Flickr user Javier de la Rosa

The Next Taste of U.S.-Cuban Diplomacy Will be Coffee-flavored

Companies are racing to make coffee the first Cuban agricultural good to be commercially exported to the U.S. since the embargo was imposed.

Havana, Cuba –Whether it’s well-balanced cortadito, a simple espresso, or one of the many coffee concoctions found at Havana’s coffee shops, Cubans are particular about their caffeine. Cuban coffee, as a style, is usually some combination of strong, dark-roast espresso with sweetness from sugar.

Cubans are better known around the world for their rum and cigars than their coffee. But in the mid-1950s, before the revolution, Cuba exported more than 20,000 metric tons (22,000 tons) of coffee to global markets, and official figures in the 1980s often exceeded 12,000 metric tons. Since the Cuban economic collapse following the fall of the Soviet Union, exports from the annual harvest have fallen drastically to just 660 metric tons, according the most recent figures provided by the International Coffee Organization.

In that time, Americans have become rabid and discerning consumers of caffeine. And since the Obama administration made a little-noticed regulatory update in April allowing certain Cuban coffee imports, some entrepreneurs and companies have been racing to make it the first Cuban agricultural good to be commercially exported to the US since the embargo was imposed more than 50 years ago.

Nestle-owned Nespresso, which sells single-serve coffee capsules for its home brewing machines, appears to be winning that race, announcing today that it will begin sales of a Cuban espresso roast in the US in the fall. The coffee was produced by small farmers and purchased from Cubana, a British company that already imports Cuban coffee to Europe, and the state-owned enterprise Cubaexport, Nespresso said. Though its initial purchase is only a few dozen tons, the company plans to invest to increase Cuban farmers’ production through a partnership with sustainable development nonprofit TechnoServe.

Another company in the race is GulfWise Commerce. Formed last year to do business with Cuba, GulfWise is exploring ways to import coffee to roast, package, or distribute, at a new fruit dehydration factory in Alabama that will include a coffee roaster. In March, GulfWise also secured the first license to sell agricultural equipment to Cuba (in the form of about $100,000 in tractors), and is hoping to get coffee onto US shelves as early as this year.

When Christina McInnis, a partner at Gulfwise, has discussed Cuban coffee with independent roasters in the US and Cuban fruit with food companies, they all want a taste, she said; the fruit has an “amazing” reputation for being organic. “Honestly, I put Cuba in front of anything, and they all want to try it.” Cuban fruit has not been cleared for import but it would likely be next, especially if a successful coffee trade takes place, according to John Kavulich, the head of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, an association of US businesses.

Cuban flavor

Nespresso and GulfWise are far from the only companies looking to sell Cuban coffee. Portland-based Sustainable Harvest, a socially-minded business that supplies roasters like Starbucks, Stumptown and Green Mountain, is talking to European importers of Cuban coffee about how best to work with Cuban coffee producers.

Jorge Cuevas, Sustainable Harvest’s chief coffee officer, thinks Americans’ romantic view of Cuba, a place they are increasingly visiting, will make them want to buy its coffee. Americans “are going to fall in love with the place and the people and say, ‘I want to replicate my Cuban coffee experience back home,’” he said. US roasters are going to want a Cuban-style dark roast, Cuevas said, and he wants to be the one to sell it.

Many Americans have—whether or not they know it—already tasted Cuban-style coffee, via the cheap supermarket brands Café Bustelo (which is now being marketed to hip consumers) and Café Pilon. Though both are now owned by the same company, their early owners learned to roast in Cuba before immigrating to America.

But those pushing for Cuban coffee imports have their sights set on a higher-end market. Kavulich said several big companies have approached his council wanting to know who to talk to about importing it, including the specialty markets Zabar’s and Dean & DeLuca (which sell their own branded coffee) and three national coffee houses.

Engage Cuba, a Washington lobby group pushing to end the embargo, also said it is aware of companies interested in importing Cuban java. Kavulich said he’s even been approached by two Las Vegas nightlife companies that want to put Cuban coffee into signature drinks. (Zabar’s denies contacting Kavulich’s council, and Dean & DeLuca said that while “there is a chance that one of the 800 Dean & DeLuca employees of across the world reached out” to the council, the company has no current plans to import Cuban coffee.)

Gourmet brands like Dean & DeLuca would seem to be the right marketers for Cuban coffee, though the fanciest brands, such as Stumptown and Intelligentsia, are less likely to be interested. The relatively low altitudes of Cuba’s mountains don’t make for the very best coffee, according to George Howell, a coffee quality expert. He cited a slightly cheaper roaster, like Counter Culture, or importers like Sustainable Harvest and Equal Exchange, as potential suitors. Cuevas, of Sustainable Harvest, thinks that Cuban coffee would likely work well as espresso.

Coffee diplomacy

Coffee imports could be an easy first step in rebuilding Cuban-American trade ties.

For Cuba, revitalizing coffee production and exporting to the US would be a natural part of the economic reforms under way. Knowing it needs to boost food production and its trade imbalance, Cuba has been reducing state involvement in the farm sector (by most notably encouraging farmers to sell more goods on the open market within Cuba) while trying to attract foreign investment. While it’s been doing that since the 1990s, it’s now “on a scale they’ve never done before,” Phil Peters, the director of the Cuban Research Center in Virginia, said. Havana is “tired of paying $2 billion per year to import food.”

For the US, meanwhile, Cuban coffee poses less of a conflict than some other imports. As the two countries have expanded ties, US brands of rum and tobacco have clashed with Cuban brands in trademark disputes, but the US doesn’t grow much coffee of its own. Coffee, Kavulich said, gets media attention, won’t compete with US producers, would have a “niche” market, and would “likely” have companies who want to import it.

What’s more, coffee is already mostly produced by independent Cuban entrepreneurs, which is one US State Department requirement for importing goods from the island (though the Cuban government still controls the sale of Cuban coffee and has a role in many aspects of its production).

However, that doesn’t mean just any US company can fly in and gobble up much coffee, said Phillip Oppenheim, the director of Cubana, the company that provided the coffee for Nespresso. Oppenheim says he expects to ink a deal with Cuban authorities this year to control the rights to export the bulk of the coffee from a prime growing region in the far east of the island, near Guantánamo Bay, to companies such as Nespresso. The deal would include investing $5 million in upgrading de-pulping plants, training, and veterinary care for the mules that carry the farmers and the coffee. Finalizing a deal with the Cuban authorities is “a very long process,” Oppenheim explains; they don’t necessarily favor large multinational companies over small ones. Moreover, the harvest was poor this year due to drought.

“What we hope is that our project will increase the quality of Cuban coffee and then, within two or three years time, there will be a reasonable quantity for the US market,” Oppenheim said.

(Image via Flickr user Javier de la Rosa)