Though coffee production in Cuba has declined greatly since the 1950s, Cuban coffee is still well-known around the world, and drinking it is an important part of Cuban culture. The first coffee plantations in Cuba have even been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But history doesn’t necessarily mean quality, as I discovered on a recent trip.
Excited to try Cuban coffee, I was disappointed by the bitter, silty brew we found throughout Havana. Our hosts kept telling me to add more sugar, something I’m normally against, but that this coffee desperately needed. Then I read this excellent article by Natalie Morales, where she mentions that she sends Cuban coffee from the United States to her family in Cuba.
“This is because Cuban coffee is too expensive for the average Cuban to buy in Cuba,” she writes. “So they make do—Cubans always make do—reusing old coffee or grinding in some split peas if they have to get their fix. I, on the other hand, buy it for three bucks at Target.”
While that insight didn’t make the coffee taste any better, it did make the fact that our hosts happily brewed it for us every morning much sweeter. In Cuba, much like in Italy, coffee is a hallmark of hospitality and a vehicle for socialization. I don’t know how many conversations I had in Rome over coffee, not because we needed the caffeine, but because it was an excuse to catch up, to get out of the office, or simply what you said when you wanted to visit with someone. “Let’s get a coffee.” In Cuba coffee was offered everywhere, and according to Conner Gorry, a long time Havana resident, it is meant for visiting and gossip, not necessarily for taste and waking up.
Near the end of our trip we reached Viñales, a picturesque settlement of rusty fields and lush green hills in the Piñar del Rio region, and there we found the coffee we’d been dreaming of. We visited a coffee plantation where a man named Payron walked us through the process of harvesting the Arabica beans by hand, then drying, pounding, and filtering them before serving the grounds like espresso, strong and concentrated, and with sugar or “honey bee,” as Payron said.
Sitting in the shade of a thatched roof, we added honey and sipped coffee unlike anything we’d had all week. It was intensely flavored, the honey adding sweetness without masking the strength. Delicious. And the side of sugarcane blew our minds.
Home, knowing that I can buy Cuban coffee at Target and make it on my own (minus the sugarcane, sadly), I’m both excited to keep drinking it, and discouraged that Cubans in Havana and elsewhere are limited to minuscule rations and exorbitant prices. Hopefully that changes soon.