February 2, 2021

Breaking down Caribbean coffee production

The Caribbean has a long, rich history of coffee production. From Jamaica and Cuba to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the soil and growing conditions found in the cool, mountainous regions of Caribbean islands are ideal for cultivating coffee.

Despite the Caribbean’s important role in coffee’s global history, modern coffee cultivation across the islands is a different story altogether. To learn more about Caribbean coffee production and about some of the region’s most prominent origins, I spoke to Rene Leon Gomez from PROMECAFE and Adarian Lherisson from Javae Coffee.

Read on to learn more about Caribbean coffee production.

You may also like our article about colonial inequalities in coffee.

A brief overview of Caribbean coffee

Even though major producing countries like Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia have long since surpassed the Caribbean as a coffee producing region in terms of volume, the region has played an incredibly important part in coffee’s global history.

The Caribbean island of Martinique (still a French territory to this day) was the first region in the Western Hemisphere where coffee was cultivated. After a young coffee plant was gifted to King Louis XIV in 1714, one of its seedlings was taken by a young naval officer to the colony.

Over the following 50 years, it is believed that more than 18 million coffee trees were planted on the island. The National Coffee Association describes this seedling as “the parent of all coffee trees throughout the Caribbean, South, and Central America”.

It is thought that this plant was of the Typica variety, which supposedly later spread across the Caribbean and into South and Central America. Today, the Typica variety has “gradually been replaced across much of the Americas”, according to World Coffee Research. This, however, has not been the case in the Caribbean.

Rene Leon Gomez is the Executive Secretary of PROMECAFE. He says that while Typica is still common across the region, it is susceptible to disease and has a comparatively low yield. This has led many producers to grow more resilient and productive varieties in recent years. 

A guide to some major Caribbean origins

Coffee has been cultivated in the Caribbean for almost 300 years. However, despite similarities in production conditions, each individual island is unique.

To break down some of the most prominent origins, we have selected a few by the volume that they export.

The Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic is the most visited destination in the Caribbean. It shares the Hispaniola island of the Greater Antilles with Haiti, of which it covers roughly five eighths.

Some 11 million people live in the Dominican Republic, and it is the largest coffee producer in the Caribbean by volume (27th in the world).

Coffee was introduced to the Dominican Republic in the early 18th century as a cash crop for smallholder farmers. By the late 19th century, it was being exported at scale.

Today, there are roughly 50,000 coffee farms across the country, and it produces more than 400,000 60kg bags of coffee every year.

More than 98% of the country’s plants are arabica. Coffee is predominantly cultivated in five mountainous regions across the country. Farmers grow a small volume of robusta for local consumption.

The country’s tropical highland terrain provides ideal conditions for coffee cultivation. It mainly produces washed coffees, with popular regions including Cibao, Azua, Ocoa, Juncalito, Barahona, and Baní.

Dominican coffee is often sold as “Santo Domingo coffee”, named for the country’s capital. It typically has a heavy body with a rich aroma and earthy flavours. As its growing regions range tremendously in elevation, acidity varies.

Haiti

The second country on the island of Hispaniola, coffee production has been a key component of the Haitian economy for more than 250 years. It is second to the Dominican Republic in total coffee exports by volume (28th in the world as of 2019).

Today, other agricultural products have overtaken coffee in terms of export value. Coffee production in Haiti has suffered from poor infrastructure, difficult climate conditions, a number of natural disasters, and low farm productivity.

However, as the most mountainous nation in the Caribbean, Haiti offers excellent conditions for coffee cultivation. It is also an historically significant coffee producer, as one of the world’s largest in terms of volume through the 18th century.

Unlike Dominican coffee, Haitian coffee is predominantly natural processed, offering rich but mellow and sweet flavours with low acidity.

Adarian Lherisson is a coffee producer from Javae Coffee. He tells me that Haiti’s unique climate creates “a lush environment which allows for amazing development for coffees”. 

Cuba

Although coffee has been cultivated in Cuba since the 18th century, it became a major coffee producer in the 19th and early 20th century.

Today, almost all of the country’s coffee is grown in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Coffee from this region generally boasts sweet, sugary flavours with little acidity and a bold body.

However, the nationalisation of the coffee sector and the Cuban Revolution saw production volumes decline during the late 20th century. This was only exacerbated by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Soviet Union was a major trading partner of Cuba’s due to ideological similarities and political ties.

Through the 21st century, Cuban coffee production has recovered to some extent. It is now the 36th largest producer of coffee in the world by volume. However, despite this recovery, current production figures are around 40% of what they were in the mid-1950s. 

Jamaica

More than 70% of all coffee grown in Jamaica is Typica. Most plants are grown at an elevation of 1,500 m.a.s.l. or higher. 

In the coffee sector, Jamaica is best known for its Blue Mountains. These comprise a famous coffee growing region that has long since been recognised for yielding highly desirable flavours.

Today, Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee is geographically recognised and possesses a global certification. This means that only coffee that is certified by a Jamaican governmental exports body can be labelled and sold as Blue Mountain coffee. 

Typically a washed coffee, Blue Mountain beans boast a mild flavour and almost no bitterness. This is because the Blue Mountain region offers high altitudes (the Blue Mountains rise as high as 2,200 m.a.s.l.).

It has a healthy amount of rainfall, cool temperatures, and rich soil, providing the perfect climate for coffee cultivation.

While there should be no generalisation across these origins (or others in the Caribbean), the region broadly offers excellent conditions for growing coffee. This is because Caribbean islands commonly have mountainous terrain (and high altitudes as a result), rich soil, and good rainfall.

Rene and Adarian both tell me that the Caribbean’s climate conditions are ideal for coffee production. They also note that while each country has its own unique features, there’s a consensus that the temperatures, humidity, and altitudes common to each island are all largely favourable for coffee production.

Rene also emphasises how the climate and land are favourable for other crops. This, he says, makes it easier for some producers to diversify their crop portfolio and improve sustainability and production.

However, there is one important point to note: when compared to countries like Brazil and Colombia, the Caribbean islands are much, much smaller. This means that Caribbean coffee producers categorically operate on much smaller parcels of land, making it harder to drive any kind of innovation at scale.

As such, Caribbean coffee production has remained fairly traditional; processing methods and production techniques have not evolved in the same ways that they have elsewhere in the world. Washed processing is most common across the region thanks to its high rainfall (and consequential good water availability).

However, Adarian notes that this focus on traditionalism and a lack of farmland doesn’t mean that there’s no innovation. Instead, he says, Caribbean producers innovate in other ways.

“[At Javae], we take our AA-rated beans from the washed coffees, and find those that are of the highest quality,” Adarian tells me. “We then replant those seeds to maintain and monitor higher-quality coffees.” 

What might the future hold?

It’s clear that the Caribbean offers ideal conditions for coffee production. In theory, there is the potential for the Caribbean to raise its profile in the specialty coffee sector through continued investment at scale.

However, like others around the world, Caribbean coffee producers face a whole host of challenges. While these include low market prices and logistical issues, the Caribbean’s ideal production climate also brings with it a host of natural disasters, including tropical storms, hurricanes, and earthquakes.

A more stable future could come from a diverse range of buyers. “The bulk of our coffees are exported to North America and parts of Asia, but Europe has been a market of interest [lately],” Adarian says. “The UK has shown to be increasing in interest, too… that is specifically a market of the future for Caribbean coffees.”

Rene, however, says that innovation and widespread initiatives to improve quality and volume are also helping to scale Caribbean coffee production. “Jamaica, for example, is very focused on quality at smaller volumes, while the Dominican Republic produces larger volumes but not of as high quality as Jamaica, for instance. 

“Countries like the Dominican Republic are also now very focused on improving quality with governmental support such as through INDOCAFE.” 

Rene also adds that increasing awareness and internal consumption will be key to grow and develop these coffee growing regions. “Along with producer experience, internal consumption is important to the growth and development of Caribbean regions such as the Dominican Republic.”

Despite the various challenges that Caribbean coffee producers face, the region has significant potential for coffee production, thanks to its excellent growing conditions.

Whether or not this potential will be realised in the years to come remains to be seen. However, these origins will continue to export coffee at scale through the future, meaning production seems set to remain an integral part of the region’s economy.

Enjoyed this? Then read our roaster guide to finding a specialty coffee producer in the Caribbean.

Photo credits: Adarian Lherisson 

Perfect Daily Grind

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!