Coffee has a deep history in Puerto Rico, dating back to 1736. Over the next hundred years, the coffee industry continued to grow, reaching its peak in the nineteenth century. However, by the the century’s end, hurricanes had negatively impacted the island’s ability to harvest and export coffee. Becoming a United States territory both helped and hurt Puerto Rico’s coffee industry, by helping rebuild it but also increasing costs. Most recently, Hurricane Maria has left a negative impact on the island’s coffee scene — but there’s still hope for this historically significant industry.
Coffee was introduced in Puerto Rico during Spanish colonial rule. At this time, it was not one of the island’s most important crops. When the King of Spain issued royal decrees inviting people to emigrate to Puerto Rico, the industry shifted. Many residents of Corsica, a French Mediterranean island, came to the island during the 19th century and settled around the agricultural area of Yauco, where coffee, sugarcane, and tobacco were cultivated. By the 1860s, the Corsicans were leading the coffee industry in Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rican coffee was sold around Europe. With new technologies plus more laborers, Puerto Rico became one of the largest coffee producers in the Americas — and in the world.
At the end of the 19th century, hurricanes had a negative impact on coffee production on the island. When Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898, the focus shifted from coffee to sugarcane. It was difficult for Puerto Rico to compete with other coffee-producing regions, and opportunities to export coffee declined. By 1950, coffee production on the island could not keep up with consumption, and coffee beans had to be imported and blended with local beans.
Still, one of the challenges facing Puerto Rico’s coffee industry today is meeting the local demand for coffee. According to Eveling Ramos, the CEO of Café Salomé, a coffee company that started in 2016 with the mission of sharing high quality, hand-picked coffee from the mountains of Puerto Rico with the world, Puerto Rico has struggled to produce enough coffee to keep up with local consumption, so some coffee is imported to the island. Despite all of the difficulties facing the industry, coffee remains popular.
“Coffee in our culture is considered one of the basic needs at the level of water, milk and bread,” Ramos says.
Café Salomé is based in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and harvests its coffee from the North Central agricultural region of the island, then processes the beans in an ecological mill. The coffee is cultivated from the Caracolillo bean, which is known for its great taste and acidity.
Though the coffee industry still faces challenges, some companies and farmers have decided to focus on high-quality, specialty coffee. Ramos believes there’s hope for specialty coffee in Puerto Rico.
Lester Marín, president of Caffetero Espresso, says specialty coffee is the island’s niche and the future of its coffee industry.
For Marín, coffee is a part of his national heritage but also his passion. When he was a student at the University of Puerto Rico in 1999, he went on a business development trip to the mainland United States and returned with the goal of making a difference in Puerto Rico and starting his own coffee company. Before then, he was a casual coffee drinker who had heard stories of the drink’s history, but didn’t know much about the industry. Now, 19 years later, despite the ups and downs, he’s doing what he loves: sharing his passion for coffee with others. Aiming to create the most aromatic coffee drinking experience, the company controls its production process from bean to cup.
“I love everything about the industry,” he says. “When I see people’s faces (after they drink our product), it’s all I need.”
The company grows coffee on a 240-acre farm in Yauco. Following Hurricane Maria, the business has faced additional challenges. Marín says they’ve been working to get the farm back to the condition it was prior to the storm. It will take a lot of time and effort, he says, but he’s confident in the company’s direction.
“We are in a process of recovery,” he says. “We have been badly hit by a hurricane but we are very resilient people who are going to get up from the bad, learn from it, and keep going.”
Luckily, an increasing number of people are learning about specialty coffee and there’s been a lot of development in terms of specialty coffee companies, shops and cafes around the island. With this development, there are also more opportunities for baristas to learn about their craft.
For many, drinking coffee is an experience, which involves tasting it and understanding its quality.
If people visit Puerto Rico and experience its coffee culture, they’ll definitely want to come back, Marín said.
The island is known for its warm hospitality, and the coffee industry is no exception. In addition to visiting cafes and drinking coffee, people can visit haciendas, which are plantations where coffee beans are grown, to learn more about Puerto Rican coffee.
But Marín warns that coffee drinkers face one challenge when they try the coffee: once they taste it, they’ll want more. And for him, that’s the greatest satisfaction.