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Even non-coffeeheads recognize names like Jamaican Blue Mountain as expensive, high-quality coffee, but few outside the coffee industry know that the little island of Puerto Rico also has its own rich coffee tradition. Best known for its production of sugar cane and rum, Puerto Rico also exports coffee beans, though it can be surprisingly difficult to find in the United States. This wasn’t the case in the past. In fact, Puerto Rico has a well-developed coffee tradition that began in the early 1800s when a group of immigrants from Corsica arrived on the island, fleeing events in Europe.
The immigrants were told that if they wanted to farm, they’d have to take farmlands in the Southwestern mountains, because the fertile valley farmlands were all being worked. The mountainous land and the climate wasn’t conducive to the sugar cane and other tropical crops that grew so well on the rest of the island, but there was one crop that thrived in the cool, high altitudes. The farmers settled around the small town of Yauco and began to cultivate coffee.
The decision to grow coffee was a fortuitous one. By the mid-1860s, the Yaucan coffee growers dominated the coffee industry on the island. At that point, the small cadre of growers held their production to high standards, and when they went international, their coffee commanded a premium price througout European countries. By the 1890s, coffee from Yauco, Puerto Rico presented a standard of excellence that other island countries attempted to reach. On the backs of Yauco coffee growers, Puerto Rico had the sixth largest coffee production in the world.
Then, in 1898, disaster struck. Back to back hurricanes destroyed the crop and devastated the island coffee industry. In the two years before coffee production could return to normal levels,the United States stepped in to colonize the island. The political shift put Puerto Rican products into a high tariff category for most European countries, dealing a severe blow to the Puerto Rican coffee trade. The U.S. was bound by a trade agreement with Brazil, making it difficult for the country to increase its imports of Puerto Rican coffee. Instead, most production efforts turned to sugar rather than coffee.
The Yauco Selecto estate grown coffee is priced higher than most African and South American coffees because labor cost to produce the coffee is higher. Yauco Selecto pays all of its workers a living wage in accordance with US living standards. In addition, Puerto Rican environmental policies also increase the production costs, but those costs are considered money well-spent as it preserved the island’s environment and produces coffee untouched by chemical fertilizer and pesticides.
And the taste? Coffee cuppers compare it to the typical Island profile for coffee, smooth, non-acidic, slightly sweet with an almost buttery mouthfeel. Yauco Selecto isn’t easy to find in the U.S. but it can be ordered online at the Cafe Rico website.