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As the Cuban Embargo Lifts, It's Time For... Coffee?

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to Cuban expat communities, there's plenty of Cuban culture to be found across the United States. Cuban music is one example; Los Van Van and Irakere can set the dead to dancing, and Cuban expats and their descendants (like Celia Cruz, Arturo Sandoval, Willy Chirino, and the Estefan clan) have brought Cuban sounds to American audiences. Cuban “béisbol” players are among the world's best, wowing Major League Baseball fans from coast to coast. But for many people -- Cuban and Anglo alike -- it's all about the food. If you've never had Ropa Vieja, Picadillo, or Lechon Asado, we feel sorry for you. Hell, even humble Cuban sandwiches, from the classic Cuban sandwich, made with ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and roast pork marinated in mojo to the Medianoche (a Cuban sandwich on challah) or Choripán (chorizo with potato sticks) are a feast for the senses. Now, if you've ever eaten at a good Cuban restaurant, you know that your meal is not complete without a good postre (dessert) like flan or tres leches, and a steaming cup of Cuban coffee. It's an espresso with a caffeine content that does roughly the same thing to your heart as a good rumbero or salsero hitting his stride over a tight band. These days, "Cuban" coffee is generally Café Bustelo or Café Pilon, both of which have roots in Cuba but that are now sourced elsewhere and roasted and ground in the States using methods brought from the old country. That might be on the verge of changing. As the Obama administration decides how to lift the decades-long embargo on Cuba, tourism and cigars have gotten all the press. What's been overlooked is that Cuba once had a thriving coffee industry that's fallen on hard times but that has the potential to be the next big thing. Cuba was once a major coffee exporter, but the Revolution brought changes to the coffee industry as it had to every other facet of society. The island has the perfect climate for coffee growing, and prime coffee-growing lands in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. The Sierra Maestra was the epicenter of the guerrilla activity that would eventually overthrow the Batista government, which was the first strike against Cuban coffee. The second strike came in the form of the American embargo, which closed off the American market to Cuban coffee and other goods. The third strike came as antiquated farming methods led to lower yields; Cuba's coffee exports are now but a paltry fraction of coffee titans like Costa Rica and Guatemala. As the long thaw in Cuban-American relations begins, expats and entrepreneurs are looking south. Cuba represents an untapped market, to be sure. But as it's managed to do even through the blockade, Cuba has plenty of cultural exports to offer. Just as the Cuban sandwich and Salsa (the music, not the condiment) have gone mainstream, it looks like Cuban coffee might be poised to wake up a new generation of Yanquis to all that Cuba has to offer.