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Cuban coffee has long held a reputation as the black sheep of the world of international coffees. To the untrained palate, this hard-to-get-a-hold-of and curiously concocted variety of coffee is indeed something of an anomaly. Nevertheless, for those with more adventurous tastes and who like to mix up their regular brew with a bit of a wild-card entry that packs plenty in the way of flavor, the offerings of Cuba are not to be missed.
In this article, we aim to introduce you to the best beans our Caribbean neighbor has to offer. But before we get down to our top picks, let’s start with a little background on these fascinating beans and a short guide on how to select the best Cuban coffee beans for your morning brew.
A Very Short History of Cuban Coffee
The history of Cuban coffee is more of a tragedy than a comedy or feel-good success story. Coffee first arrived in Cuba by way of the Dominican Republic in the middle of the 18th century and quickly took off as French colonists fleeing hostilities in Haiti landed on the island along with their caffeine-craving taste buds and the coffee-growing skill sets then unknown to the local population.
By the 1950s, Cuba was producing over 20k tons of coffee on an annual basis—no small feat for such a small country. Soon, however, the steady rise of the Cuban coffee industry was brought to a screeching halt by the commencement of the Cuban Revolution and the 1962 US trade embargo, thus nipping in the bud the huge promise and potential of Cuban coffees before they’d ever fully established themselves on the world scene.
Today, despite unfavorable trade conditions, Cuban coffee is making something of a comeback, with most of its organic coffees finding favor with buyers in Europe and Japan. Though political relations with the US make a mass influx of Cuban coffee unlikely any time in the near future, in recent years the opening of negotiations on trade have given some cause for hope that Cuban coffees might one day be less elusive than at present.
Cuban Coffee: Frequently Asked Questions
Cuban coffee doesn’t boast the same international renown as most other international coffees, mainly owing to the limited quantity of the good stuff that Cuba exports. As such, prospective buyers tend to have a few questions about the offerings of this curious (and often mysterious) coffee-growing region. Here are some of the most common:
What characteristics define Cuban coffee?
The first thing that strikes most newcomers to Cuban coffee is its darker tones, strong taste, and thicker consistency. The beans grown in Cuba are mainly Arabica (though some small-scale robusta plantations exist on the island) and are entirely organic, hand-picked, medium to dark roasted, and finely ground. The oft-cited unique taste for which Cuban coffee is famous, however, owes largely to the hydrolysis of the sucrose in the demerara sugar with which the coffee is typically brewed.
Is Cuban coffee stronger than other coffees?
Cuban coffee has developed a reputation as a bold and even brash coffee mainly due to the manner in which it is drunk as opposed to any inherent characteristic of the beans themselves. Cubans typically drink their coffee ‘short’—that is, in a concentrated form akin to an espresso. This in itself naturally adds intensity to the flavor and, combined with the habit of mixing dark demerara sugar to the coffee prior to brewing, lends a sweet and smooth quality and denser texture to the drink. This thicker consistency also means that the taste of the coffee is liable to linger on the palate longer than is the case with other coffees.
What are Cuba’s main coffee growing regions?
Cuba’s largest growing region is found on the eastern side of the island in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. This region’s fertile, dark soil and natural humus content allow growers to cultivate their crops entirely organically and crops are typically hand-picked before being transported by hand or mule to drying areas where the preparation process continues with roasting and pulverization using a “pilone”, or baton. The coffee is then left to steep in hot water and the grounds removed with the aid of thick cloth or hemp bags. Some other large coffee-growing regions in Cuba include the Escambray Mountains, Guaniguanico, and the Nipe and Sagua-Baracoa Mountains.
How can I make a legit Cuban coffee?
Coffee plays a huge part in Cuban culture and the way in which Cubans typically make their coffee is also a matter of national pride, particularly for expatriated Cubans living overseas.
Cuban coffee is typically drunk in espresso form and merits its own denomination – café Cubano – on account of a unique, Cuban-specific brewing practice that distinguishes it from a standard espresso. Café Cubano is generally made with finely ground coffee with demerara sugar mixed through it during the brewing process, a unique practice that lends the final product a syrupy texture, sweet taste, and smooth finish. If you want to go the whole hog and make your coffee more Cuban than a 10-inch cigar, then you can do so by adding a dash of the island’s other liquid specialty—rum!
Café Cubano is best made using a Moka pot. To do so, fill the pot up to the valve with water, add your coffee to the filter and place the pot on a low heat on your stove. When the coffee is boiled, place a teaspoonful of demerara sugar into your cup and pour a tiny amount of the coffee over the grains of sugar. Place the pot back on the heat and use a spoon to work the sugar-coffee mixture into a syrupy paste. When the rest of the coffee has returned to a boil, pour it over your paste, stir, and enjoy!
The Best Cuban Coffees
In Cubita we find one of Cuba’s—if not the world’s—most distinct and flavorful organic coffees. These 100% Arabica coffee beans are grown in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, hand-picked and sun-dried at source, and subsequently roasted in Havana, thereby making them an exclusively all-Cuban product.
With a bold, strong, earthy profile with subtle hints of smokiness and a slight caramel finish, they are the ideal choice for coffee-lovers with a more discerning palate.
Made with 100% Arabica beans grown organically in the Sierra Maestra, this delightfully aromatic coffee is one of Cuba’s most popular brews. The beans are medium roasted, have a fruity finish, and offer a smoother, subtler, and slightly creamier profile than many other Cuban coffees.
A rich, creamy, well-balanced coffee with sweet honey undertones from one of Cuba’s smallest plantations. Dark roasted and 100% Arabica.
A characterful, medium-bodied dark roast with a bold profile, slightly smoky undertones, and intense aroma and flavor. 100% Arabica and organically grown.
Another coffee named after a famous brand of Cuban cigars, these beans are grown on a small plantation in Alto La Meseta, a 1000m peak in the Sierra Maestra. They have an intense aroma and a flavor profile containing hints of tobacco, smokiness, and caramel.
Although better known for its cigars, in the Atmosphere Cuban brand Cohiba offer the world’s coffee lovers a taste experience that far surpasses anything they pack into their coronas in terms of both flavor and uniqueness.
These 100% Arabica Cuban coffee beans are grown on the El Nicho plantation high in the Sierra del Escambray mountains in the south-central region of Cuba and boast an intense aroma and a hint of cocoa undertones.
Owing to the difficulties entailed in sourcing Cuban coffees caused by ongoing trade embargoes between the US and Cuba, sourcing genuine Cuban coffee from the US can be difficult and often very expensive. The following is a list of the non-Cuban coffees most suited to making Cuban-style coffee (or cafecito/café Cubano) that are currently available in the US.
The founder of Mayorga Organics is a Cuban native who fled his home country for the US as a child. His Miami-based company uses beans from a variety of other Latin-American countries to provide a very near simulacrum of Cuban beans for buyers based in the US. These dark-roasted beans are certified organic, non-GMO, kosher, and boast a bold, smooth, full-bodied profile with subtle hints of vanilla.
These beans have a rich and intense flavor and are roasted in smaller batches in order to ensure you have the maximum window in which to enjoy them at full freshness.
A dark roast with a bold, intense aroma with undertones of chicory and dark chocolate.
These beans are possibly closest you will get to the real thing without hopping on a plane and heading for Havana. The flavor profile is bold, strong, dark, and the taste utterly delicious.
This creamy, strong dark roast boasts hints of dark chocolate and a light Cuban tobacco aroma. Once only available overseas, over 10 million of these capsules now sell every year in the US. The pods are compatible with all Nespresso coffee machines except “Vertuoline” models.
Grown in the high mountains of Costa Rica’s Tarrazu region, this 100% Arabica, dark roasted-coffee brings to the palate the intense, bold profile required to make the perfect cup of café Cubano.
These Keurig-compatible pods bring you a Cuban-style coffee without the hassle of having to break out your Moka pot and offer a rich, dark, strong and powerful taste that lingers on the palate.
This robust, Cuban-style dark roast coffee is strong, bold, rich and has an ever so slightly sweeter profile than most of the other coffees on our list.
Cuban Coffee: The Verdict
As long as trade embargoes continue between the US and Cuba, sourcing genuine Cuban coffee is going to be a tricky business. That’s the bad news…
The good news is that there are ways around the problem and, if you’re unwilling to go down the buying abroad route (and all the added expense that entails for shipping), there are plenty of Cuban-style coffees out there that will allow you to enjoy a home-made brew that wouldn’t look or taste out of place if served outside a café in downtown Havana!
Kieran James Cunningham is a connoisseur of all things caffeinated (and the occasional decaf, too…). His dedication to the pursuit of the best beans and an ideal cup of “brown” out there verges on fanatical and makes the efforts of Captain Ahab seem somewhat tame. As you read this profile, the chances are he’s sipping on a cup of something Sumatran and pondering whether to make the next one a Kona or Mayagüez.