Puerto Rico used to produce some of the best coffee in the world — but that was more than a century ago.
Today, Puerto Rico's coffee crop is just a fraction of what it was then, and little is exported. But there's a movement on the island to improve quality and rebuild Puerto Rico's coffee industry.
The U.S. territory is still America's leading coffee producer, ahead of Hawaii, the only other part of the country where it's grown in any sizable amount. (As The Salt has reported, there is some experimental commercial coffee farming in California.) Puerto Rico produced some 10 million pounds of coffee last year. Much of it is grown in places like Elena Biamon's farm near Jajuya, a town in the island's mountainous interior.
Her farm, Finca Gripiñas, is 2,000 feet up, within sight of the island's highest peak and the world-famous Arecibo observatory. There are just five acres devoted to coffee and other crops. But getting there requires a hike — it's on the side of a mountain.
Butterflies flit across our path. There's a waterfall nearby. On the hillside, coffee bushes are interspersed with banana and orange trees. The cover provided by the taller trees is important.
Like an increasing number of farmers in Puerto Rico, Biamon is raising what's known as specialty coffee: It's of a higher quality, requiring more shade than coffee for the commercial market.
In one section, Biamon points out where she's planted trees to provide more shade for coffee plants currently receiving full sun. For many years, she notes, the Puerto Rican agriculture department encouraged farmers to boost their yield by getting rid of shade trees that provided cover for coffee bushes. "It takes a long time to grow these hardwood trees," she says.
Coffee has been grown on these hillsides for more than 150 years. Biamon and her husband, Miguel Sastre, purchased the farm several years ago and now produce their coffee organically.
Sastre is a marine biologist who grew up around coffee, on the very land he now owns. His great-grandfather farmed here. His father finally sold the land and got out of the coffee business in 1968. Sastre says, "My father, he told me, 'Don't get into farming because it is very difficult.' "
For decades, coffee production declined in Puerto Rico. With small farms and scarce labor, the island struggled to compete with commercial producers in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil.
Biamon and Sastre are part of a new breed now getting involved in Puerto Rican coffee. Biamon says, "More and more people are really into specialty coffee. And they're conscious of having a good coffee quality."
Last year coffee production actually increased in Puerto Rico. The island's agriculture department is using incentives to boost production, paying for everything from equipment to farm labor.
In Utuado, a town in the heart of the coffee region, the University of Puerto Rico has created a program to help farmers improve the quality of their product.
Yaniria Sanchez de Leon is a soil scientist and one of a team of researchers working to develop varieties and techniques that will help farmers produce specialty coffee, which commands higher prices.
Sanchez says an important part of the project is educating farmers and consumers to recognize the value of good coffee — "so that we can focus," she says, "on selling quality rather than quantity. And that if the price is a little higher, people understand why it's higher."
To judge a coffee's quality, you have to taste it. In a special lab at the University of Puerto Rico, Alfredo Rodriguez teaches "cupping" — learning to taste and grade the quality of coffee. To really taste a coffee, Rodriguez says, you have to slurp it. In the industry, it's called aspiration. "Aspiration is important," he says, "because you have to try to distribute the coffee all over your mouth."
Rodriguez is a grower with 60 acres of coffee in Maricao, on Puerto Rico's western edge. He's also a certified taster and cupping instructor, one of just 32 in the world, he says. His students learn how to identify and describe the characteristics of good coffee.
"Is it sweet, is it not sweet?" he explains to us. "Does it have a defect? The flavor is intense or is pale, low? All those type of things are what we're looking for in the cupping."
In his classes, Rodriguez has taught doctors, lawyers, engineers, recently even an airline pilot. They're professionals who are now beginning second careers in the industry. Producers must learn to identify quality to raise good coffee — and to know when they're doing something wrong, Rodriguez says, so they can fix it. That way, he says, " they can get better scores for the coffee and better value for their coffee."
Like wine and chocolate, Rodriguez says, there's a romance to coffee. And it's attracting new ideas and new energy to one of Puerto Rico's oldest industries.