The delicious smell of roasted coffee has been in my life for as long as I can remember.
My grandparents would make a fresh, steaming pot every morning, and my grandfather taught me how to make it myself when I was around 12 years old.
Now, as a full-time coffee drinker, I had the opportunity to learn about coffee farming in a new and unexpected place – Puerto Rico. It was a beautiful, educational, and eye-opening experience.
I come from an Iranian/Cuban background, and coffee is an absolute staple of Cuban culture.
Traditional Cuban coffee is brewed strong using a dark roast in a stovetop percolator. People usually start their mornings with a café con leche (coffee with steamed milk), then break mid-morning for another one… then maybe an afternoon pick-me-up, and some in the evening after dinner. The flow of coffee never ends!
When I was a child, I would often wake up in the morning to the sound of the coffee pot gurgling on the stove, announcing that my grandparents were up and starting their day.
My grandfather would take a glass measuring cup, add sugar, and pour a little coffee into it. He’d stir it with a long metal spoon until the sugar frothed, and then pour the rest of the coffee on top. My grandmother liked to sneak a little bit of coffee into my warm cup of milk, saying, “le da un poquito de color” (“it gives it a little color”).
Taking A Coffee Break
In the middle of February this year, I took a long-awaited trip to Puerto Rico. I’ve always heard that Puerto Rico and Cuba are “two wings of the same bird,” and I wanted to experience the culture firsthand.
While vacationing there, I knew that I wanted to visit one of the coffee farms that I’d heard so much about. So one day I headed out to visit Hacienda Tres Ángeles, located about a two-hour drive from San Juan in the middle of Puerto Rico.
The landscape at Hacienda Tres Ángeles was beautiful. It felt like you were right in the jungle, surrounded by tropical trees as the narrow roads twisted and turned their way up hills and mountains.
Once I arrived at the plantation, the sounds of cars and machinery evaporated, leaving just the breeze, the rustling of trees, and an occasional bird chirping off in the distance. The air smelled fresh and clean, with a light, floral scent from the coffee blossoms.
As I looked out across the rolling hills, I could see lush, green vegetation and coffee plants for miles. It was an incredible scene to take in.
The Daily Grind
At Hacienda Tres Ángeles, coffee is grown alongside plantain trees, which give the coffee plants shade. The farm also grows several other types of produce, including bananas, but their main product is coffee.
Everything on the farm is solar powered or recycled – they use old plants and the shells from harvested coffee beans as fuel to run their machinery and fertilizer for the growing coffee plants.
The owner showed me around the plantation and answered all my questions with a kind, excited smile.
I learned that clusters of fruit (known as “coffee cherries”) grow heavily along the coffee plant branches and are hand-picked by locals during harvest season. When the cherries turn bright red and plump, they’re ripe for the picking.
After all the cherries are harvested, it’s time to cut them open and get to the good stuff.
Pressed together inside each coffee cherry are two small, greenish-yellow seeds – these are the famous coffee “beans” that will be roasted, ground, and brewed into a dark cup of caffeine.
I was very interested to learn that this farm cleans and roasts all their own coffee before packing it up and shipping it to companies locally and all over the US and Europe. The roasting process seemed quite tedious, but well worth the effort.
After our tour of the farm itself, we were invited back to a café in the main building. I relaxed on the terrace, enjoying a rich cup of coffee and looking out over a spectacular view of the very farm it had come from.
Taking Life One Cup at a Time
Because I’m lactose intolerant and keep halal, sampling food abroad can get complicated.
At the Hacienda, I had to ask for almond milk in my coffee rather than just regular milk. The owner of the farm was happy to accommodate my request, and we spent some time talking about her life.
She grew up in New York City, but decided to move back to Puerto Rico where she married, had three little girls, and on a whim decided to buy a coffee farm with her husband.
It was inspiring to see how her entrepreneurial spirit and love of family had intertwined to produce such a gorgeous and lucrative farm. As always, I was grateful to meet someone else who had a mixture of backgrounds and life experiences, and who loves the coffee world as much as I do.
I left the farm with a greater appreciation for how complicated and tedious coffee farming can be. It is really challenging to ensure all of the coffee plants stay in good health and reach their peak during harvest season.
Now when I make coffee, I think about the beans I have purchased, the farm they came from, and the hard work and dedication that each farmer had to go through in order to have a successful coffee harvest that year.
As I sit here writing this, breathing in the delicious aroma swirling out of the cup of java on my desk, I find myself pondering the other small pleasures in life. I wonder how many of them also come with fascinating, hidden backstories of the people and processes involved.
As a complicated and curious foodie, I’m excited to get digging!
A little more info on coffee…
- Coffee cultivation and trade began on the Arabian Peninsula
- Coffee is now cultivated worldwide in over 70 countries
- Coffee was the first food to be freeze-dried
- Coffee beans are the seeds of berries from the coffea plant
- The countries that produced the most coffee in 2015 were: Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia
- The top 10 coffee-consuming nations are: Brazil, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Serbia, Austria, Slovenia, Netherlands, Norway, and Finland
- Americans pay $2.70 on average for a cup of coffee
- New York City produces the most expensive cup of coffee in the U.S. at $18