Much of the talk about opening up Cuba has been over the newfound accessibility of one thing: cigars.
But there’s another Cuban commodity that could soon find its way to American shores: coffee. It’s a brew that Americans have been unable to try for half a century, even as markets in Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica have flourished.
Cuba’s coffee industry has experienced deep setbacks in recent years — 2009 was its worst harvest on record — but if the American market is opened up to Cuba it could reignite an industry that has deep roots in the country.
It could also allow Americans to taste Cuban-grown coffee for the first time in decades.
“I’d love to try it,” said George Howell, a pioneer in the specialty coffee industry who now oversees a roastery in Acton. “It’s all about what role does Cuban coffee have in Cuban culture. And the Cubans have a lot to say about that. I don’t know that now, but I certainly intend to become versed in it.”
Howell says he hopes to travel to Cuba as soon as it’s possible, to begin exploring the market, and the coffee culture.
Cuba has the kind of elevation and climate needed to grow good coffees, but for decades it has been shut off from some of the techniques and expertise that have been used to produce high-quality coffees that fetch premium prices on world markets.
Over the past year, Cuba has exported 1.7 million pounds of coffee, according to figures compiled by the International Coffee Organization. Meanwhile, Costa Rica — a country with half the land area and half the population as Cuba — has exported 158.4 million pounds over the past year.
Coffee has been subject to the US embargo on all Cuban goods that dates to 1963 and is still in effect. While President Obama announced on Wednesday that he was reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and making a host of other changes, lifting the travel and trade embargoes would need congressional action.
With the US market unavailable, Japan and France have been Cuba’s major coffee export markets, according to a 2008 report from the US Department of Agriculture. Smaller amounts of Cuban coffee go to Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand.
Several suppliers sell “Cuban coffee” in the United States, including Cafe Pilon. But the beans used in the coffee are actually from other countries; it’s the roasting and brewing process that are done in a Cuban style, which usually means finely ground and dark roasted.
Cuban coffee, which is popular in areas like Miami that have large Cuban populations, is prepared espresso style and is usually highly caffeinated and very sweet.
“Cuban coffee has been relatively unseen in the marketplace for some time now,” said Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. “That doesn’t mean it can’t be revitalized ... There’s an opportunity to see coffee produced and exported from Cuba again.”
The coffee industry in Cuba was once prosperous, and in the mid-1950s the country was annually exporting more than 20,000 metric tons of coffee beans. It was sold at premium prices, and often exported to Europe.
But after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, coffee production plummeted, partly because of the revolutionary activity in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, the country’s primary coffee-growing area.
Coffee farms were also nationalized, coffee production experts moved, and the government decided to allocate resources to other areas of the country.
The country had its worst harvest on record in 2009, and the government had to order more than $50 million in imported coffee to satisfy domestic demands.
Even then, Cuba has rationed the coffee consumption of its citizens to just 2 ounces per adult every two weeks. The average person consumes 3 pounds per year in 2001, a dropoff from 12 pounds in the late 1950s.