Colonialism, revolution, natural disasters and exiled entrepreneurs – Professor Jonathan Morris explores the curious history of Miami’s distinct coffee heritage and culture
The Miami espresso is not a terroir-based beverage, but a product of historical processes | Photo credit: George Pagan III
Miami’s espresso culture has become central to the city’s self-image. The 3rd of March has become an unofficial holiday: 3.05 day, celebrating the traditional time for an afternoon cafecito or café con leche from the many coffee carts and café windows (ventanitas) that have spread from the Little Havana district into the rest of the city.
This highly localised consumption culture is nonetheless the product of the diverse forces that have shaped the global history of coffee and much more besides: slavery, revolution, natural disasters, communism, migrant entrepreneurs and … air conditioning!
That history begins at the point that the European powers began cultivating coffee in their colonies in the Caribbean. Cuba was one of the first of these, but it was the French who dominated coffee growing in the 18th century.
Saint-Domingue, the French colony in the western portion of the island of Hispaniola, became the world’s leading producer, importing huge quantities of enslaved labour to work on its sugar plantations and coffee farms. An uprising among slave populations led to the abandonment of over 1,000 coffee farms, however, and the republic of Haiti that was eventually established in 1804 was unable to regain its role in the global coffee economy.
Many plantation owners fled to Cuba where they established so-called cafetals in the Sierra Maestra at the eastern end of the island, while a second belt of farms appeared in the hills around Havana to the west.
In 1790 there were only 10 such cafetals in Cuba, by 1843 there were 582. The island became the largest coffee exporter in the Caribbean, capitalising on the collapse of Haitian trade and the Spanish government’s liberalisation of the slave trade at a time that other powers, notably the British, were abolishing it.
In the 1840s, however, Cuba was hit by a series of severe hurricanes that destroyed many of the now mature coffee plantations. Farmers could not justify the reinvestment required to replant them as yields were already relatively low due to soil exhaustion, and international prices were falling due to the expansion of coffee production in Brazil. The remaining output from the cafetals was consumed almost entirely in Cuba itself.
“An uprising led to the abandonment of over 1,000 coffee farms”
By the 1880s Cuba had become a net importer of coffee, primarily from nearby Puerto Rico. The island’s economy was centred on its ports which functioned as hubs for the transhipments of goods from Latin America and the Caribbean to distant markets in Europe and North America.
This created an urban society within which Cubans from both European and African heritages began to mix with each other, nurturing the emergence of a new cultural identity in which coffee consumption played a significant role.
Coffee was the first thing to be drunk in the morning and the last at night. It was immediately offered to any guests visiting a home. It was consumed on the streets, served to customers from carts, kiosks and open-sided bars. By 1934 Cubans consumed the second highest amount of coffee in the world – 15.99lbs per head per annum compared to 11.96lbs in the USA, and just 2.05lbs in Italy.
The 1950s saw fundamental changes in brewing techniques. The traditional Latin American method was to place a cotton ‘sock’ – a filter bag attached to a wire loop and filled with coffee – into the brewing vessel with hot water, removing it prior to serving. Cubans, however, were quick to adopt the stovetop moka pots developed by Bialetti in Italy. They whipped up the first few drops of coffee to emerge with cane sugar to create a creamy espumita that would sit on top of the drink.
Meanwhile, lever-operated espresso machines began making their debut in cafes turning café cubano into crema-topped espresso. Coffee was extracted into small metal jugs containing a few spoonfuls of sugar. This was stirred to create a colado that was then divided into small cups of cafecito. Ordering a colado to share with one’s friends became a part of Cuban coffee-drinking culture.
This culture started to appear in Miami after Castro’s 1959 revolution. Many of those who fled the communist regime came from entrepreneurial backgrounds and started setting up family businesses catering (often literally) to their neighbours. Felipe Valls, for example, joined a restaurant equipment company.
In 1963, one of his clients was a Cuban grocery store, El Oso Blanco, which wanted to take advantage of the new air-conditioning technology that was transforming the retail world in the southern US, while also attracting customers by developing its coffee offering. Valls’ solution was to install glass across the front of the store to keep the cool air in but incorporate a window that could be opened to allow coffee to be passed out to clients in the street.
The first Miami ventanita was born to be widely copied across the city, including in the iconic Cuban-American restaurants La Caretta and Versailles that Valls would later found.
Other families created coffee-roasting businesses to supply such outlets. The Café Pilon brand literally accompanied its owners, the Bascuas family, into exile in Miami. It was subsequently purchased by the Souto family who built up its retail presence to rival the New York-based Café Bustelo, the leading US Latin American-style roaster that was itself founded by a Spanish-born Cuban raised entrepreneur in 1917. The Soutos eventually acquired Bustelo but sold both brands to JM Smucker in 2011.
None of the Miami-based espresso roasters used Cuban coffee, however, for the simple reason that the US has banned all coffee imports from the island (a brief lifting of the ban under Obama was rescinded by Trump). Few Cubans get to taste their own coffee either. The regime nationalised the coffee farms and utilises their output for exports. Coffee is rationed and blend bulked out with chick peas and imported robusta.
The Miami espresso is not a terroir-based beverage, but a product of historical processes. Its distinctiveness resides in the social identity constructed around it by consumers.
Jonathan Morris is Professor of History at the University of Hertfordshire and author of Coffee: A Global History, published by Reaktion Books. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @coffeehistoryjm or visit his website thecoffeehistorian.com
This article was first published in Issue 12 of 5THWAVE magazine.
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