Cuban Coffee in the U.S.? Thanks, Obama!


One of the biggest perks of living in South Florida is how readily available a cup of Cuban coffee is. Cheaper than a drink from Starbucks and packing some amazing flavor and caffeine, Cuban coffee is a delectable fucking beverage that's rich, sweet and hot. It melts down your esophagus and hugs your little heart and fills your belly with happiness. It's a huge staple in the Cuban culture, and its importance can be equated to that of tea for the English. Although you can order a cafe Cubano all over South Florida and the Tampa Bay area, 100 percent Cuban coffee is not currently available on the U.S. market, thanks to the embargo put in place during the Cold War. "Cuban-style" coffee produced by brands like Cafe Bustelo is available, however, as are blends that include Cuban coffee beans (somebody please correct me if I'm wrong).

Let's take a hot second to talk about the beans. What exactly is Cuban-style coffee, and what is the big difference between its flavors and those of 100 percent Cuban coffee? According to Amanda Cerero of Alma de Cuba, a company in the UK that imports 100 percent Cuban coffee beans, Cuban-style coffee is a compilation of "Costa Rican, Guatemalan, [and] Nicaraguan coffee, all blended together and roasted very dark to accommodate the Cuban taste ... that has infiltrated America and Cuban-America..." 

There are a few defining differences in the landscapes of Cuba-grown coffee and Cuban-style coffee. The first is that countries like Costa Rica, Guatemala and Nicaragua are all located closer to the equator than Cuba. The second is that beans grown in these three countries are typically farmed at an elevation well above 1,200 meters, while coffee beans in Cuba are grown at a lower altitude of 900 meters. There are charts all over the internet depicting how altitude affects bean quality. According to Driftaway Coffee, the higher the altitude, the harder (and generally, more desirable) the bean. Shade-grown coffee beans, like the Cuban variety grown under the breezy forest canopies of the Sierra Maestra mountains, are an exception.  The third — and what appears to be most defining — difference is the soil composition. While Costa Rican, Guatemalan and Nicaraguan coffee beans are grown in volcanic soil, Cuban coffee beans are grown in a red clay with a high content of iron oxide, humus and limestone. 

To be completely fucking honest, I have no idea how any of this affects the taste of coffee. The internet was shit-help in that department. What I did find is that a lot can be done to change the flavor of a bean during the soaking and roasting processes, which is how coffees with traditionally different characteristics can be altered to taste more like Cuban coffee. For example, milder coffees, like the Nicaragua and Guatemala-grown arabica beans, are roasted darker than usual to mimic the taste of Cuban coffee, which is known for its traditionally dark roast. 

When you talk about Cuban coffee in America though, you're referring, for the most part, to the Cuban-style brew. A Cuban coffee is made on an espresso machine or at home in a moka pot, and brews so dark that no light passes through it. It's pretty fucking amazing. According to my Cuban-American friend, Hector, there are also some serious superstitions surrounding the beverage. "We serve our coffee with a small saucer and small cup," he says. "When a young girl serves coffee, if a person takes the cup but not the saucer, superstition says that the young woman will never marry."

There are a couple varieties of the cafe CubanoEl cafe con leche and el cortadito are most common. A cafe con leche runs about the size of an American cup of coffee and consists of espresso, scalded milk and lots of sugar. El cortadito is smaller — about the size of an espresso shot. It's cut with steamed milk and packs a lot of sugar. The sugar is vigorously stirred with the first few drops of espresso to create espumita, a frothy caramel-colored layer that floats at the top. The remainder of espresso and the steamed milk are poured in after. It's also common for a pinch of salt to be added to balance the sweetness.

Although these beverages qualify as cafe Cubano, they're different still from what's being consumed in Cuba today. According to Cerero, it's the coffee itself that's different. While most of the exported beans are  arabica beans grown in the Sierra Maestra, those consumed domestically are a combination of varieties grown in the Sierra del Escambray of central Cuba. Coffee rations are so minimal that the beverage is widely considered a luxury. Since the ration system was put into place in 1962, coffee production companies have been roasting peas to include in their grounds because the coffee supply is so limited. In 2005, pure coffee returned to the ration books, but this improvement was short lived; in 2011 coffee rations once again included roasted peas.

Although 100 percent Cuban coffee has been scarcely available in Cuba and completely unavailable in the United States for the last fifty years, headway made by the Obama administration to normalize relations means that Americans will finally have access to the good stuff again. Since the Seventh Summit of the Americas last summer, travel and trade restrictions between the two countries have been easing. Now, recent developments in the relationship have allowed for coffee grown in Cuba to enter the U.S. market again. I am so. fucking. excited. about this; I am so pumped for some real Cuban coffee RN that I could take my pants off and twirl them above my head. Nespresso, the coffee company that's got George Clooney and makes the best damn instant coffee I have ever tasted, announced that it will be working with Cuban coffee farms to bring a special-edition Cafecito de Cuba pod to the American market. They'll be the first company to sell 100 percent Cuban coffee in the U.S.

Nespresso hopes to make the special-edition batch a permanent addition to its line of coffee, but the coffee industry in Cuba isn't quite prepared to scale to meet American demands. Most coffee farms in Cuba are small, family-owned plots. According to Cerero, the knowledge is all there, but infrastructure needs improvement; adequate roads and access to plantations are primary concerns, as are equipment upgrades. Nespresso has teamed up with nonprofit TechnoServe to help Cuban coffee farmers improve production.

As much as I love me a Nespresso coffee, I'm pretty bummed that the only way to get 100 percent Cuban coffee in the U.S. will be through a pod that's going to cost close to a dollar. It's a pretty classist circumstance, if you think about it: Cuban-American communities, in order to get the good stuff, are now going to have to shell out over $100 for a machine to make a cup of Cuban coffee that won't taste as good as the one they could make themselves. This doesn't even touch on the classism that citizens of Cuba will be facing, though, since there's no telling if these improvements to their coffee industry will affect them. I can't wait for the day that we can all buy Cuban coffee in bulk like I do my Cafe Bustelo, but for now, I guess we'll just have to make do and await the day we sip a cup of real Cuban coffee.