Barista Magazine

APR-MAY 2018

Serving People Serving Coffee Since 2005

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 77 of 135

IN PUERTO RICO, COFFEE AND COLONIALISM go hand in hand. Since the fi rst coffee trees were planted in 1736 by the Spanish, the industry has weathered ups and downs moderated by both frequent hurricanes and the whims of laws decided by those far from the island. So little has changed in the last 70 years, in fact, that historian Ray- mond E. Crist's three-part 1948 study of the industry, "Sugar Cane and Coffee in Puerto Rico," in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology shows similarities between the situation then and now. When claimed for Spain in 1493, the island called Borinquen by the indigenous Taíno Indians began to be used mainly as a source for sugar, to the detriment of crop diversifi cation. "Its high value in the Europe- an market, and the relative cheapness of its production in the Indies, once the slave trade was effi ciently organized, made its cultivation an extremely profi table business," Crist wrote. Arabica plants were intro- duced in 1736, and by 1879, exports of coffee exceeded sugar, increasing until its value was three times that of the sweet commodity by 1896. "The golden age of the coffee planter was the latter part of the 19th century, when coffee was the main agricultural export crop and the chief source of income for half the population," Crist wrote. "Coffee plant- ers were the favored ones of Puerto Rico; their credit was good—too good in many cases—for a few poor years meant that their farms were heavily mortgaged. But good years meant high incomes, new homes, new plantings of coffee trees, trips to Europe for the old folks, and perhaps school in Spain for the eldest son. With the coming of American sovereignty in 1898, part of the market for Puerto Rican coffee in Spain was lost, and a devastating hurricane in 1899 spelled ruin for the crop of that year and the three years that followed. Many coffee growers were temporarily reduced to poverty, but the plantations were forthwith replanted, and by 1903 large-scale exportation was resumed." Right after the U.S. takeover in 1899, Congress reduced the tax on sugar from Puerto Rico by 85 percent, kicking off an especially profi table time for sugar. Coffee on the island wasn't subject to such a favorable rate, as unlike sugar or tobacco, it had never been produced on the mainland, leaving it to compete internationally with massive producers such as Brazil. Despite the old wives' tales about Puerto Rican coffee once having been the preferred coffee of the Vatican, thanks to these vagaries in laws, a population that consumes more coffee than the island can produce, and a lack of workers for farms, an industry that could be an agricultural backbone and provide beans to an increasing number of specialty-coffee shops both at home and abroad has found itself time after time—and after Hurricane Maria, especially—suffering. e Starbucks opened its fi rst shop in San Juan in 2002. Coffee needed no introduction, of course; here, you're served small, highly sweetened cups as a child, developing a taste for the beverage before you can consider what you're drinking. The culture around coffee, though, had always been focused on a fast cup to get you going in the morning. A latte was never something to linger over. Seeing Starbucks make its entrance, though, inspired younger people to open their own shops. One of the fi rst to open in Starbucks' wake was Hacienda San Pedro, which has a few locations in the city and a fl agship shop in San- turce that has become a breeding ground for barista talent. The shop, opened by Rebecca Atienza in 2008, sources beans from her father's farm in Jayuya. Following the devastation of Maria, though, there won't be another good coffee crop from the farm for three years. In the meantime, many would like to import green coffee from other coffee-growing nations to roast to their particular tastes and desires. The Department of Agriculture, however, prevents that; imported beans have to be either half or fully roasted, ostensibly to protect from issues such as broca, a beetle that eats the coffee seed, and coffee-leaf rust, and those are taxed at a high rate per pound. These laws were putting an especially severe strain on the burgeoning specialty-coffee industry even before Hurricane Maria. Gabriel Baraka started his Santurce-based roasting company, Bara- ka Coffee Co., in 2014 after years spent abroad in the United States and Europe as an audio engineer, where he and his partner Eduardo Trabada, a graphic designer, developed a love for coffee culture. Upon returning, their only goal was to create a business that used a Puerto Rican product. His family once had a coffee farm up in the mountains, but he's sep- arated from that aspect of the industry by one generation, and he and Eduardo got into roasting without any formal training. "When we got the machine, I didn't know a thing about it," he says, recalling how he burned through hundreds of pounds before stumbling into a drinkable creation by spending one year reading about the process every night. "The thing about Puerto Rico is that roasting isn't seen as a craft," Gabriel says. "It's another step in the process that you have to do to sell to consumers. There's not a culture of roasting, per se, or a lot of people you can go to and work [for] as an apprentice. A lot of people who roast, they have recipes that have been handed to them from previous generations." That static approach to roasting strikes him as strange, even though he's only been in the business a short time, because of how dynamic coffee crops can be from year to year. "In the beginning, what we wanted to do was purchase directly from farmers who were producing better-than-average coffee," Gabriel continues, "and sell it to consumers and maybe coffee shops." They usually roast about 50–100 pounds of single-farm coffee per month, but following Maria, they've stopped selling bags to focus on maintaining a steady supply for their shop. "Right now, we're working with what we have already," he says. "Once that's done, we're not sure where the coffee is coming from." They've considered importing green coffee from other countries, but are prevented by the aforementioned laws. "To do that, you'd need special permits from the government, and they're not readily available," he says. "You're not necessarily going to get one if you ask for one. It's very hard right now." They've been trying to obtain one, but Gabriel points to a confl ict of interest. Navigating Puerto Rico ' s Strict Green-Coffee Importing Laws in the Wa e of Hur ane Maria Article by Alicia Kennedy 78 barista magazine

Articles in this issue

view archives of Barista Magazine - APR-MAY 2018