Puerto Rico’s Coffee Revival

Feature

Utuado_Landscape

It was a gray winter afternoon on the campus of the University of Puerto Rico at Utuado. Thick mists were rolling in over the surrounding green hills. Winter was a relative term of course. As the polar vortex was just starting to clench its icy fist over North America, it was shorts weather here—even in the mountains. Utuado lies in the heart of coffee country in the main mountain chain that bisects the island. The grounds of the campus even used to be a coffee farm. Right beyond the boundary of the parking lot were rows of low green shrubs nestled between taller trees. Not much larger than a backyard garden, the plot was actually a nascent organic coffee farm. The shrubs were a hybrid of the Arabica varietals maragogipe and caturra that local legend says was developed by the university’s founder. While it will be a while before these young plants bear fruit, the farm itself is the result of an effort to return the campus to coffee production and, in the process, maybe return the whole of Puerto Rico back to its days of coffee glory.

The four “farmers” responsible for this garden, actually professors and by chance all women, direct a new program called Café CORMO, a sort of coffee university. While the professors conduct research—the coffee field brims with experiments involving shade trees and organic pesticides and herbicides—what differentiates Café CORMO from the usual agricultural program is it’s coffee lab. This lab is part of Café CORMO’s overlapping mission of educating its students and performing outreach to the coffee community at large.

Since 1990, Puerto Rico’s coffee production has fallen by sixty-three percent.

Dr. Yaniria Sanchez De Leon, a soil scientist and biologist, says that Café CORMO will ultimately include all phases of coffee production. De Leon, the most outspoken member of the group, is enthusiastic when discussing the program’s goals and accomplishments. As part of their initial plan, the team has established their organic coffee farm, created a coffee nursery to cultivate the university’s varietal, and opened the new coffee lab. As soon as the coffee plants start fruiting, they will develop all the processing steps, from picking coffee cherries to roasting.

“We would like, longer term, to produce a coffee, harvest this coffee, and process it and have a brand,” De Leon says. “The idea is not to compete with farmers but to have a complete model for coffee. Anyone who visits here or studies with us can see the entire process from bean to the final product.”

Café CORMO and its projects are a major investment of energy and dollars into teaching coffee production to a country with hundreds of years of coffee-growing history. Although Puerto Rico produces more coffee than the United States’ other coffee region, Hawaii, that region’s coffee is known and desired the world over and is widely available. American roasters and brokers may know about Puerto Rican coffee, but rarely import it due to its bad reputation. Things weren’t always this way. Coffee was once a valuable export for Puerto Rico with large markets in both the United States and Europe. In recent years, however, production has declined drastically and growers have been leaving the business. How did things get like this? How has a product once described, even if self-servingly, “as the coffee of popes and kings” fallen so far?

(From left to right) Marisol Davila Negron, Yaniria Sanchez De Leon, Mariangie Ramos, three of Café CORMO's professors. (Photos by Michael Tulkoff.)
(From left to right) Marisol Davila Negron, Yaniria Sanchez De Leon, Mariangie Ramos, three of Café CORMO’s professors. (Photos by Michael Tulkoff.)

The story of coffee in Puerto Rico begins like most coffee stories in this part of the world, with the Spanish (or maybe it was the Corsicans, there’s a certain amount of legend to any good genesis story). Regardless of who introduced it, by the 1700s Arabica was an established crop in Puerto Rico. Coffee, along with tobacco and sugar, produced much of the island’s wealth, which was funneled to rich landowners. The Spanish operated a near feudal system and while the majority of workers were not slaves, they were not quite free either. When control of Puerto Rico passed to the United States following the Spanish-American War in the late nineteenth century, corporations replaced the Spanish masters as lords of the plantations. Eventually, Puerto Rico obtained commonwealth status and began a modernization program. As the territory grew economically, regular Puerto Ricans became more educated and affluent and agricultural work became stigmatized. Economic development of the island increased, and Puerto Rican coffee started its long decline.

Even though coffee production has fallen off, coffee remains as much a flavor of Puerto Rico as rum and piragua (shaved ice) in tropical flavors of coconut, tamarind, and passion fruit. Coffee is served any time of the day. Although the guidebooks will talk about how Puerto Ricans love to drink cortados (an even split of milk and espresso), coffee is typically served more like a café con leche. Black coffee takes the menacing name café puya. In Spanish, the word puya means the point of a lance; the name likely derives from the perception that coffee without any milk or sugar is bitter. The cultural perception of bitter coffee is ironic because, as Alfredo Rodriguez, a local grower and instructor at Café CORMO, says, “Central American coffees are called mild. Caribbean coffees are called milder.”

“First you educate, then you increase quality, and then you look for your market.”

Carlos Flores Ortega is an authority on Puerto Rican coffee and the former Undersecretary of Agriculture. Now he works as an associate professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, running its coffee agricultural extension and the coffee commodities program. “Coffee in Puerto Rico is a medium acid, highly flavored Caribbean coffee that produces a unique and pleasant aroma,” Ortega says.

Puerto Ricans prefer to drink local coffee but current production cannot meet the demand. According to Ortega, there are thirty million pounds of coffee consumed annually in Puerto Rico. That’s an impressive rate of consumption for a territory of 3.6 million people. But according to Puerto Rican Department of Agriculture statistics, the island only produced 10.5 million pounds of those green beans between 2009 and 2010. That wasn’t an off year, but rather part of a trend. Production has declined sharply in the last twenty years, falling by sixty-three percent since 1990. As the decline accelerates, coffee farms are abandoned outright and the fear is that once gone, they will not return.

Alfredo Rodriguez runs Café COMO’s coffee lab. Rodriquez, who looks more like an accountant than a coffee farmer, got seriously involved in coffee relatively late in life. He spent a career developing software for the banking industry until 1996, when, almost on a whim, he purchased a coffee farm near the mountain town of Maricao. The farm, which was once known by the name of Hacienda Adelphia, had produced coffee for at least 100 years before falling into disuse. By 2003, his company, Offeecay, was roasting and distributing coffee locally and he became a certified grader and instructor in SCAA and SCAE standards. The next goal is to get the Café CORMO lab certified as an SCAA teaching laboratory.

That would be just another hurdle bested by Rodriguez, who is one of Puerto Rico’s most successful exporters. Certifications alone present many obstacles, but the challenges don’t end there. Even though unemployment sits around fifteen percent, there aren’t enough coffee workers for the island’s current crop, let alone for expansion. Adding to the growers’ list of problems, the Puerto Rican government sets the price of coffee for the local market. This should provide growers an incentive to export their coffee, but only those few with high enough quality can find buyers. Offeecay has customers in Europe and Asia. For Ortega, the former undersecretary, there’s no separating the education and training of someone like Rodriguez from his success. “First you educate, then you increase quality, and then you look for your market,” says Ortega.

Coffee remains as much a flavor of Puerto Rico as rum and piragua.

At the university, De Leon wants to see education go well beyond growing good beans. She wants to see those beans grown the right way. “We also want to consider the environmental value of managing coffee in a sustainable way, that added-value component,” De Leon says. The Puerto Rican government has given incentives to farmers to plant shade trees, but there was no follow up, no explanation of how those shade trees wouldn’t just be good for the environment but good for the coffee. That’s a missed opportunity, says De Leon, and it doesn’t lead to sold coffee. While organic coffee and sustainability have some resonance with consumers, if the beans are poor then no organic certification will make a roaster buy them. There are plenty of great coffees produced with the same sustainable care on the market. De Leon and Café COMO want to bridge that divide between good ideas and great beans.

That’s a big reason for the test coffee plantation at the university. It can show that quality coffee can be grown in Puerto Rico, and that it can be grown the right way.

—Michael Tulkoff is an Austin-based freelancer and software consultant.