The Caribbean has a long history of coffee production, with some of the world’s first coffee farms established in Jamaica and Haiti in the early 18th century. In fact, it’s believed that the first Typica plant grown in Latin America was first planted on the Caribbean island of Martinique.
Today, the region includes 13 sovereign states and another 18 “dependent nations” – several of which are coffee-growing countries.
While the majority of Caribbean coffee is exported to other countries, there is a growing number of local roasters catering to the domestic market. Unfortunately, many of them deal with significant challenges.
To find out more, I spoke with roasters in Puerto Rico, Barbados, and Roatán. Read on to learn about Caribbean roasters and the difficulties they face in the coffee industry.
You may also like our article on breaking down Caribbean coffee production.
Understanding cultural differences in the Caribbean
Although the number of Caribbean coffee roasters is certainly growing, we must first acknowledge how diverse the region is.
The Caribbean includes more than 700 islands – with a huge amount of climatic and geopolitical variance between all of them.
Much of the region’s history has links to colonialism and slavery. The first countries in the Caribbean to be colonised fell under the rule of the Spanish and Portuguese in the 15th century, followed by the Dutch, British, and French in the 17th and 18th centuries.
With colonial rule came the influence (albeit often forcibly at that time) of European cultures on native Caribbean people. And while colonial rule has thankfully come to an end in the region, many of these long-lasting European influences are present to this day.
However, with a range of different historic colonial influences across these islands, and huge variance in how they have developed in the decades since, it is difficult to generalise the Caribbean, as well as its coffee culture. As such, we need to treat each island or country as its own respective part of the Caribbean.
Coffee roasters in the Caribbean
Dominic Wyndham-Gittens is the co-owner and Director of Coffee at Wyndhams Coffee in Barbados.
Barbados was one of the first Caribbean islands to be colonised by the British in 1625. Many Jewish Britons settled here after the Dutch began their colonial rule of the island in 1667.
During this time, many settlers grew sugar and coffee. Today, there is no coffee production on the island – but there is a steadily growing coffee roasting scene.
Despite its rich history of coffee production, the Caribbean roasting sector is still relatively new for a number of reasons. One of these is the high costs of importing coffee to the region.
“The Caribbean can be a very challenging place to be a commercial roaster,” Dominic says. “But we’re passionate about coffee and we think it’s worth it.”
He tells me he pays a 45% import duty tax when exporting coffee to other Caribbean islands, plus 17.5% value added tax (VAT). However, he adds that coffee exports to the US, UK, and Canada are duty tax-free.
However, Dominic says high taxes make it difficult for small businesses to compete with bigger companies.
“It has taken us 23 years to get where we are,” he explains. “It can take up to seven years for us to accomplish one thing that [larger companies] can do in only a couple of years because we’re located on a small Caribbean island.”
Supply chain challenges
Although there is an increasing number of roasters in the region, many of them face a great number of challenges. For smaller roasters who focus on high-quality coffee, sourcing green beans can be incredibly difficult as it is prohibited by law for them to import coffee into the Caribbean.
Instead, national governments (such as Puerto Rico’s) import commercial-grade, partially-roasted coffee from countries including Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, this coffee is usually purchased by larger companies to be sold in supermarkets – sometimes misleadingly labelled as Puerto Rican coffee.
Eduardo Trabada and Gabriel Beauchamp are the founders of Baraka Coffee in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They tell me that because the island is an unincorporated territory of the US, Puerto Rican coffee roasters also face difficulties related to the Jones Act.
This legislation stipulates that all goods shipped to the island – including coffee – must be transported on US-flagged vessels. Not only does this create more logistical issues, it also increases costs.
“It’s inefficient and time consuming,” Eduardo says. “This, along with high taxes and fees, makes importing and exporting goods to and from the island very expensive.”
In order to bypass some of these problems, Baraka Coffee sells 100% Puerto Rican coffee, which is roasted to order in small batches and sold directly to consumers.
However, sourcing single-origin coffee in Puerto Rico also comes with its own challenges. In 2017, Hurricane María led to widespread devastation on the island – destroying many coffee plants.
“Sourcing consistently high-quality Puerto Rican coffee has not been easy for us since we started roasting back in 2014,” Gabriel explains. “It’s expensive and is only available in limited quantities.”
He tells me that in order to stay competitive, Puerto Rican roasters have little choice but to absorb these higher operating costs. Ultimately, despite technically operating in the US, these businesses unfortunately make far less than their mainland counterparts.
As a way to work around a few of these issues, some coffee businesses choose to import roasted coffee. This requires special permits, as well as an added tax of US $2.50 added on for every pound purchased – meaning that Puerto Rican roasters don’t always reap the benefits of buying roasted coffee.
Similar issues are also prevalent in other parts of the Caribbean. Roatán is a Caribbean island off the coast of Honduras. As the island is governed by Honduran authorities, laws and regulations on importing coffee can differ from others, such as Barbados and Puerto Rico. However, roasters still face a number of the same challenges.
José García Quijada is a co-owner of Roa Reserve, a company which roasts, brews, bottles, and sells cold brew in Roatán. He tells me while the manufacturing process takes place on the island, logistical issues mean that the roastery is based in San Pedro Sula on the Honduran mainland.
“If our roastery was in Roatán, it would be difficult to ship coffee back to our clients in mainland Honduras,” he explains. “This is largely because of higher logistics costs, which ultimately would negatively affect the growth of the company.
“There are also risks associated with shipping, such as weather conditions and the time it takes for the coffee to arrive,” he adds.
He says there are a few roasters on the island, but that it’s not easy to roast on a larger scale to reach other markets and grow your brand – largely because of these logistical challenges.
“It’s important to have products that represent the island,” he adds. “Opportunities do exist in Roatán, but there are few specific markets for products like cold brew, so we are trying to fill that gap.”
How is tourism influencing Caribbean coffee culture?
The Caribbean has been a popular tourist destination for many years. Many islands depend on tourism as a critical source of income, so it’s no surprise that this influences the region’s coffee industry, too.
“Tourism in Puerto Rico has helped shape the way we think about coffee,” Gabriel explains. “There are now more diverse menus – especially in more metropolitan areas – which offer everything from traditional espresso-based drinks and cold brew, to iced coffee, plant milks, and more.”
As the region’s warm climate is more suited to iced beverages, cold brew, and coffee cocktails, many Caribbean roasters are starting to adapt in kind. Ready-to-drink (RTD) options are also becoming popular – Roa Reserve currently serves six different cold brew options, as well as using its cold brew concentrate in cocktails.
Similarly, Baraka Coffee Roasters collaborated with Ocean Lab Brewing Co. to produce a coffee stout, which is infused with Puerto Rican coffee sourced from the village of Adjuntas.
However, while coffee culture is developing in places like Puerto Rico and Roatán, Dominic says that other islands, such as Barbados, are developing at a slower pace.
“Barbados attracts a different tourist crowd; most of the island’s visitors are slightly older,” he says.
Despite the many challenges they encounter, roasters in the Caribbean remain passionate about the future for the region’s coffee industry.
In Roatán, a partnership with Honduran economic development platform Próspera is set to launch the first sustainable economic hub on the island. The project aims to provide small businesses on the island with support and infrastructure needed to grow their brands – including roasters.
In Puerto Rico, meanwhile, Baraka Coffee Roasters launched Re:Colecta, an initiative which partners with local artists to create coffee-inspired artwork. All of the profits are donated to coffee pickers.
Eduardo and Gabriel say that the project is helping local producers to hire more labourers, as the donations provide more of an incentive to work on coffee farms – potentially helping to secure the future of Puerto Rican coffee production.
As for Barbados, Dominic tells me that more roasters need to be supported and encouraged to develop the island’s coffee sector.
It can be difficult to collectively define the footprint of coffee roasting in the Caribbean, but it’s clear that the region poses a number of logistical and structural challenges for those seeking to operate. However, it remains clear that each island’s unique take on coffee culture is helping some brands to innovate and develop.
With time, investment, and perhaps the reform of certain legislation, more Caribbean roasters’ coffee could well be available on the global market in the coming years.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article exploring Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee.
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