Sourcing Coffee in Puerto Rico

Sourcing Coffee in Puerto Rico

by Christopher Vigilante

On February 9th 2014, I took a trip to Puerto Rico. I've known this island my entire life, but only in very short spurts. My father was born and raised in Puerto Rico (Rio Piedras), so I've always had a tie to this tiny little island in the Caribbean. In previous trips, I was subject to the activities my father’s family had laid out prior to my arrival. This time was different because I was making the itinerary; I was seeing the island in a completely different view and truly through the eyes of a coffee professional.

Puerto Rico was once considered the 6th largest coffee producer in the world and was the preferred coffee by royalty in Europe. Spanish Kings and Queens sipped Puerto Rican coffee for over 100+ years. Unfortunately, the 20th & 21st centuries have had drastically negative effects on the coffee production and quality in this Caribbean island. High production costs and low profits caused many farmers to abandon their crops and search for work in the United States.     

In fact, even today many farms cannot find “coffee cherry pickers” because this type of labor is looked down upon. Hundreds of farms were left abandoned and still are to this day.  

Fortunately, during my trip, I had the opportunity to connect with an original coffee producer that has been growing in Puerto Rico since 1994 at the Sandra Farms.  The estate is located in the mountains of Adjuntas where the cool air due to steep elevation and breathtaking views make the long trek worthwhile.

   

 

Upon arriving to Adjuntas, I met Camillio, the farm manager who oversees the operations of Sandra Farms. Camillio, like most coffee farm managers, lives on the estate and takes great pride in the beautiful mountains he calls home. The owner of the farm, Israel, is a native to Puerto Rico and has lived in the Caribbean the majority of his life. Israel and I discussed the techniques he uses when roasting his coffee. I examine his green coffee and enthusiastically assist with the first couple batches of roasting that morning.  Israel explains that he is a coffee farmer and that roasting is truly foreign to him. As my craft is roasting, I am happy to share my knowledge and lead the second roast. We make adjustments to the heat applied to the beans (island coffee is typically a soft bean that can only withstand a minimal amount of heat without burning the coffee) and I instruct Israel to drop the flame completely upon hitting the first crack of the roast process. He is amazed by this and delighted with the results, a beautiful coffee with little to no tipping (tipping is burning of beans) falls into the cooling tray of the roaster.

   

Having had the opportunity to roast with Israel and observe his roasting operation, I am eager to sample the coffees grown on his farm.  Ashley (Vigilante Manager) and I are invited back to Israel’s home on the estate to sample his coffees and meet the person who gives the farm its name, Israel’s wife, Sandra.  The couple have been together for over 47 years and bought this coffee farm as part of their retirement.  Their saying is, Sandra is the name and Israel is the farm. 

They take great pride in growing coffee in Puerto Rico and explain how important it is to not disturb the land in any negative ways. For example, Israel refused to use large tow trucks to move equipment up the mountain for fear of disturbing the floral & fauna. Instead, they moved the equipment piece by piece with a four by four. Israel states, “it took us a long time, but it was worth it. It’s important to me to take care of the land, because it takes care of us”.

Camilio, Ashley, Sandra, Israel, and I sit down to enjoy a French press of the coffee that Israel and I had roasted that morning. Normally, you would want to wait 12-24 hours before sampling a fresh roast but in this case, we simply could not wait. And honestly, you can tell right away if you are dealing with something of quality. Israel made us a French press using tap water.   At first, this seemed odd because in the coffee profession we understand that our coffee is 90% water and therefore, we must use good water to get good coffee.  Israel explains that there is a natural spring that supplies all the water in the farm, including his house, plus he installed a water filtration system to help purify the water. When the coffee is poured, I am intrigued by the aroma of sweet milk chocolate and fresh bread, then taste cherry and a floral sweetness that finish the cup with a full syrupy body.  Now, I am excited because this coffee definitely has great potential!  We had just roasted it and already the coffee impressed us.

   

Being a true coffee professional, I asked Israel if he has ever cupped (professional evaluation of the quality of a coffee) his own coffee.  He explained that he had done it once or twice in the past but really did not know how to do it.  I happily led a cupping of one coffee, processed two different ways, one fully washed and one natural.   The cupping process truly allows us to evaluate a coffee honestly, determining any negative tastes within the coffee while on the cupping table. Once we began the cupping, it was incredible to hear Israel explain how much complexity we added to his coffee by simply adjusting his roasting process.  A coffee that was once one dimensional now had floral aroma and a sweet acidity that was lost in a heavier heated roast process.  The coffee jumped out with sweetness and a rich syrupy body making it clear that this Puerto Rican coffee had a lot to offer.

 

Upon finishing the cupping, our gracious host sent us off with fresh herbs, flowers, a goat lemon from his farm plus a 10 pound bag of his washed processed coffee, 1 pound of his Peaberry, and a sample of his naturally processed coffee. 

Puerto Rico, the tiny island in the Caribbean, has a special place in my heart and I look forward to bringing more recognition to a people, an island, and a coffee that deserves it.