cafeteria. The park has four lookout points, providing visitors with views of Santiago and
Puerto Plata as well as of the Cibao Valley and the surrounding area of La Cumbre.
One of the great things about Dominican coffee is that even the most popular and
affordable national brand is of exceedingly high quality. You don‟t have to go premium or
„export quality‟ to get a top class cup, as you do in some other coffee producing
countries where the pick of the crop is reserved for export and the locals get the rest.
Brands like „Santo Domingo‟ are smooth, rich and superb, and affordable to most
Coffee is sold in „funditas‟ – small packets that provide one greca’s worth of coffee,
mainly from colmados, the typical corner grocery stores where most Dominicans buy
their basic food supplies. Lower-income households will buy food as they need it, and
coffee is one staple that is packaged in small measures with this sector of the economy
You can also buy Dominican coffee in half pound and 1lb packs, and also in cans for a
much longer shelf life. There are also several brands of organic coffee, which are a little
more expensive. All these are available from any supermarket shelves, or if you are
already back home and missing that special taste of the Dominican Republic, you can
order it over the internet from www.cafebueno.com
Freshly ground coffee can be bought at Santo Domingo‟s Mercado Modelo crafts and
souvenir market, on Avenida Mella near the Colonial Zone, and from specialist outlets
like La Cafetera del Conde on Calle El Conde in the Colonial Zone. Some supermarkets
also offer the option of grinding the beans for you on the spot.
Along with other typical Dominican specialties like rum and cigars, one of the best
souvenirs you can buy for the folks back home, not to mention for yourself, providing an
evocative tasty and aromatic reminder of your stay in the Dominican Republic.