El Cafecito: A Story of Hard Work, Endurance, and Flavor
Updated: Apr 22, 2021
Una tacita de café: Coffee in Puerto Rico is a big deal! Café con leche (coffee with milk), pocillo (espresso shot), cortadito (espresso with steamed milk), cafe puya (plain black), and café americano (watered-down) all share an unmistakable aroma. This drink is such a classic Puerto Rican item that I went to the Coffee Museum in Ciales to learn more about it. Read along and find out about our coffee industry’s history, how about with a cup of coffee in hand?
Ciales, a mountain range municipality, is one of the most prolific in our coffee industry. My parents and I arrived after an hour-long car ride to see a charming entryway to the Coffee Museum. We immediately marveled at the flags of all coffee-producing regions in the world. It was very interesting! These places were far apart and distinct: Puerto Rico, Colombia, Laos, Togo, Yemen, Malawi, even Hawaii. And yet, it showed how universal coffee is. Soon after seeing the imposing flags you were hit by an overpowering smell of coffee. What an incredible aroma! It was, as if my grandpa was brewing a pot of coffee right next to me. We sat down with the owner of it all, Pedro “Pichy” Maldonado. He kindly agreed to talk a bit about the history of the coffee industry in Puerto Rico and its impacts today. And what a story! His family had been in the business for generations, helping Ciales grow its coffee exports worldwide. And I mean it! In the museum, you could see faded letters about Puerto Rican coffee with headers spanning from Norway to Nova Scotia. Our café had made its mark, but how did it get to that? Our host explained.
First of all, we need to know the basic types of coffee: arabica and robusta. Arabica, the kind that arrived on the island, is smooth, less caffeinated, and is more expensive. But, robusta is cheaper, more accessible, and has more caffeine. This fact makes robusta more popular in the United States and around the world. The arabica variant of coffee arrived early into colonization from Martinique to Coamo, Puerto Rico. There, the coffee plantations gained a foothold with the Spaniards, who could afford to sustain them. Slaves brought from West Africa helped pick the coffee in the countryside, a less strenuous job than in the sugarcane industry. By the 1860s, the coffee industry in Puerto Rico was ready to export to Europe. In Ciales, the Pintueles family was a powerhouse of coffee exports, working with places like Cuba, Czechoslovakia, and Spain.
Here, Pichy pointed something out: there is no “best” coffee in the world. Would you agree? He mentioned that there are 54 countries and regions that produce coffee. Each is delicious and distinct! For instance, Guatemalan coffee has a chocolatey taste, while Indonesian coffee is sweeter. Puerto Rican coffee is more acidic but has an enticing smell. He pointed out that the blending of coffee is pivotal to create that unique flavor. A more common thing to do in Puerto Rico is blend arabica coffee with robusta coffee for a balanced cup.
Another fact came up: Puerto Rican coffee is expensive to produce! Some say one of the more costly variants. This is in part because we offer relatively higher pay rates for coffee pickers in comparison to other nations in the region, as well as comply with specific herbicides approved by the Federal Drug Administration. At one point, Puerto Rico got to be the 3rd largest exporter of coffee to Europe. Many point out that the Vatican was a key importer of our coffee, but have you also heard of Germany, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia? These three were more pivotal in the industry since they imported more coffee than the Vatican. Pichy even had an old Czechoslovak coffee mill in the Coffee Museum.
After World War II, coffee production went down and began depending on imported beans. However, this was a long time coming. Even before American colonization, many wealthy Spaniards, who would leave after a while, owned most plantations. Coffee fields were later ruined because of hurricanes such as San Ciriaco, in 1899, and San Felipe in 1928. There was also a lack of affordable coffee pickers due to more stringent workers’ rights laws. The decline was further deepened by industrialization and a search for better pay. Many, taking into account the harsh conditions of coffee picking, left for the city. In this period of decline, many countries stopped importing our coffee, opting for other coffee markets. Pichy interjected with a fun fact: in some South American countries, some school vacations align with coffee season. This way, kids can help pick the coffee. He mentioned that some coffees are cultivated abroad and processed here. It shows how dependent many countries are on globalization and cooperation! Our host also mentioned that, during WWII, the US government stopped coffee exports on the island to focus on the troops rather than the markets.
Despite these drawbacks, luck struck with the market of specialty coffee. A French coffee corporation became interested in our coffee and began a campaign to better our coffee quality. This investment started an upward trend in the industry until Hurricane María. The Category 5 winds ruined coffee fields, and the agriculture budget was at an all-time low. The industry is still recovering and, with the help of smaller-scale entrepreneurs, things are looking good.
Now, a bit about Mr. Maldonado’s journey. In the 1990s, his father acquired the Ciales coffee plant from the Pintueles family. The plant was full of old artifacts and equipment the Spanish had leftover. They began using a small coffee toaster and grew to promote the coffee industry in Ciales. He would bring in promotional companies to drink his coffee, Don Pello coffee, and visit. This would help the municipality gain some prosperity. In other words, it was all manual, personal, and done out of love for coffee and Ciales. He said he wants to thank the younger generations for gaining an interest in the beverage! :)
After our interesting talk with Mr. Maldonado, we went into the museum. Inside were several machines used to roast the coffee, process it, and rows of bins full of beans. The smell was incredible! The machines were big, silver, and commanding in their space. It was fascinating to see the process of going from bean to cup! There was also a "family tree" of different coffee types, which opened my eyes to just how many varieties there are. It's crazy to see how one seemingly simple drink is so complex! Also in the room were some old letters between the Pintueles and others abroad. These included people from Norway, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Italy, New York, and France. It was humbling to see how so many countries all over the world were drinking our coffee. I hope the industry can get better once again so the world can continue enjoying Puerto Rican café. Oh and, outside, in the restaurant portion of the museum, you could sit near some sheep! They were so cute :)
Coffee cup photo taken from Gota a Gota Café Facebook page. All others taken by me.
PS: Check out my European heritage webinar to learn more about the Corsican impact on the coffee industry! They were instrumental to it as a large group of coffee planters and plantation owners.
Stay safe, stay cultured,