In honor of the historic visit by U.S. President Obama to Cuba this week we are very excited to update the harvest report on the Cuban coffee crop that SpillingTheBeans wrote a little over a year ago, and which was published jointly together with an interview by our guest blogger Mikhail. We would also like to take this opportunity to advise our Followers that DESPITE all the progress there has been in the bilateral dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba in the last few years the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba REMAINS IN PLACE and political observers believe it could still take quite a few years before the embargo will be lifted. But we welcome the progress to date and look forward to bring some OSSOM coffee reviews from Cuba’s infamous Guantanamo Bay growing regions in the coming weeks 🙂 Happy Coffee Drinking!
BY MAJA WALLENGREN
NOV 29, 2014 (SpillingTheBeans)–Back in the early days of coffee and globalization, Cuba was one of the major players in the export market but as seen in so many other countries, production since went downhill. At the height of post-WWII coffee production in Cuba reached almost 500,000 (60-kilogram) bags but since the last bumper harvest of 480,000 bags in the 1989-90 crop cycle the political impact of the subsequent collapse of communist rule in the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall quickly led to the rapid decline for Cuban coffee. In the last few years Cuba’s coffee production has steadily come back to between 100,000 and 130,000 bags, and industry officials believe production can reach 150,000 bags in the new 2014-15 harvest — a significant improvement since output hit an all-time low of just 7,000 bags in the 2007-08 crop.
In this unique and EXCLUSIVE report, SpillingTheBeans is proud to publish a Q&A conducted and written by our very first Guest Blogger, U.S.-based barista Mikhail Sebastian, who explores how the Cuban coffee industry is now being rebuilt in an interview with Phillip Oppenheim. A British businessman and former member of the British Parliament from 1983-1997, Oppenheim is since a number of years working directly with small-holder Cuban coffee growers in order to improve both quality and production levels. The “Alma de Cuba” coffee brand which is produced through this partnership is sold across the U.K. market.
It’s truly an honor for us to introduce Mikhail to all of our followers as an example of the true coffee spirit and passion that so many of us in coffee has gone through. Since first tasting a blend of beans from Ethiopia’s Yirgacheffe region, Mikhail’s has remained eternally impressed and fascinated by the multiple variations of flavor notes that exist in coffee and that experience was the direct reason for him to start venturing more deeply into the coffee and barista markets. He is currently working with farms in Puerto Rico in pursuit of the perfect cup, and we hope to hear more about these efforts from Mikhail soon here at SpillingTheBeans.
EXCLUSIVE: From Cuba With Love — How is Cuba’s Coffee Industry Being Rebuild?
BY MIKHAIL SEBASTIAN
Q: What measures are being taken right now to revive the production of Cuban coffee?
Phillip Oppenheim: The Cubans have taken some national measures recently such as raising prices and providing equipment – our project is due to start as soon as it is signed off an includes improved and new labs for testing and cupping, better logistics ranging from new vehicles to support for mule breeding, training programmes, nurseries and processing equipment from micro-depulpers up to large central depulpers – the final sorting and bagging plant is relatively new, so there is no investment planned for that.
Q: What do you think the future holds for Cuban coffee? Could Cuba become a major coffee exporter again?
Phillip Oppenheim: I am certain of it, provided the Cuban government is prepared to move forward with liberalisation and allowing new investment – they have the manpower on the ground and the will, as well as great geology and a fine brand.
Q: Why did you decide to invest in Cuba’s coffee in particular? Was it the interest in Cuba or something else that drove you into the future possibilities of Cuba?
Phillip Oppenheim: I Was already involved in Cuba through other business and began a Cuba investment business of which the coffee project is the first.
Q: Could you briefly describe the varietals grown in Cuba and what is happening right now at coffee farms?
Phillip Oppenheim: Almost all of the coffee is now grown on small, private farms, but in general they are majoring on catimor due to its resistance to rust. There is some bourbon and typica grown and also some robusta at lower altitudes. Almost all of the coffee is (grown) high or medium high and shade grown on small farms, and 80% comes from the region between Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa.
Q: How many farmers right now are involved in producing Cuba’s coffee? Does Cuba export coffee?
Phillip Oppenheim: I don’t know the exact number, but see comments above on farm sizes – yes, the Cubans export most of their 9,000 tonne production and they import a lot for domestic consumption – mainly from Vietnam and Ecuador.
Q: What processing methods are used and how many farms exist?
Phillip Oppenheim: Farm numbers are all very small but I don’t have the exact numbers. The coffee is mostly wet processed, through de-pulping and then using dry bed and de-hulling.
Q: How would you describe the coffee culture of Cuba today compared to the past? Is there any “specialty” coffee movement or “third wave” of coffee seen in Cuba’s domestic coffee market?
Phillip Oppenheim: Not yet, but it is coming back along with a lot of Cuban cuisine and culture. We hope to be part of that once we are allowed to sell into the domestic market (which) we are not currently allowed to.
Q: How is coffee roasted in Cuba?
Phillip Oppenheim: Probat batch roasters in one plant in Havana.
Q: How would you describe the aroma and flavor of Cuba’s coffee and the cup profile as well?
Phillip Oppenheim: The best coffees are light but complex and benefit from medium roasting which suits both long coffees and lighter shorts.
Q: Is there any potential in growing coffee despite the embargo and economic constraints?
Phillip Oppenheim: The potential is huge. Cuba now grows less coffee than they did in 1960 but the Cuban economy is steadily being reformed and that it where the hope is. It is a slow process, however, Cuban coffee is currently very popular in countries like Japan and Germany and there is a very good market outside the U.S. When the embargo ends my belief is that there will be significant demand in the US and we have already been talking to roasters and packers.
Q: How does the climate condition influence the coffee production?
Phillip Oppenheim: Good geology due to mountains close to the sea and not to close to the Equator – hence cool growing conditions with plenty of light.
Q: Cuba used to be a major producer and exporter of coffee in the past and its coffee was kind of a phenomenon in many places around the world. Why did coffee production decline in Cuba?
Phillip Oppenheim: One word: communism – of course it is more complex than that as Cuba’s communism has not been as straight forward or ideological as sometimes presented and the US embargo has not helped. But the big farms have pretty much packed up production and the smaller farmers have not always been incentivised under the socialist system (but) that is now changing slowly.
Q: Do you use direct trade partnership with farmers and if so how does this contribute to sustainability and living condition of those involved?
Phillip Oppenheim: We have in Cuban still to go via the State or Quasi-State entities (para-statal organizations), but we are steadily getting closer to working (directly) with farmers and the system is being reformed – that is not ideal, but the farmers will be better off as a result of our investment as they can grow more and better quality coffee and we are contributing with a great deal of equipment and education. Cuban coffee is sustainable as it is pretty much all currently grown with very low inputs and shade grown in forests. We intend to build on that.
Q: Is there any particular regulation imposed on coffee farmers?
Phillip Oppenheim: Many, Cuba is still a socialist system, but that is changing and we are part of that process.
Q: Cubans do love coffee, it is a major part of their culture. Where does the coffee comes from that is consumed in Cuba?
Phillip Oppenheim: It has been in short supply as the best coffees were exported and real coffee has been outside the reach of many Cubans. Again, that is changing, a lot of what is sold in Cuba as Cuban coffee sadly now comes from Vietnam (or other origins) and is mostly poor quality robusta. With the reforms and growth of the private sector, however, demand for real Cuban coffee is growing again.
To read more about Phillip Oppenheim’s coffee project, please check out the link for “Alma de Cuba” here: http://www.almacuba.com/
Happy Coffee Drinking