In 1990, Torres and Fortuno, along with a trio of coffee growers - Roberto Atienza, Miguel Lopez and Ignacio Pintado - launched Yauco Selecto after hearing that Japan was interested in buying quality beans from Puerto Rico’s southwestern coffee-growing region.
“Jamaica had just had a hurricane, and they were short of Blue Mountain. That’s when we realized there was a market for high-priced coffee,” Torres recalls. “At the time, the average world price was $80 a bag, though Puerto Rico had been much higher for many years. We used to export coffee, and we still had all the financial resources and knowledge.”
The various parties pooled their skills and went into business, establishing three farms containing nearly 1,000 acres of coffee-producing trees - mostly Arabica, bourbon and tipica varieties. Coincidentally, their first shipment was to Barcelona, Spain - the same port that received the first bag of Puerto Rican coffee beans ever exported, in 1756.
In the annals of Puerto Rican history, 1896 stands out as a vintage year for the island’s coffee crop. In that year, according to Luis Pumarada O’Neill’s La Industria Cafetalera de Puerto Rico: 1736-1969, the industry reached the pinnacle of its success, ranking as the world’s sixth-largest coffee exporter and shipping a record 579,613 quintales of locally grown beans to sophisticated coffee drinkers throughout Europe.
Today, more than a century later, several brave entrepreneurs led by Grupo Jiménez and Garrido & Compañía are trying to recreate Puerto Rico’s once-famous image as the source of the world’s finest coffee beans. Despite record low world coffee prices, more connoisseurs both on and off the island are buying expensive gourmet coffee than ever before - as evidenced by the fact that Jamaica’s Blue Mountain is going for $80 a pound on the Tokyo retail market.
“People are caring more about what they drink, and they’re willing to pay the price,” says Torres, who says the U.S. accounts for half of Yauco Selecto’s export market. The remaining 50% of coffee goes to Italy, France, Great Britain, Japan, Israel, New Zealand and Iceland.
Garrido & Compañía, meanwhile, has just over 200 acres of coffee trees in production at Hacienda Alto Grande, near the northwestern town of Lares. The hacienda was purchased in 1990 from coffee farmer Neftali Soto, a former Puerto Rico secretary of agriculture.
In 1993, green coffee buyer Willy Pettersson of Sweden’s Gevalia Kaffe - one of the world’s largest mail-order coffee catalog firms - said his visit to Alto Grande “revealed not only exemplary high-grown coffee from small carefully tended farms, but one of the best contemporary processing facilities” he had ever encountered during his world search for fine beans. Yet Ricci, Garrido’s general manager, concedes that his main competitor, Grupo Jiménez, in recent years “has been more successful than we have in keeping the pipeline full” of premium Puerto Rican coffee. “Basically, our market for Alto Grande - our super-premium coffee brand - was focused on Gevalia and Japan’s Ueshima Coffee Co. We used to sell them beans, and they’d sell under private labels,” Ricci told the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. “When the hurricane hit us, the harvest was no longer available, and once it became available, we’ve never been able to get the quality of the crop back to the standards that the Japanese and Gevalia demanded.
“Yauco Selecto dedicated their time to exporting to markets in Europe, and we did not,” Ricci conceded. “Our strong business was in selling green beans of the best quality to Japan. Therefore, when the hurricane hit, it hurt us more, because we didn’t develop our Alto Grande business as they did their Yauco Selecto business. Ueshima will only buy very large and uniform beans, and after the hurricane that wasn’t available.”
Unlike Alto Grande, said Ricci said, Yauco Selecto is sold as ground coffee, “which does not require that the bean be of a specific size. They don’t export beans, they export the brand.” On the other hand, “we have an additional business that they don’t have, since we have two mills in Lares to dry and process the coffee. We buy directly from the farmers, while they buy their beans from a consortium.”
Torres says Grupo Jiménez recently inaugurated a new 300-acre farm, Hacienda Caracolillo, in the mountain town of Maricao. That’s in addition to the company’s two other main locations for growing premium, export-grade coffee: Yauco and Jayuya.
He added that a recent Puerto Rican government plan to regulate the coffee crop fell apart after fierce opposition from coffee executives like himself.
“We were totally against regulating the coffee crop. It would have given the government power to tell the roasters where to sell their coffee,” said Torres, noting that the Popular Democratic Party, which opposes statehood for Puerto Rico and is currently in power, has adopted a “socialist” outlook when it comes to the coffee industry.
While government subsidies are crucial for now, says Torres, the industry’s long-term future is in the specialty export market.
“Exports were lost for a long time, and people started losing the carino to produce excellent coffee,” he told us. “Instead of drying beans in the sun, the government subsidized bateas which dried coffee in eight to twelve hours. Instead of picking red ripe cherries, they picked green and red. The industry has lost its finesse.”
“Still,” Torres adds, “We drink one of the best coffees in the world. The solution is to grow the coffee we used to grow, so that we can compete in the market for high prices.”
Torres says the specialty market in Puerto Rico comprises less than 1% of total coffee consumption.
To promote premium coffee consumption among the domestic population of 3.8 million, Grupo Jiménez been running a TV media campaign targeted at turning young Puerto Ricans into coffee drinkers. Some of the commercials promote cold coffee - in the form of piraguas, or snow cones - at special events.
It has also begun offering a “coffee school” at the Santurce facilities of Café Yaucono. Courses run Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the mornings and afternoons, and students pay $150 apiece for a seven-week course.
Nilmarie Jimenez Picó, vice president for special projects at Café Rico Inc., says the classes cover the history of coffee from its discovery in Ethiopia until its arrival in the Caribbean, and the glory days of Puerto Rican coffee exports. Sanders teaches about coffee in the 20th century, and how the introduction of technology has changed the industry.
Other classes teach participants how to tell the difference between types of beans, grading, roasting and aromas. Next is a class on how to make a good cup of coffee, basic espresso, cappuccino, cold coffee and coffee in recipes, and the use of coffee machines.
“We teach about the history of coffee, and how to brew a good cup of espresso,” says Jiménez Pico. “We have a relationship with the Hotel School of Puerto Rico, and we’re trying to get every student from that school to go to our school as well. We also teach the whole process from the farm to the roaster, and the basics of cupping. On the last day of school, we go to a coffee farm and show the whole process from beginning to end.”
Larry Luxner, who lived in Puerto Rico for nine years, is a regular contributor to the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.