RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Puerto Rico used to produce some of the most coveted coffee in the world. That was more than a century ago. Coffee production on the island hit an all-time low just a couple of years ago, and little is now exported. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, there's a movement in Puerto Rico to rebuild the coffee industry.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Much of Puerto Rico's coffee is grown in places like this one, a small farm in the island's mountainous interior.
ELENA BIAMON: I just want to show you - that's Arecibo, and you can see the radio telescope from here.
ALLEN: Elena Biamon's farm is 2,000 up, within sight of the world-famous Arecibo Observatory. The farm is just five acres devoted to coffee and other crops, but getting there requires a hike. It's on the side of a mountain.
BIAMON: On the north, we have a section of coffee with the bananas and orange trees, and it's pretty healing.
ALLEN: Like an increasing number of farmers in Puerto Rico, Biamon is raising what's known as specialty coffee. It's of a higher quality, requiring more shade than coffee for the commercial market. In one section, Biamon has planted trees to provide more shade for coffee plants currently getting full sun.
BIAMON: The Department of Agriculture, for many years, was promoting growing the coffee at the sun. It takes a long time to grow these hardwood trees.
ALLEN: Coffee has been grown on these hillsides for more than 150 years. Biamon and her husband, Miguel Sastre, bought the farm several years ago and now produce their coffee organically. Sastre is a marine biologist who grew up around coffee, on the very land he now owns. His great-grandfather farmed here. His father finally sold the land and got out of the coffee business in 1968.
MIGUEL SASTRE: When my father - he told me don't get into farming because it's very difficult.
ALLEN: Over decades, coffee production declined in Puerto Rico. With small farms and scarce labor, the island struggled to compete with commercial producers in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil. The island's agriculture department is using incentives to boost production, and last year, coffee production actually increased. Biamon says she and Sastre are part of a new breed now getting involved in Puerto Rican coffee.
BIAMON: More and more people are really into specialty coffee, and they're conscious of having a good coffee quality.
ALLEN: Tasting coffee is key to growing good quality beans. In Utuado, a town in the heart of the coffee region, the University of Puerto Rico has created a program to help farmers improve the quality of their product. Yaniria Sanchez de Leon is one of a team of researchers working to develop varieties and techniques that will help farmers produce specialty coffee.
YANIRIA SANCHEZ DE LEON: So that we can focus in selling quality rather than quantity, and that if the price is a little higher, that people understand why it's higher.
ALLEN: Growers, baristas and others in the industry come here to learn cupping, learning to grade a coffee's quality. In the coffee lab at the university, Alfredo Rodriguez says to really taste coffee, you have to slurp it, what the industry calls aspiration.
ALFREDO RODRIGUEZ: Aspiration is important because you have to try to distribute the coffee all over your mouth.
ALLEN: Rodriguez is a grower and certified taster who runs the university's lab. His students learn how to identify and describe the characteristics of good coffee.
RODRIGUEZ: Is it sweet? Is it not sweet? Does it have a defect? The flavor is intense or it's pale, low? All those type of things is what we're looking for in the coffee.
ALLEN: In his classes, Rodriguez has taught lawyers and engineers, professionals now beginning second careers in the industry. Producers must learn to quality, he says, to raise good coffee.
RODRIGUEZ: And what they're doing that is wrong, and how can they fix that so they can get better scores on their coffee and better value for the coffee?
ALLEN: Like wine and chocolate, Rodriguez says, there's a romance to coffee that's attracting new ideas and new energy to one of Puerto Rico's oldest industries. Greg Allen, NPR News.
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