November 1, 2017

Puerto Rico’s Coffee Industry: 6 Weeks On From Maria


It is now six weeks since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, and even though the newspapers headlines have mostly moved on, the island will continue struggling for much longer.

Coffee farms, roasters, shops, and more have been hard hit by the disaster, with still only a tiny portion of the island able to access power. We reached out to Puerto Ricans across the coffee industry to ask about the challenges facing them and what the specialty coffee industry can do to help.

Spanish Version: La Industria de café de Puerto Rico: Después de Huracán María

Hurricane Maria: The Facts

Maria was a category 5 hurricane, the worst possible, with peak sustained winds of 280 km/h (175 mph). Puerto Rico had avoided a direct hit from Hurricane Irma, which devastated the Caribbean just two weeks earlier with even higher wind speeds and killed at least three in Puerto Rico.

Maria, however, hit the island directly, destroying infrastructure, agriculture, and people’s lives.

The official death toll stands at 51, yet The Independent reports that over 900 people have died in the short time since the hurricane. Many of these are likely due to a lack of resources.

Puerto Rico was not the only place to suffer from hurricanes this season, nor was it the only coffee-producing country. Cuba experienced neck-high floods. An estimated 95% of Bermuda’s buildings were damaged or destroyed. Over two-thirds of Dominica’s population was displaced.

Yet in Puerto Rico, over 40 days on, only 30% of the country has electricity. This doesn’t just make it the biggest blackout in US history, according to Vox. It also means that hospitals lack the ability to treat people and sanitary facilities are unable to function. And as of the 29th of October, 23% of the population still don’t have potable water.

Kali Jean Solack, Owner of Café Regina in San Juan, says, “Since September 19th, the night before Maria, we have been displaced from our home due to a total lack of water and electricity in our building. The afternoon after the storm had passed felt post-apocalyptic.

“We started walking everywhere because no one knew when gas would be readily available again… Basic everyday simplicities became rarities, but as electronics died and resources were limited and shared, community and friendships became stronger. It took a solid week or two for most people to hear from their families and for the trees to be cleared so roads could be accessible.”

coffee in Puerto RicoHacienda Pomorrosa, where Maria destroyed 90% of the coffee trees. Credit: Hacienda Pomorrosa

Farms Left Bare as Coffee Trees Uprooted

From producers to consumers, Maria has hit the island’s entire coffee industry.

Coffee farms had already been struggling with record low harvests in recent years; now, many have lost some or all of their crops. Gabriel Beauchamp is the roaster at Baraka Coffee Co. in San Juan. He tells us, “This year was the first time that farmers and producers were optimistic about their harvest. Some of them were counting on this season to make up for the losses of previous ones, and right before they could pick any coffee, the storm destroyed their farms, and in some cases their beneficiados [mills] and houses.”

Sebastian Legner owns the eight-acre Hacienda Pomarrosa with his father and mother, Kurt Legner and Eva Lisa Santiago. They’ve been hit by hurricanes before: in 1998, Hurricane George destroyed 75% of their trees.

But this year was worse. “I have to say that the passing of hurricane Maria was very destructive to the agricultural sector of the island,” Sebastian tells us, “especially for the coffee growers. We at Hacienda Pomarrosa lost our entire coffee harvest and about 90% of our coffee trees, and the only thing that was left standing was the houses. The workers lost everything, communications are down, and there’s no electricity. I had no news of my father for a week. The silence was horrible.”

They’ve started a GoFundMe and have begun rebuilding as best as they can, but they know the situation is bleak. “We have very little coffee stored in the warehouse from last year’s crop,” Sebastian says. “We harvested a very small quantity before the hurricane.”

It’s hard to rebuild without resources. Kali Jean Solack and the Department of Brewology are currently working to create an initiative to support farms in the mountain regions of Lares and Jayuya. Kali Jean tells us, “We want to deliver food and water filters to coffee pickers and their families. If we can help get these communities back on their feet, I hope we will see a quicker response in rebuilding coffee farms.”

This will help, but the problem extends far beyond this year’s harvest. “Our biggest challenge right now is that we’re not going to have coffee for the next three to four years,” Sebastian says. “We have no income coming to the farm. We depend very much on tourism because we’re a agro-tourism destination.”

SEE ALSO: Support Puerto Rico by Donating Roasted Coffee

coffee in Puerto Rico The damage on Hacicenda Pomorrosa. Credit: Hacienda Pomorrosa

Roasteries Face Coffee Shortages

Gabriel says that the hurricane has hit him hard at Baraka Coffee Co., but that he was also fortunate. “The lack of power has kept us from opening our store for weeks but at least we were lucky that our equipment did not suffer any damage. This made it possible for us to move to a temporary location thanks to the generosity of friends who let us set up a pop-up café at their property. This saved our small company from going under.”

He’s using initiative to continue roasting – “we are using a small generator to run the roaster, a scale and a fan,” he explains – but isn’t sure how long the company can continue doing this. When beans stop coming down from the coffee farms, they will have nothing to roast and nothing to sell.

And protectionist regulations only make it harder for him and other coffee roasters.

“Such regulations make it difficult and costly for roasters to import green coffee from other countries. Such a thing would seem favorable for us at first glance but the problem is that, contrary to our distant past, we barely produce one-third of the coffee that we consume today.

“To make matters worse, the great majority of the coffee produced locally is of commercial quality , and higher grade coffees are not only expensive but pretty hard to find. We have been roasting coffee for 3+ years now, and sourcing has proved to be harder every season.”

Even though Puerto Rico has had to import coffee for many years now, there are still severe tariffs. They have to pay US $3 per pound of roasted coffee, which can be negotiated down to a minimum of US $2.50. As for green coffee, while you can apply to import it, it’s rare to get permission; most Puerto Ricans will warn you to expect a notice that all permits have already been allocated for the year.

coffee in Puerto RicoCafé Comunion’s entrance was damaged, delaying their opening.  to Credit: Café Comunión

Coffee Shops Are Forced to Close

Kali Jean is still unable to run Café Regina as usual. Most weeks, the power shortages mean she cannot open at all – and the days when she is able to do so, business is still limited.

“The biggest challenges right now are electricity, logistics, staff retention, and finances,” she says.

Espressos are off the menu. “The machinery requires such a high wattage and the generators that can provide this electricity are expensive and the maintenance and gasoline or diesel even more so,” she explains.

She’s tried focusing on other products but supplies are a problem.

“When I had enough generator power to run my refrigerator for a few hours,” she says, “I opened to sell cold beverages, which became a luxury. But once the soft drinks flew off the shelves and could no longer be located due to a lack of supply, Café Regina had to close its doors.”

Bottles of water and soft drinks are hard to procure. Milk has to be collected in person and carried to the shop. “We have had to move product from refrigerator to refrigerator following the schedule of when generators will be turned on,” she tells us. “Lifting and carrying gallons of milk became my new workout plan.”

But it’s not just her who’s affected. Her baristas are also suffering from lost wages at the very time when they need money the most. “One of the most emotional parts for me was not being able to give my team any work,” Kali Jean says. “Operations were halted and the future became unknown.

“Due to the lack of work and resources, a lot of baristas and friends who I thought would never leave Puerto Rico have already left.”

coffee in Puerto RicoCafé Comunion was due to open a week after Maria; the damage made that impossible. Credit: Café Comunión

The Need For Long-Term Solutions

Kali Jean is travelling to the US to raise money via pop-ups, but she knows that a long-term solution is needed. And while donations are helpful, everyone we spoke to pointed out that the biggest issue is the coffee shortage.

“Some coffee roasters only have enough coffee to last them through the holiday season so the future of the Puerto Rican coffee industry is in jeopardy right now,” Kali Jean tells us.

Despite being a producer, Sebastian wants to see import laws being opened up. “For the next three to four years, we won’t have any coffee from the farm,” he says. “We need to be able… to import green beans from another country so we can roast it and sell it so we can survive, and for that we need the help of the international coffee community.”

Gabriel agrees, calling on the government to lift taxes and regulations. “As much as we would love to only buy and serve Puerto Rican coffee, it is simply unrealistic at the moment.”

Yet this alone won’t be enough, especially for those farmers whose trees have been destroyed. Gabriel tells us, “Things are going to get worse as far as local production is concerned, and we fear that many farmers will abandon coffee for other more lucrative and less risky crops. For those willing to continue, the next meaningful harvest could be three to five years away.”

He believes public and private sectors need to collaborate to support the coffee industry. “A longer term solution will require an industry-wide focus on quality that involves educating both producers and consumers on the value and benefit of specialty coffee.

“But even if manage to do that, we would still have to figure out a way to solve other critical problems, such as the lack of available labor, applicable federal laws which make it very difficult for us to compete due to higher than average costs of production, and the always present danger of a hurricane setting us back a couple of years.”

It would take time for coffee farms & mills to recoverIt will take time for coffee farms & mills to recover. Credit: Café Aromas del Campo

What Can You Do to Support Puerto Rico?

Kali Jean tells me there are three things she would like to see the international coffee community do: “Spread awareness of the government’s treatment of Puerto Ricans. Shed light on the crisis the local coffee industry is facing. Directly help the communities in the mountains of Lares and Jayuya, specifically the people whose lives are dependent on these farms.”

The SCA has also called for volunteers and provided a list of organisations needing donations.

Several coffee professionals, including Karla Ly Quiñones García (Editor of PDG Español),  Metric Coffee Co, and Máquina Coffee Roasters, have set up a scheme for donating roasted coffee to small specialty shops in Puerto Rico. You can sign up to donate here or email any questions here.

SEE ALSO: Support Puerto Rico by Donating Roasted Coffee

Puerto Rico needs the international coffee community’s support to recover from Maria.

Sebastian says, “We will replant and we will be stronger than before as long as everyone works united. I know it will take some time but the Puerto Rican specialty industry will recuperate from this.”

Perfect Daily Grind

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