By: Gretchen Gonzalez Wheelings
Having a cup of coffee a day is part of the Puerto Rican culture, whether it is the morning cup or the three o'clock in the afternoon, it is essential in the daily routine. When we asked Pedro “Pichy” Maldonado Ramírez what his favorite cup of coffee was, he replied that it varies depending on the day. He usually likes to have a double shot with a splash of cold milk, however, he stresses that a freshly brewed coffee always tastes good. According to Pedro, “the best coffee is the one you like”. Maldonado is perhaps one of the people with the most years of experience in the coffee industry in Puerto Rico. His first job was when he was 4 years old, opening the bags of Café Cialitos. From an early age she worked in the family business and 11 years ago, when his father passed away, he inherited the business. He is currently the one who directs the Puerto Rico Coffee Museum in Ciales. Pedro indicates that since he "entered the Museum he knew what he was going to do."
The museum was founded in 1997 and is the most complete library on coffee in Puerto Rico. It contains the history of the export of Puerto Rican coffee, a collection of old grinders and rustic pieces used for pulping, drying, crushing and roasting the grain. It also has a tasting room and a coffee laboratory. It is the only museum of its kind in Puerto Rico and has the distinction of being the first museum to appear in the cultural section of the "Latin American Coffee Summit", 2020 edition. The vision and mission of the Puerto Rico Coffee Museum is to preserve and promote the coffee culture in Puerto Rico.
Furthermore, in addition to managing the museum, Pedro also owns his own brand of coffee: Café Don Pello. Café Don Pello is distributed throughout the island and in the United States, and is probably the most widely exported artisan brand outside the country. Maldonado is very meticulous with the process to make the coffee, taking into account the selection of the grain, the level of roasting and the quality of the mills, among other details. As he tells us, the difference between Café Don Pello and other coffee brands is the quality of how the coffee is roasted and made. For Pedro, the roasting process is the most important in the coffee process. As he emphasizes, the success of the business is in the production. In addition to having been raised in the industry, his academic preparation in Marketing has facilitated his process of distributing coffee in Puerto Rico. He enjoys everything about working in the coffee industry, especially roasting and bean selection. He explains that once you start in the industry “there is no one to take you out”.
“To sell coffee you have to know”, according to Pedro's words. Many coffee brands indicate that the coffee is 100% from Puerto Rico, but the quality of the coffee that is in the bag leaves a lot to be desired. It is necessary to start a scientific agriculture and promote education to improve the coffee industry in the country. In Puerto Rico they forget about the process, there is no scientific agriculture when it comes to coffee. According to the definition that Maldonado provides, scientific agriculture incorporates the unification of flavors, tasting, measurement of PH (acidity), measurement of oxygen, sugar, among other elements. Producing coffee is a science, it is chemistry. It is relevant to keep in mind that coffee is drunk for the taste. The taste is the important thing. Therefore, the taste must be adjusted to the palate. This can be achieved by thinking of the coffee brewing process as a science.
Café Don Pello is very strict at the moment of buying coffee from their farmers. They buy strictly ripe beans from the farmers that commit to Don Pello's quality standards. These farmers are: Kenneth Rivera from Utuado, Miguel Torres from Jayuya and Ignacio "Nacho" Pintado from Yauco. Focusing in quality, Pedro assures that is the best way to create a sustainable business for our farmers that grow specialty coffee in the island.
One of the situations in Puerto Rico that we must address with the greatest urgency is consistency in quality to be attractive to foreign markets. It is difficult to export Puerto Rican coffee. The importance of the coffee grower must be to produce the best coffee, but unfortunately, more education on the cultivation process is lacking. When growing coffee, you have to analyze the coffee area and you also have to know how to pick it. On the other hand, coffee production costs are higher compared to other countries. Unlike other countries, in Puerto Rico the federal minimum wage is paid to collectors and as a consequence it generates higher production costs. We cannot compete in the international market for coffee prices. For example, “Premium” coffee has to be marketed as quality coffee. The quintal of coffee is approximately $800, says Pedro. To these problems, we can add that in Puerto Rico there is no workforce, there is no one to pick the coffee and 40% of the crop is lost. In the absence of Puerto Ricans picking coffee, some farmers have opted to import Mexican labor.
In response to these problems, the solution proposed by Pedro is education. People who work in the coffee industry must educate themselves and educate the consumer as well. He emphasizes again and again: “the most important thing is to read and learn”. We have a lot to learn from other countries. In Hawaii, for example, all the coffee produced is exported and the farmer earns a fair amount of money. According to Maldonado, the future of Puerto Rico is exports. Now, coffee must be marketed scientifically. We have to innovate. Puerto Rican coffee has nothing to envy to coffee from other countries, because the aroma and quality of Puerto Rican coffee is very good because we have the sea nearby and we have altitude due to the distance we have from the equator. In short, there is much to transform in our coffee industry, but the longest road begins with one step.