Coffee Beans are seeds from plants in the coffea genus. There are several species within this genus, but the most well-known and commercially important are coffea arabica which is generally referred to as Arabica Coffee, and coffea canephora, which is generally referred to as Robusta Coffee. Robusta yields more coffee beans than Arabica, has less sugar, and almost double the caffeine. It accounts for about 45% of global coffee cultivation, and most of that is used for instant coffee. Robusta is disliked by most coffee enthusiasts due to its bitter taste. It’s worth noting however that Vietnamese iced coffee, which is growing in popularity, as well as the infamous and expensive Kopi Luwak are both types of Robusta coffee. The variety of Arabica first transported out of the highlands of Ethiopia into the rest of the tropical world is known as Typica Coffee. A variety of Typica sent to Reunion mutated into a new type of Arabica called Bourbon Coffee. In more recent times, there have been more mutations of Typica and Arabica as well as multiple hybrids between the two resulting in many different varieties of Arabica Coffee.

Beyond variety, many other factors influence coffee, including climate, soil type, altitude, and more. Perhaps the most important of these factors is how the coffee is processed. On one end there is natural process coffee, where the pulp and fruit remains on the coffee bean as it dries. This requires more attention, and takes longer to dry. In terms of flavor, it is often described as heavy, fruity, and wild. On the other end of the spectrum is washed process coffee, where the fruit and pulp is mechanically removed with water before the coffee bean is dried. Between these methods, there is honey processed coffee where some pulp remains on the coffee bean as it dries. Whatever pulp remains on the coffee bean ferments during the drying process. Fermentation is influenced by local factors like endemic strains of bacteria present in a particular place, as well as the climate of the region. There are also several human influences on fermentation that might be as simple as adding moisture to the coffee beans at some point in the process, or as complex as controlling the temperature, and pumping carbon dioxide into the fermentation vessel.

A regional style is generally the result of the varieties planted, terroir of the region, and traditions associated with processing the coffee beans. All across the Caribbean, there are several interesting and unique varieties of coffee.

The Introduction of Coffee to the Caribbean

As coffee became a popular beverage in Europe at the end of the seventeenth century, the different empires sought to plant it in their Caribbean colonies to ensure a continuous supply. The Dutch most likely brought coffee to the Caribbean when they introduced it to Suriname in 1713. Another popular tale of coffee coming to the Caribbean is the story of a French Naval Officer who smuggled a coffee seedling out of Amsterdam, transported it across the Atlantic, and planted it in Martinique.

 French naval officer and governor of Guadeloupe Gabriel de Clieu with his Coffee Plant.

Coffee from these original plantings were propagated across the Caribbean and Latin America. Over time, new varieties were introduced from the old world, mutations occurred naturally, and scientists selected plants that performed well to crossbreed into new varieties. Currently, interesting varieties of coffee are grown all across the Caribbean, and the combination of terroir, technique, and tradition has led to some interesting styles associated with various countries.

Coffee in Colombia:

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Coffee

In 1958, the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia came up with the Juan Valdez character, and used him to promote Colombian coffee in export markets. These promotional efforts made concepts like “mountain grown coffee” and “shade grown coffee” more commonly known among Americans. Juan Valdez educated drinkers about how terroir and tradition make Colombian coffee different from generic coffee, and helped make people enthusiastic about single origin coffee from particular countries. All of this played a role in the emergence of coffee chains like Peet’s Coffee in San Francisco, and Starbucks Coffee in Seattle in the 1960s.

Today, the Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia is a World Heritage Site that includes several tourist attractions associated with coffee culture and cultivation and the Café de Colombia denomination is used to authenticate coffee from Colombia that meets certain minimum standards set by the government. In addition to Typica, the coffee grown across the country generally includes Caturra, which is a mutation of Bourbon, as well as Castillo, which is a hybrid of Arabica and Robusta developed by Cenicafé. The lowest of these are planted at no less than 1200 meters, and the highest at just over 1800 meters, so all Colombian coffee benefits from growing in cool conditions.

Along the Caribbean Coast, coffee is grown in both Guajira and Magdelena where conditions are different from the rest of Colombia leading to a unique taste profile. Some of this coffee is protected under the Cafe Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta denomination of origin which is one of several regional geographical indications within the country.

Coffee in Costa Rica:

Tarrazú Coffee & Villa Sarachi

Following their independence from Spain in 1821, the government of Costa Rica immediately took steps to develop the coffee industry. This included giving away seedlings, allowing farmers to take ownership of arable land, exempting coffee from certain taxes, and introducing the wash process. All of these developments happened in less than ten years after Independence. The strong government support for the coffee industry has resulted in consistently high quality coffee beans, and a healthy economy heavily influenced by this crop. The status of Costa Rica as the safest country in Central America also helps with coffee tourism and international investment.

In recent years, farmers have purchased their own processing equipment, making it possible to easily find small batches of coffee from single farms. Honey processing is also particularly popular in Costa Rica, and it’s done both to differentiate the coffee, and to save water. The highest grown coffee in the country is from a region called Tarrazú, and the volcanic soil and unique microclimate of this area is often cited as contributors to the superior quality of Tarrazú Coffee. In the past, many producers would write Tarrazú Coffee on labels to benefit from the name association, but recently the government of Costa Rica has developed a geographical indication for Tarrazú Coffee. The types of coffee commonly grown are Caturra, and Catuai, which is a hybrid between Cattura and another Bourbon mutation.

A varietal associated with Costa Rica but also grown elsewhere is Villa Sarachi, a dwarf mutation of Bourbon that is tolerant of strong winds that is named for the Costa Rican town where it was discovered in 1950.

Coffee in the Dominican Republic:

Valdesia Coffee & Sierra Cafetalera Coffee

Dominicans drink more coffee than anyone else in the insular Caribbean. Due to this, coffee production in the country remains stable, but exports continue to decline with each passing decade. Generally speaking, the varietals planted are Typica and Caturra that are both grown organically on hillsides. This leads to Dominican coffee being good, but nothing exceptional.

Of some note is the coffee grown on the Cordillera Central, also known as the Dominican Alps. It’s the highest grown coffee in the country, and it benefits from the unique rocky soil of the mountains. Some coffee from regions in the southern part of the country have also attracted attention. This includes Valdesia Coffee, which is protected by a Geographical Indication and sold at a premium compared to generic Dominican coffee. Additionally, coffee grown by a collection of small farmers in the Sierra de Neiba range and processed traditionally has been included in the Ark of Taste as Sierra Cafetalera Coffee.

Coffee in Honduras:

Café de Marcala & Camapara Mountain Coffee

Honduras is the third largest coffee producer in the Americas. They produce more than Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama combined, but still far less than Colombia or Brazil. Bourbon and Caturra are commonly grown varietals, although in the Montecillos region a type known as Pacas is cultivated. This is a mutation of Bourbon discovered in neighboring El Salvador about seventy years ago. This region is also where coffee is grown at the highest altitude, and it is protected by the Geographical Indications Honduras Western Coffee, and Café de Marcala. Coffee grown near the border with Guatemala and El Salvador has attracted some international attention, and is recognized by Slow Food as Camapara Mountain Coffee.

Coffee in Panama:

Panama Geisha/Gesha

Panama is a relatively small coffee producer where many of the same varietals planted elsewhere in Central America are also planted. What the country stands out for however, is their Geisha Coffee that has managed to constantly fetch high prices and  consistently win awards for the last two decades.

Geisha or Gesha Coffee was first discovered growing in the wild on the slopes of the Gori Gesha Mountains in Central Ethiopia in the 1930s. Since then, it has been introduced to coffee growing regions all across the world. While Geisha Coffee from Colombia and Costa Rica are both highly regarded, it is Panama Geisha that has become the most famous. Many coffee enthusiasts find Blue Mountain, Kona, and Kopi Luwak to be overhyped, but the floral and fruity notes of Panama Geisha makes it worth the high prices. There is no protection of the name, or geographical indication for Panama Geisha Coffee, so lower quality examples are starting to emerge.

Coffee in Jamaica:

Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee & High Mountain Coffee

In 1950 the Jamaican Coffee Board was founded, and their activity is almost entirely focused on promoting mountain grown coffee from Jamaica’s four most eastern parishes. This coffee is cultivated on the slopes of the Blue Mountains, which are the highest peaks on the island and part of a World Heritage Site. The majority of this coffee is a varietal of Typica known as Blue Mountain Coffee, but small amounts of Geisha are also grown. The coffee is graded according to the height of the slopes on which it is grown, so there is Jamaica Low Mountain Coffee grown at less than 460 meters,  and Jamaica High Mountain Coffee grown over that height, but below 910 meters. Only coffee grown over 910 meters however, can legally be sold as Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee. Coffee enthusiasts find Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee to be very good, but no longer worth the high prices due to the growing availability of small batch specialty coffee from other regions.

Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee.

Coffee in Cuba:

Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations & Miami Coffee Culture

At one time in Cuba, coffee was more profitable than sugar cane, and the Sierra Maestra mountain range was known for quality coffee due to the mineral laden soil and cool climate. Remnants of this rich tradition can be seen at the remains of the first coffee plantations, a World Heritage Site which includes several estates that were abandoned in the early twentieth century. The abandonment of these estates was due to several factors including over half a century of conflicts that started with the Spanish-American War in 1898 and ended with the conclusion of the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

These decades of conflict led to many Cubans leaving the island and ultimately making an impact on the coffee culture in the cities where they settled. Espresso was introduced to America by Italians living in New York City, but Cubans and other Latin Americans also played a role in making this type of strong coffee more popular. Additionally, the coffee culture of Miami was almost single handedly influenced by Cubans, and this impact can be seen in the popularity of beverages like the cortadito and the colada.

A Cortadito at Versailles Restaurant in Miami.

Coffee in Nicaragua:

Starmaya Coffee

Despite decades of political instability, the coffee industry in Nicaragua has managed to thrive. There are three coffee growing regions where farmers mostly plant Caturra and Bourbon, and all three are known for producing quality coffee. In the continuous quest for developing high quality coffee varieties with disease resistance, the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development developed a variety in Nicaragua known as Starmaya that was made by crossing several Arabica varieties with a wild coffea species from Ethiopia. Starmaya shows a lot of promise in helping the coffee industry deal with growing threats like disease and climate change.

Coffee in Guyana:

Pomeroon Coffee

Guyana lacks the climate conditions necessary for quality coffee to thrive, but it is home to something entirely unique; Pomeroon Coffee. Named for the region where it is grown, this is not a varietal of Arabica or Robusta. Rather, this is a species known as Coffea Liberica that makes up less than one percent of commercially grown coffee. Most of this Liberica Coffee is grown and consumed locally in the Philippines where it is called Kapeng Barako. The Liberica Coffee in Guyana came to the region with the early introduction of Coffee to South America via the Dutch. As Arabica crops failed in the Guianas because of disease and the warm climate, the Liberica managed to survive. Liberica coffee beans are larger than Robusta or Arabica, and shaped slightly differently. As climate change threatens the coffee industry, the potential of this coffee species is being further explored.

Coffea Liberia alongside a smaller Coffea Arabica bean and even smaller Coffea Racemosa beans.

Coffee in Guadeloupe:

Guadeloupe Bonifieur

Guadeloupe was one of the first Caribbean islands where coffee was planted, and it has grown continuously there for almost three hundred years. Production today is very small, but of particular note is Guadeloupe Bonifieur which shares the same lineage as Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee. Additionally, Guadeloupe was the second Caribbean island where coffee was introduced after Martinique, and due to the eruption of Mount Pelée where the majority of coffee on Martinique was cultivated, Guadeloupe is now home to some of the earliest established coffee estates in the New World.

The Future of Coffee in the Caribbean

Globally, the coffee industry has to contend with issues like disease and climate change. Coffee in the Caribbean faces these same threats as well as other issues faced by small islands with little scope for large scale agriculture. Ongoing work related to geographical indications, and increased communication between coffee growers and coffee roasters could help make coffee in the Caribbean more profitable and sustainable.