Cuba is known for a lot of cultural products that have been celebrated long before 1950, yet coffee is one product that Cuba is best known for. The best Cuban coffee also happens to have a very curious story about how it came to Cuba. This article will give you a great insight into what makes Cuba coffee so different.
- The 8 Best Cuban Coffee Brands
- Buyer’s Guide: How to Select the Best Cuban Coffee Brands
- A Brief History of Cuban Coffee
- The Beans used by Cuban Coffee Brands
- Cuban Coffee Culture Today
- Common Cuban Coffee Beverages
The 8 Best Cuban Coffee Brands
Most people don’t know this, but the Cuban coffee brands that you’ve been seeing online or through Amazon are not Cuban coffees. It’s cleverly sold as Cuban-style, Cuban blend, 100% Cuban coffee, etc… Many people forget that Cuba is a communist country and there is still an export ban on all products to the US and several countries that do not import these products.
That doesn’t stop big names like Bustelo and Pilon who are owned by the corporate jelly producer Smucker and sells these pseudo-Cuban coffee brands to the Dunkin’ Donuts chain. The countries that buy large amounts of genuine Cuban coffee exports are sold to Japan and France. In Germany, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand smaller amounts are sold as well.
Japan, New Zealand, and Canada remain extremely quiet about their large imports of Cuban coffee beans, but it’s not uncommon that Germany and the UK aren’t too concerned about bad press.
Among the brands that are actual Cuban exported beans, these are the 8 best Cuban coffee brands.
This is a single-origin mountain-grown Arabica coffee beans from Cuba that are roasted and sold in the UK. This product can be found in the UK and also on Amazon UK. Alma de Cuba is one of Liverpool’s largest restaurants and is the primary importer of this brand name coffee. It’s also very easy to spot this brand from the big red star on the coffee packaging.
The coffee is really strong. It wasn’t as scorched as other strong coffees, but it did have earthy tones. The roasting notes appear to have made their way into the finished coffee. There are some fruity notes as well, but the roasted coffee and earthiness are pretty dominant.
Alma de Cuba’s coffee beans are grown in rich, fertile soils in the tropical temperature of mountains facing the Caribbean, where they flourish at an altitude of 800-1,500ft before being matured by the sea air. This is regarded as one of the top coffee-growing climates on the planet.
- Item form: Whole bean
- Flavor notes: Walnut, chocolatey, spicy
- Coffee processing: Washed
This is a German importer that roasted Arabica Serrano beans that are grown in the Sierra Maestra region. It’s sold by a small company that imports coffee from many other countries but is sold under the label Kaffee Schnibbe. It’s quite expensive considering that 500 grams are nearly 15 Euros ($16.00).
This Cuba coffee has low acidity, a slightly tangy flavor, is aromatic, and has a big, beautiful body. Roasted walnut and milder chocolate aromas round out the experience.
Café Bustelo was founded nearly a century ago in New York by a young Spanish immigrant. Gregorio Bustelo’s dream was to bring a distinctive Latin American coffee profile to East Harlem (and beyond).
In most parts of the United States, this type of coffee profile is much out of the norm. But the flavor of the coffee Gregorio had tasted on his travels, particularly in Cuba, had inspired him, and there was no turning back. So, even if the brand is not exactly Cuban, for years and years, this coffee brought part of the Cuban tradition to the US.
The Café Bustelo Supreme is made entirely of Arabica beans. As a result, it has less caffeine and is less bitter. It does, however, retain the full body of the standard blend.
- Item form: Whole bean
- Flavor notes: Hints of vanilla and sweet, syrupy smokiness, with a smooth, and bold finish with low acidity
- Diet type: Kosher
- Roast: Dark
Mayorga Organics Café Cubano Dark Roast has a syrupy mouthfeel and a full-bodied flavor. It’s known for its rich profile, robust flavor, and dark, rich beans with a beautiful shine but not too much oil.
If you’re not used to dark roast Cuban coffee, this option may be too strong. If you’re new to the game, start with this one. While the one-pound bundle is a touch pricy, the five-pound package is substantially less expensive if you decide you enjoy the flavor. However, when trying a new coffee, a knowledgeable coffee buyer will often go for the smaller package, and it is this price that prohibits this one from taking the top rank.
Café La Llave Espresso arrives freshly ground and ready to make a cafecito, with a tale that began in southern Cuba and continues today in Los Angeles. It has a robust, sweet, chocolatey aroma that will help you start your day off well.
This characteristic dark roast is robust, perhaps too robust for a novice. Fortunately, it comes at a low cost, so giving it a shot won’t break the bank.
F. Gavina & Sons, Inc., which has been in business for over 150 years, presented Café La Llave in 1972 and continues to give tradition with this Latin-style espresso.
Pilon is a Cuban coffee brand with roots dating back to the nineteenth century. The company produced coffee for nearly 100 years before the owners decided to revive it in the United States.
Pilon Espresso is a 100% Arabica coffee. It’s a pre-ground option at a reasonable price. It’s an extra-fine grind that’ll perform admirably in your espresso machine.
It’s known for having a harsh aftertaste, but it holds up nicely with food. For a Cuban coffee connoisseur looking for a smooth, strong delivery, this option may be a little disappointing, especially as an espresso roast.
- Item form: Ground
- Flavor notes: Traces of tobacco, smokiness, and a hint of caramel
Montecristo coffee, named after the well-known Cuban cigar brand and, of course, the novel The Count of Montecristo, was produced specifically to complement Cuban cigars.
However, don’t mistake this Cuban coffee for a tobacco drink; instead, think of it as a rare and high-quality coffee that can be savored at any time of day. You can experience tobacco hints, smokiness, and a tinge of caramel on the mouth.
Only one plantation produces these unique coffee beans, which are grown on Alto La Meseta, a 1000m hill in the Sierra Maestra in southeastern Cuba. Because of its perfect location, the Turquino National Park was formerly known for having more than 60 farms in the heyday of Cuban coffee manufacturing before the Revolution. Coffee plants may thrive excellently in the shade of tropical trees due to the high altitude and forest cover.
Montecristo is a 100% Arabica organic coffee that is roasted and processed in a sealed container to retain all of its aromas.
In 1976, the first La Carreta restaurant debuted in Miami. They’ve been serving Cuban-style espresso all around Miami since then.
La Carreta employs a blend of robusta and arabica beans from different South American countries. However, their family recipe and roasting technique ensure that you get the authentic Cuban flavors you crave.
The perfume of La Carreta is crisp and robust, with a hint of freshness in the background. La Carreta has a somewhat bitter aftertaste and is delicious and smooth. It’s not as strong as Pilon or La Llave, but it’s still a delicious cup of coffee.
While it has a robust body, it isn’t as full-bodied as the other Cuban coffees we’ve had. If you’re looking for a thick and flavorful Cuban coffee, this is it. This is one you should certainly try.
Buyer’s Guide: How to Select the Best Cuban Coffee Brands
The roast for many Cuban beans is seldom your average city roast or medium roast. These beans are roasted until they have a rich dark roasted flavor. As with several Arabica bean roast suggestions, this coffee is best when it’s used for strong cups of espresso-style coffee. You won’t see many hipsters attempting to make cold brew coffee from Cuban roasts.
The flavor from Arabica is strong and rich with hints of spicy flavors but still has a pleasant sweet flavor even without adding additional sugar. There is almost a little hint of vanilla with offset smokiness toward the back of your tongue.
When buying real Cuban coffee beans, you should expect to pay much more for the export price than a dealer will be charging for a packaged product. The cost for importers is still peanuts, yet it seems that the Cuban state government is starting to realize they can charge nearly as much as the ‘Going Rate’ as any other coffee exporter in this world. Since the 2020 pandemic, Cuban coffee prices dropped significantly but could reverse swiftly in the coming months.
A Brief History of Cuban Coffee
It’s fascinating how a coffee industry sprang up in Cuba in the early 19th and 20th centuries and crowned Cuba with the title of being one of the largest agricultural developers of the modern world. With an incredible list of 171 coffee plantations that are now listed as UNESCO Heritage Sites. Many of these ruined sites are among a dwindling reminder of what Cuban communism has done to once fertile land.
It all began in 1748 when José Antonio Gelabert brought the very first coffee plant into Cuba. The weather and soil proved these plants not only grew quite well, but they also thrived very easily. This was further expanded when a new influx of freed slave labor began to migrate into Cuba. Joined with a generous population of French colonists who also were fleeing the abolition of slavery, this created a wonderful and practical method of working forces.
It was no surprise that many of these new inhabitants to Cuba also had extensive knowledge of growing coffee and improved the growing methods all across Cuba. Many of the first plantations were right outside Havana located in Wajay and were excellent for growing coffee. When the new wave of migration started in 1791, many new plantations began to pop up in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.
In the region where Guantanamo is located, more plantations became established as time went on. Many homes and residences made of local stone still stand on UNSECO sites where these plantations once were growing. It was reported that by 1950, Cuba was rapidly exporting upwards of 20,000 metric tons worth of coffee beans each year. Many of these exports were also in high demand in Europe and sold at top prices due to their quality.
By 1953, the Cuban revolution began, and only took a total of 6 years before the government offices, army, and total power over the citizens began to take root. Landowners and workers were all told these positions of power were all part of a bigger plan to redistribute the country’s wealth. It wasn’t soon after that when landowners had their land taken away by force and became the property of the State.
Owners and workers did not receive any wealth and were forced to continue their work at a regulated salary which only allowed for basic living expenses. Those who resisted or spoke against this new law were put in prison or were murdered by military enforcers. This is where the downfall of Cuban-grown coffee starts.
Cuban Coffee Growing Regions
Currently, there are only two areas of Cuba that are growing coffee beans which include Sierra Maestra that’s in the South-east. This is a mountainous region close to the city of Santiago de Cuba. The second is called Sierra del Escambray that’s close to the center of Cuba and the city of Trinidad. Plantations on the eastern part of Cuba still have wild coffee beans growing despite being abandoned for over 60 years!
The Beans used by Cuban Coffee Brands
There are European companies that purchase Cuban beans that are all bought as whole beans. Once they are shipped to their destination, they are cleaned, washed, roasted, and further packaged for shipping. Not much is known about the process that is used by New Zealand, Japanese, and Canadian importers other than being very secretive about their imports of communist goods.
German, Swiss, and Italian roasters have commented on their roasting processes that all stick to the same methods used to roast Arabica beans. Since this is a strong coffee, to begin with, these beans are often dark roasted and prepared mainly for espresso roasts.
Cuban Coffee Culture Today
In Cuba, the government regulates how much the average citizen can drink. This allows 2 ounces (per adult) to last for two weeks. Hmmm, Bernie Sanders never seems to mention this wonderful fact about Cuba in his university speeches though? Yet it seems that Cubans must find inventive ways to stretch their coffee supply due to extreme rationing methods
One method that found its way into Florida is one coffee trick that Cubans practice out of necessity. They add chicory to stretch their coffee for several days. Often a single pot is brewed for the whole family if that will last long enough. Many tourists who have gone to Cuba will quickly realize how the illusion of their society has collapsed. Yet, for those who only look at pictures of old 1950s cars on the internet, Cuba has indeed become a dystopia.
What Cuban coffee culture has devolved into today is echoed by those who escaped Cuba in the early 80s. They brought with them a new sense of hope and life in Florida which gave birth to what is now the Cuban-style idealism of coffee culture. If you’ve ever had to drink Torrefacto coffee beans, you’ll understand how bad their coffee at home- really is.
Common Cuban Coffee Beverages
Café Cubano (or cafecito)
This is the best example of what people think Cubans are enjoying at some coffee shop in the center of town. But to be honest, it did originate in Cuba that is made from espresso and special sugar called Demerara. This is an unrefined sugar (or raw sugar) that is brewed with the coffee itself. The real trick is to add the sugar into your coffee grounds inside a Moka pot so you get the frothy sweet taste.
The Cortado is an import from Spain and typically includes Torrefacto coffee beans. These are Robusta beans that have been dark roasted with a bit of sugar. This makes them look nice and shiny, but also is a cheap method to keep them from going rancid. The beans taste burnt and rubbery, which is why heated creamed milk is added to make it taste better.
Café con Leche
This recipe is often called a Cuban-style coffee that’s almost a near-copy of the Café Cubano. It’s espresso with raw sugar added and also includes warm milk that’s topped off in the cup. This recipe is originally from Spain but made its way into Cuba following the Spanish Civil War.
Café con Chicharo
This is another Cuban coffee that was created for the simple reason that coffee was scarce in Cuba. It’s just coffee or Torrefacto coffee mixed with chicory. The mixing ratio is often 40% Robusta beans mixed with 60% chicory root. This coffee can also have a bit of sugar and milk added for more flavor.
What is different about Cuban coffee?
Cuban coffee by itself is an excellent dark roast coffee that makes a great espresso shot. It’s very strong with a sweet flavor that will doesn’t need added sugar. For a dark roast, this taste may be too strong for most general coffee drinkers.
Is Cuban coffee stronger than other coffee?
The taste profile of Cuban coffee has a real kick to it with a lot of caffeine inside these coffee beans. This coffee can make a regular coffee drinker feel jittery due to the caffeine bump. Because these are mainly 100% Arabic beans that aren’t mixed with Robusta, the strong taste of Arabica is certainly not for everyone.
Why is Cuban coffee served in small cups?
Most espresso is served in a cup called demitasse cups, and only holds one or two shots of espresso. This is the traditional method to drink Cuban coffee, yet some coffee drinkers that aren’t used to straight espresso will want to add milk or cream in a separate cup.
If you’re looking for the best Cuban coffee brands, you’ll need to do your homework when searching for the best results. Keep in mind that the best Cuban coffee is not just Cuban-style and can be a rewarding experience if you want to search out imported Cuban coffee beans. Hopefully, you’ll have a taste experience that matches the impressive flavor of Arabica coffee beans.
Giacomo is an Italian living in Shanghai since 2016. After working as a barista in Italy, he started to be more interested in the different types of coffee, beans, and the ways to prepare this ancient beverage. He founded Authority Coffee and he is currently on a mission to find the best coffee in China.