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For the past twenty years, I have had the good fortune of living in a neighborhood that is largely Puerto Rican. This guarantees me two of the staples in life – great music and incredibly good coffee. You can’t miss the former, especially in the spring and summer when windows are open and salsa and merengue music spills from nearly every home on the block. The latter, the coffee, I discovered the first time that Maria, my neighbor upstairs, brought down a cup of coffee to me because she “made too much coffee this morning”. I was hooked with the first sip – rich with flavor and not a hint of bitterness. I asked what brand of coffee she used, and immediately went out and bought some to make for myself. It was better than my usual grind, but it didn’t even approach the glorious flavor of Maria’s coffee.
Over the years, various upstairs and next door neighbors have served me Puerto Rican style coffee. Over those same years, my tastes in coffee have become more refined and varied. I’ve acquired an appreciation for espresso, for cafezinho, for ca phe – in short, I have never met a coffee that I didn’t like. None of them even approach the love affair I have had with Puerto Rican coffee. It was another Maria in another neighborhood who finally taught me how to make it for myself.
Coffee was first brought to Puerto Rico from Costa Rica in the 1700s. Its climate, soil conditions and elevations made it an ideal place to grow coffee, and within a few decades, coffee had become the most important cash crop of the little island. Puerto Rican grown coffee was widely recognized as the best coffee in the world. Throughout the 1800s, coffee from Puerto Rico commanded premium prices throughout Europe and the United States. In 1899, two back to back hurricanes devastated the Puerto Rican coffee crops, and it was years before the coffee farmers were able to harvest. In the meantime, the changing political climate turned against Puerto Rican coffee growers. This came on the heels of Puerto Rico’s annexation to the United States after the Spanish-American War. For Puerto Rico, the result was an increase in export tariffs to their major European coffee markets. While it might have been offset by the removal of tariffs for coffee exported to the United States, American coffee drinkers favored Brazilian coffees. By the 1920s, sugar had replaced coffee as the island’s premier cash crop and export.
The difference in flavor between Brazilian and Puerto Rican coffee is pronounced. Brazilian coffee is lighter in flavor, with fewer complex undertones. Puerto Rican coffee is, by contrast, rich and full-bodied with a fully developed coffee taste. It has more body – it even feels different in the mouth and on the tongue. You CAN make coffee in this style from any type of coffee, obviously, and it will taste wonderful, but when you start with Puerto Rican coffee, you get the full experience of one of the best coffees in the world. As an added bonus, you’ll usually pay far less for Puerto Rican coffee than you do for even supermarket coffee, since it is a domestic product and growers pay no tariffs on imports.
Measure one cup of water for each cup of coffee into a saucepan. Turn on the heat and bring the water to a simmer. While the water is heating, measure out your coffee. This is one of the few types of coffee that I make with pre-ground coffee from a can or a brick pack. If you prefer to grind your own beans, use an espresso grind. Use one full, heaping tablespoon of ground coffee for every cup of coffee.
When the water is simmering but not boiling, add the coffee to the water. Stir it well for about one minute, keeping it below boiling. Turn off the heat beneath the pot, and let it brew for one minute, stirring once or twice.
After one minute, strain the coffee through a coffee sock, which you can purchase at any Latino grocery store for about three dollars. If you’re going to drink your coffee black, strain it directly into the coffee cups. If you like your coffee with milk and sugar – and I urge you to try it this way at least once even if you like your coffee black and unadorned – strain it into a large cup or pot.
Return the saucepan to the burner and turn on the flame. Add a quarter cup of milk and a teaspoon of sugar for each coffee into the saucepan. Heat the milk until it begins to foam around the edges, stirring constantly to dissolve the sugar. Pour the coffee back into the saucepan, and bring it to just below simmering again.
Pour the coffee mixture into mugs or cups and sit back to relax with one of the best cups of coffee you’ve ever had.