by Diego Salvatierra:
I want to try Puerto Rico’s best coffee,” I told my San Juan cab driver. He drove me through the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, the city’s colonial district, until we reached Café Cola’o, a waterfront café. Sipping my macchiato (tangy, not too bitter) out in the warm Caribbean air, I told the barista, Josué, the two things I knew about Puerto Rican coffee: that it was one of the world’s best, and that it was in deep crisis. “It’s true,” said Josué, “…and [that’s] really sad… it’s a great coffee, great quality. [Now] there is no sense of heritage.”
Puerto Rico was once one of the world’s leading exporters of coffee, but today, for every three cups consumed on the island, two are made with imported coffee, while harvests decline yearly. I asked Josué who would know more about the coffee crisis, and he jotted down an address. Invigorated by caffeine, I made my way to Café Poetico, one of the many artsy coffee shops filling the district’s narrow, pastel-colored streets. Classical music mixed with the scent of espresso.
Nataly Rosales, owner and founder, was eager to talk as I tasted her espresso (rich taste, fruity notes). “Yes, production is falling; people prefer to buy big foreign coffees,” she said, behind thick-rimmed glasses. “The Big Corps, big companies, brand it as Puerto Rican—it’s often not.” But the biggest problem, she says, is a crippling labor shortage: “I’ve seen coffee pickers in the hill towns up at 5 a.m., packed into vans, spending hours under the hot sun—people don’t want to do that anymore,” she said. “Go talk to Joaquin.” She circled a street on my map. “He’s really the expert.”
Joaquín Pastor’s brew (a delicious, deep-scented espresso) was recently chosen as the second best on the island by the Puerto Rico Coffee Fair. “My grandfather started the plantation,” he said in thickly accented Boricua Spanish, “but I began roasting my own, doing the whole vertical process.” He explained coffee’s three-stage process: Farmers grow the coffee beans, then sell them to a “beneficiador” for processing and roasted. Once “benefitted,” the beans go to distributors. For Pastor, more than manpower, the main cause of decline is low raw coffee prices.
Puerto Rico’s local Department of Agriculture sets the price of raw coffee. But this price has stagnated. “An almúd of coffee (about 20kg) sells for $13.65—the same misery of a price since 2005!” said Pastor. Initially designed to keep the industry competitive, these price controls have become, at least according to Pastor, “a robbery, an arbitrage—plans to break small farmers.”
Pastor is convinced that if coffee imports and prices are made more flexible, the island’s coffee will thrive. “[People] will appreciate our coffee—they’ll realize how special it is, even compared with quality foreign competition,” he said. To understand why Puerto Rico’s coffee was of such quality, I was put in touch with Daniel Rivera, head barista for Hacienda San Pedro, a gourmet coffee plantation. I was very jittery after my four or five double espressos that day, but I sat down with Rivera for one more cup.
“Coffee is originally from Africa, and grows great in permanently warm, wet locations in the tropics,” Rivera said. “Puerto Rico is within this tropical fringe, but lies at its northern edge, making its climate the coolest you can get while still allowing coffee to grow. These mild temperatures make Puerto Rican coffee grow slower and better, as if cooked on a slow fire.”
Café especial, or specialty coffee, made from the highest quality beans, comprises a niche market burgeoning in the face of the island’s depressed large-scale production. Unlike large-scale “commercial” roasts, quality-controlled specialty coffees have no government price restrictions, allowing a large profit margin.
I wondered if this was the solution for the decline, but William Mattei, president of the Agricultural Association’s coffee sector and third-generation coffee grower, is skeptical. “Specialty coffees are more select, they go through a rigorous process, and the coffee connoisseur is willing to pay more for that,” he said. “But Puerto Rico’s coffee is going extinct, like the dinosaurs, and we can’t all survive around this little source of income—imagine all the dinosaurs around a tiny watering hole!” With four million consumers, Puerto Rico is not a small market, but local firms are increasingly missing out on it.
For Mattei, the problem is once again one of market inflexibility. The Puerto Rican government is the only entity that can import unprocessed coffee, and since they earn money from this, they have no incentive to lower imports or promote local production. “It’s reality,” said Mattei, “they win by importing.”
Germán Negrón, agricultural director for Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters, which sells over 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s locally produced coffee, a U.S. $100 million sector, pointed to another motivation for stagnant prices. “The government views coffee as a primary necessity, and keeps prices low for consumers,” he said, noting the coffee industry only employs about 20,000 people on the island, compared to the millions who buy coffee daily. The government balances the needs of farmers and consumers, a balance now tilted towards consumers. So while prices of inputs like fertilizer and manure goes up, the price of coffee stays the same, making the industry less and less viable. “Ever since 1998,” he said, “local production has been in decline, and the past 5 years have seen an even steeper fall.”
“[Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters] could make more money by simply importing all our coffee—but it is our responsibility to keep this industry alive,” said Negrón. To do that, they have started a massive project to plant 1,500 new acres of coffee within three years, reversing the decade-long trend of decline. “In three or four years,” said Negrón, “we hope the island can produce half of its coffee consumption.” Until the sixties, Puerto Rico exported coffee worldwide, and Negrón hopes to do so again. “Don’t be surprised to see our brands in the U.S. soon. There are millions of Puerto Ricans in the States, and they’ll be happy to buy.”
Out in the countryside, though, beyond the issues of consumption, brands, supply, and demand, the concrete problem remains manpower. In Adjuntas, in the lush hills of central Puerto Rico, Luis Acevedo runs a small plantation. Like Mattei, he is a third-generation coffee planter, and hopes his children will inherit the farm. But that future is becoming uncertain: “There are fewer and fewer workers—no one wants to pick beans anymore,” said Acevedo. For the past several years, Acevedo explained, prison inmates have been recruited to pick beans in exchange for shorter sentences. This has allowed Acevedo and others to bridge some of the labor shortage at low cost, but is not a permanent solution.
As US citizens, Puerto Ricans can travel freely to the mainland, and many have experienced American work environments firsthand. Tough, isolated work in the hills is becoming unappealing to an increasingly urban society. “Work is done with horrible transportation to the fields, under the sun, under the rain,” said Mattei. “We need better shelter and better transportation for workers,” proposed Mattei. Paying for these investments is difficult with current low coffee profits, so the Agricultural Association turned to the government for funding. But though the government does provide subsidies, these have been cut back in recent years. “The pressure is on us, the farmers, to convince them that for the long run, they should invest in local coffee,” argued Mattei.
Puerto Rico has a coffee planting tradition of nearly three centuries, but it is a legacy in danger of near-extinction. Farmers and café owners point to different culprits, from working conditions to imports to prices. “Still, I’m an optimist—all we’re doing, investments, everything!” said Negrón. But even he recognized the difficulty: “Puerto Rico imports 85 percent of its entire agricultural consumption,” he said, noting the island’s small farming capacity.
Year to year, the decline continues, while consumption and imports grow, and only the gourmet sector is thriving. Thanks to this niche, filled by quality coffees like Pastor’s, some of the espressos I tasted will survive. But as Mattei feared, the island’s thousands of farmers will be left fighting for this small niche, struggling to get by on the only trickle left. As many already have, the old plantations will become museums of the past, in the wake of a decline as bitter as a dark espresso.
Diego Salvatierra ’13 is an Ethics, Politics & Economics in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.