The coffee plant was introduced into Cuba in 1748, but farming did not develop into an industry until the 1790s, when French owners of coffee plantations fled neighbouring island Haiti with their enslaved workers when slavery was ended by the Haitian revolution. They created more than 600 farms in the Eastern Cuba area alone.
Coffee was mainly grown on plantations in Cuba’s mountainous regions especially the Sierra Maestra in Eastern Cuba and the Escambray mountains in central Cuba. Coffee became as important as sugar economically by the mid-19th century.
Cuba’s coffee export has since declined and some plantations found alternative use or abandoned. Angerona in Artemisa province became the largest coffee plantation in the country, and Cuba the first world exporter in the early nineteenth century. However, from producing 62,000 tons annually in the 1960s, it went on to collect only 6,000 tons. The industry became state owned in 1959 and today coffee is still cultivated across the island but in smaller quantities.
The labour-intensive but seasonal work, the reduced interest in rural farming jobs and the harvest being vulnerable to bad weather, as well as the challenges of export despite the barriers of the US blockade against Cuba, have meant a need to diversify farming within coffee growing areas to sustain local communities. So today some successful farms are using nurseries for growing coffee, developing coffee based products for sale and export, obtaining an organic certification, connecting with ecotourism and generally diversifying into growing root vegetables and rearing pigs in the same area and finding other ways to build sustainable rural communities.
La Isabelica coffee plantation near Santiago de Cuba was the first museum founded by the government of Fidel Castro after the triumph of the revolution in January 1959 and is the result of the efforts of the historian Fernando Boitel. It is now a unique museum chronicling the coffee tradition and the French cultural heritage in the area. Together with La Fraternidad plantation 90km away they form the pillars of the ‘Los Caminos del Cafe’ (Coffee Routes) project, dedicated to promote them as cultural spaces for the benefit of the local communities.
In 2000 “The Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations in Southeast Cuba” was declared by UNESCO as World Heritage of Humanity.
Another pillar of the project is the Casa Dranguet, constructed between 1859 and 1861 by Carlos Dranguet, a landowner descended from French settlers who fled Haiti for refuge in Cuba. It is located in central Santiago and is the headquarters of the project as well as housing the Center for Interpretation and Dissemination of Coffee Cultural Heritage. See its website for activities here.
The music, dance and spiritual traditions of the ‘Tumba Francesa’ (‘French drum’) are strongly connected to the legacy of coffee as they were brought to Eastern Cuba by the Haitian enslaved people with the French coffee planters.
Tumba Francesa was listed as intangible world cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2008.
What is known outside Cuba as café cubano became the standard form of coffee for Cubans on the island. It is a short, strong and sweet drink.
The authentic way to make Cuban Coffee is with a stovetop espresso pot and served in espresso style cups, using finely ground rich roast. The most common Café Cubano recipe involves adding a small amount of the brewed coffee to sugar (a teaspoon per cup) first and stirring vigorously to make a syrup then pouring on more coffee.
Buy Cuban coffee in the UK – beans and ground coffee from the Sierra Maestra mountains
Watch a video about the coffee harvest in Palma Soriano in eastern Cuba
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