By November 12, 2014 Read Article
Coffee in Cuba

Coffee in Cuba

MSN recently published an article that lists “The World’s Best Cities for Coffee.”  The piece doesn’t offer much explanation for its selection criteria other than a short introduction: “When traveling, coffee lovers need to know where to go to escape the substandard American-style brew most hotels serve.  There are cities that define themselves by their coffee culture, and that should not go untapped.”  Hmm?  OK.

Spoiler alert… here’s their list:

10. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; 9. Vancouver, Canada; 8. Vienna, Austria; 7. Reykjavik, Iceland; 6. Honolulu, Hawaii, USA; 5. Rome, Italy; 4. San Francisco, California, USA; 3. Taipei, Taiwan; 2. Melbourne, Australia; 1. Havana, Cuba

From my perspective, it’s a bit of a quirky list, to say the least.  And, without any explanation of a ranking system, it’s easy to throw darts.

So, dart #1: Honolulu is a great city but not a great city for coffee.  I love Honolulu but I struggle to find great coffee there.  The market tends to serve the tourist community, which isn’t overly demanding in Waikiki. And, most high quality local coffees from Kona, Ka’u, and other parts of the Big Island are shipped to high end roasters on the mainland or overseas.  Good luck finding a truly high quality cup of Kona in Honolulu.

Dart #2: Havana may be a great coffee city but, based on recent experience, the quality and consistency of the coffee itself has a way to go.

Last week, I visited Havana as part of a People-to-People program approved by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.  It was a fascinating experience and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the unique history and culture of Cuba.

However, I had very mixed experiences with the local cafe cubano, a heavily-sweetened short espresso in which sugar is combined with the espresso shot at the time of brewing.  They were certainly distinctive.  In most cases, the coffee, almost certainly grown in Cuba, was dark-roasted.  The shots varied in quality from pleasantly bittersweet to abrasive and in dire need of sugar, which probably explains the popularity of the cafe cubano.

On numerous occasions I tried a cortadito – theoretically, a pre-sweetened espresso shot topped with steamed milkbut gave that up after several bad experiences.  Turns out, milk is a government-controlled product in Cuba, meaning the Government buys all milk produced in Cuba and distributes it via a rationing system.  Cuba only produces about 50% of the milk it consumes so it imports large quantities of powdered milk, which I assume explains the problem with the cortaditos.  Some in my group took milk with their coffee but, like with the sugar, it seemed to be a means to hide the coffee taste, rather than enhance the cup. If you are interested in learning more about milk in Cuba, here’s an interesting article from the Havana Times.

As the article notes, there are signs of an emerging specialty coffee scene in Havana.  Cafe El Escorial on Plaza Vieja in Old Havana offers a nice cafe setting with greater attention to quality.  Service is hit or miss but you should get a solid quality version of whatever you drink you order.


Posted in: Coffee News

About the Author:

Ron Walters, co-founder of Coffee Review, manages business operations, including, marketing, and social media. He conceived of and helped pioneer the development of 100-point reviews in the specialty coffee industry. For the past twenty years, he has been engaged in strategy, marketing, and management of specialty food and beverage businesses.

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