The Caribbean Region:
THE COFFEE INDUSTRY'S BEST KEPT SECRET
Coffees of great body hailing from these exotic islands
by Jaime R. Fortuņo - Yauco Selecto Estate Coffee (Puerto Rico)
The recent inauguration of Haiti's President Bertrand Aristide was commemorated with a very memorable speech. In it, he used coffee to draw the nation and the world to one thought "Let's drink the coffee of peace. Let's drink the coffee of reconciliation. Let's drink the coffee of hope. "
The Caribbean, otherwise known as the West Indies, is a very fertile region which offers a diversity of cultures, ecosystems, and influences. In geological years, these islands are mere babies. They form an arch that loosely ties Florida to the coast of Venezuela. These factors made the region a place of constant migration from South America for centuries prior to Columbus arrival and a strategic geographical point for the many European navigators wishing to establish a beach head in the "New Indies"
The various migrations have formed a creative mix of cultures, languages, governments, and political alliances. This diversity has given the region a very particular character. You can go island hopping and experience a little bit of France in Martinique, a Dutch ambiance in Curacao, a Spanish influence in the Dominican Republic, English punctuality in Virgin Gorda, or even an American influence in Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands. These cultures came as an influence, and shared time with the remaining Arawak Indians and the surviving Tainos as well as the arriving Africans, who spread their love for food, music, and art throughout the archipelago. Later influences have included Muslims, Chinese, Indians, and even cross islands migrations. Overall, the Caribbean is an area of great beauty, with unrivaled beach settings, great talent for the arts, and developing economies where people are working very hard to improve the quality of their lives.
Whereas today, tourism, sugar cane, and manufacturing may well be the economic engines behind many of the islands, coffee still holds a very special place in a number of them. This is of great significance because for many years coffee historians wrongly grouped the coffee producing islands of the region with either Central American or South American coffees. In the shuffle over who sells more coffee (Brazil or Colombia) and who has more acreage under production (South or Central America), the Caribbean and its 17 million people received very little coverage and the quality coffees produced here where relegated to a secondary role. The Caribbean's role as a volume producer w ill never rival any of the top coffee producing countries for one very particular reason: size. Most islands are not only small (when compared to Colombia or Venezuela), but have limited regions where coffee can be grown. This is an important point for it reshuffles the direction of the coffee industry in the region from volume to quality. Efforts in Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and even Cuba have been recently directed at offering specialty coffees for the discriminating consumer.
As we get to known the Caribbean as a coffee growing there are three important issues that must be addressed:
Just like reggae and salsa music have very different sounds, coffees from the region all enjoy very distinctive tastes. If there is one thing that they all share is that contrary to the Central American model of high acidity or sharpness, these coffees are sweet and strong in body. What do I mean by this? The next time you visit your favorite specialty coffee store, you can do your o\`n test. Get a sample of one of the fine Central American coffees that they may offer. Ask for a cup of your favorite Caribbean coffee (see enclosed information). Before you taste them side by side, think of them not in terms of which tastes better. Coffee tasting is a subjective art. The beauty of specialty coffees is that each coffee will offer a very particular taste and should be enjoyed based on its particular attributes. Open your mind to taste the acidity in the Central American. Many will describe this as a tingling sensation in the tip of the tongue. When you sip the Caribbean coffee you will be looking for the sweetness and body. The most creative description of boas that I have heard to date is that it feels like your tongue is wearing a sweater, a delicious one at that.
As you take your first steps in exploring the Caribbean as a coffee region, always remember not to generalize about a region, a country or a roast color. The beauty of coffee is that there are so many elements that have an influence on the final product, that you can enjoy learning about the nuances that differ one from the other. Factors such as variety of arabica bean selected, altitude, climate conditions, latitude, picking practices, processing method and preparation will all influence the taste. Explore and pick your favorites.
An example of climate conditions can be studied in Puerto Rico. There is a chain of mountains that runs from East to West covering two thirds of the 100 miles of length. Rain fall can vary from 60 to 110 inches per !ear depending on the location of the farm along this chain. This will in turn influence the leaf growth and flowering, and subsequently your production size and character. By the same token, coffee is grown in the area at altitudes ranging from 800 feet to over 3,000 feet (the highest growing areas on the island). The higher it is grown, the longer it will take to mature thus allowing for a fuller, denser bean. A coffee grown at 800 feet will never reach the same level of body and sweetness as a 3,000 feet coffee. This is not an exclusive Caribbean issue. There are countries such as Guatemala, which have an even wider range of coffee qualities. With coffee farms ranging from 2,000 to 6,000 feet of altitude, they have 8 classifications. The specialty coffee industry concentrates on buying the top classifications. Another influence is the winds. In the case of Yauco in Puerto Rico, I have seen how being close to the Caribbean Sea gives it an edge over coffee from the North face of the mountain range which faces the Atlantic Ocean. There is a University of Puerto Rico scientist currently studying the effects of these winds and his theory is that micro nutrients are carried from the sea to the nearby coffee region thus adding a unique food base to the trees.
Overall, the Caribbean islands share volcanic based soils that provide the adequate pH for plentiful growing. The weather is warm and in the high elevations, the nights are cool, thus creating ideal conditions for growing coffee. The traditional eastern winds dominate most of the territory, thus shaping the landscape. Rain patterns affect all, but drought/flood conditions can be as regional as a 20 mile radius. The dry season comes at the beginning of the year and it has a particular influence depending on the island. As an example, the Dominican Republic and Haiti share the island of La Hispaniola and both have coffee growing from the low altitudes all the way up to 6,000 feet. This will make for a long picking season (September to March). If the rains stop half way through the picking season, the latter part of the crop has easier working conditions. At the same time, flowering occurs following the first rain after the crop, so you will find a myriad of possibilities from lower to higher elevations. In contrast, Cuba has a shorter picking season lasting from October to January.
Each island develops a particular way (or ways) to process the coffee. This will be influenced by the capital available for equipment, availability of water, and the producer's expectation of a market price for his/her coffee. In the end, individual growers in the different islands have the opportunity to create a unique taste that will emphasize not only the island's particular growing conditions, but also the grower's micro climate and processing method. The Caribbean's small size and growing conditions lend itself to the concept of estate coffees. Coffee drinkers worldwide benefit from enjoying the nuances that distinguish the coffees.
CAPTAIN DE CLIEU'S CARIBBEAN CONNECTION
Often considered the most romantic (and perhaps oversold) story in the propagation of coffee around the world, Captain Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu's voyage with "the tree" is closely tied to the Caribbean. In the year 1720, this famous maritime captain in the French Caribbean island of Martinique, decided to bring coffee cultivation to this island. At the time, coffee plants were a rarity for European botanists. Five years earlier, French efforts to propagate coffee cultivation had failed in Haiti, French Guyana, India, French Equatorial Africa, and Reunion Island.
The twist of the story is that de Clieu took a tree from the greenhouses of the Jardins des Plantes despite the zealousness of Jussieu, the Royal Botanist. He is said to have been aided by a lady friend's influence over M. Chirac, the Royal Physician. The fact that he took without permission is only the beginning of the story, for his trip back to Martinique was plagued with problems. Fighting off a jealous passenger who tore off a branch, surviving a raging stone and escaping capture by Tunisian pirates, were pale in comparison to his ultimate test. Stalled for days in calm seas, fresh water v.as severely rationed and de Clieu's plea for the life of his tree were ignored by the ship's captain. He was forced to share his small ration with the tree, placing his life in danger. In the end, both made the voyage.
From his arrival in Martinique, he protected his tree, placing it in his garden surrounded by thorn bushes and often guarding it. His biggest fear being anti-coffee islanders who saw it as threat to cocoa. By 1726 he had a healthy crop, and soon gave away seeds to friendly farmers. His influence in the Caribbean region has been of great proportions. By 1750, descendants of that tree not only had been planted in Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Guadeloupe, but the Caribbean exported millions of pounds of coffee to Europe. A new industry had been born. Later that influence was carried into the Continent, thus giving an important push to the emerging Latin American coffee industry.
GOING ISLAND HOPPING
The most interesting part of rediscovering the Caribbean as a growing region, is to visit your favorite specialty coffee store and travel to each of the islands through the taste of the coffees. The leading islands are:
JAMAICA - Well known for its top quality, Jamaica Blue Mountain, this particular origin offers at its best, beans that are highly aromatic, rich, with full body, and pleasant lingering flavor. It is shipped in barrels with marks such as Mavis Bank and Wallenford Estate. Beyond the Blue Mountains, other Jamaican regions offer the High Mountain Supreme and Prime Washed. The production is limited and the price is the highest in the coffee industry. Jamaica has been an example in quality production and exporting for the whole Caribbean.
PUERTO RICO - An exporter v.with a great fan club in the European market of the 1800s, Puerto Rico changed its economy from agrarian to a diversified modem economy as a territory of the United States. These changes brought a smaller production and an increase in local consumption. Today 98% of the coffee is consumed internally, much to the chagrin of its followers. Of the top grade, the best known is our Yauco Selecto. Its heavy body, creamy, buttery taste, and arresting aftertaste have quickly reclaimed a place for this coffee among the world's most sought after coffees.
HAITI - With the end of the U.S. imposed embargo and the emotional interest in redeveloping Haiti's economy, this country's coffee industry has a brighter future. The best example of washed Haitian coffee offers mellow flavorful cup with great body and an interesting personality. Just like in all other producing regions, not all coffees attain this level of quality. Nevertheless, efforts to promote a specialty coffee industry are in place and its success is to the benefit of us all. Welcome back.
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - Perhaps the largest producer in the Caribbean, this state shares a growing tradition with its neighbor Haiti. There is a large number of producers and exporters of which we know Bani and Barahona. A dark roast Dominican coffee offers a sweet experience with a matching body and flavor. Efforts geared towards the specialty coffee market have been developing lately, of which we expect an excellent preparation and accentuation of what makes this coffee what it is.
CUBA - The largest island in the chain, Cuba offers adequate growing conditions particularly near the Santiago port area. The U.S. led embargo has meant that exports are mainly to Europe and Japan. Interestingly, Sierra Maestra coffee is sold in Japan under the White Mountains name. Reports of the coffee place it as a typical Caribbean coffee with heavy body and good in dark roasts. It will be interesting to see what happens in the industry in the future.
MARTINIQUE and GUADELOUPE - The first islands to host the coffee are not currently exporting in commercial quantities. Many coffee writers have demonstrated an affinity for both. Perhaps increased awareness about our area and a more price receptive specialty coffee market will allow for a rebirth.
Once you have tried these coffees, perhaps is time to visit where they grow them. Enjoy!
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