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Garrido, Yauco Selecto lead Puerto Rico's exports to Japan.

For Jose Rodriguez Garrido and his two brothers, Jorge and Pedro, coffee has always been much more than a 9-to-5 job.

"We've been involved in this business practically since we were born," he recalled. "We did our homework on the desk of our grandfather. We hid behind the coffee bags in the warehouse."

Evidently, Garrido did his homework well. The executive, now 40 and president of Garrido & Co., was recently named "Exporter of the Year" by the 1,800-member Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association, the largest and most influential business lobby in this U.S. Commonwealth.

At its awards presentation, the PRMA cited Garrido's efforts at promoting Puerto Rican coffee in Japan, and said, "This is a significant achievement which serves as a bridge to bring to Japan many other Puerto Rican products, while attracting Japanese tourists and investors to Puerto Rico."

In an interview, Garrido said the firm, which was established by his grandfather in 1925, has exported 2,100 quintales (hundredweight) of Alto Grande Super Premium coffee to Japan through an intermediary firm, Nipuspan International. That firm has in turn sold the coffee to Ueshima Coffee Corp. in Japan, where the coffee sells for $20 a pound.

"Japan is the third-largest coffee consuming nation in the world, Garrido told The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. "They're buying much more from other sources than from us, such as Blue Mountain (in Jamaica) and Kona Coffee (in Hawaii), but that's because this is the first time we're selling into Japan."

At present, Puerto Rico can only boast one other gourmet coffee brand, and that is Yauco Selecto, a joint venture between three major coffee growers and one of the island's biggest coffee processors. The processor, Cafe Rico, and the growers -- Ignacio Pintado of Cafe Luri, Miguel Lopez of Cafe Hayuya, and independent businessman Roberto Atienza -- are joined by Jaime R. Fortuno, an investment banker and president of Escogido S.E., Yauco Selecto's exporting and marketing agent.

"We estimate that this year, we will export 2,500 quintales to Europe, the U.S. and Asia," said Fortuno, adding that half of that total will go to the U.S. mainland and about 20% to Japan and elsewhere in the Far East. "Since Jan. 1 of this year, we've exported 800 quintales."

Fortuno said that, in 1991, between 1,000 and 1,500 quintales of Yauco Selecto coffee beans were exported; retail prices currently range from $16-20 a pound in New Haven, Conn., to $28-30 in Paris and $32 in Mallorca, Spain.

"We have focused our attention to returning to the European market, where Yauco coffee was once very well-known, opening ground in the U.S., and having a presence in the Japanese and Asian markets. Our agent in Paris, Maison Jobin, is handling distribution to Japan."

Fortuno said the partnership employs 15 office/salespeople as well as 25 to 30 farmworkers, rising to 45 during coffee-picking season. Garrido & Co. employs 135 people, with 30 working in gourmet coffee processing alone.

Garrido said Ueshima has invested "million of dollars" in the Grand Lares brand, though he wouldn't disclose company revenues or profits. His office is in the San Juan suburb of Caguas, but his production facilities are at the 300-acre hacienda Alto Grande, about a two-hour drive west of Caguas. He says the plantation is among the oldest in Puerto Rico.

"Alto Grande has been in existence since 1839," he said . "It's the only coffee plantation which has continued uninterrupted since that date, and has succeeded against all adversities."

"It's a slow process," he explained. "All of our coffee is handpicked. We immediately put all of the coffee cherries we purchase into a big tank. Beans that float are rejected because they don't have the proper density. The coffee beans that sink then go to a depulping machine. Within 30 seconds, the beans are washed to avoid fermentation. Every three hours, each bean leaves the pool to be washed with fresh water. That assures a uniformly clean coffee.

He added that "all the water we use, which is never recycled, comes from a well which is 700 feet deep, and the water purity standards exceed the federals standards for bottled drinking water." He said the beans are finally dried at between 95 and 100 [degrees] F, "so that the coffee dries from the center of the bean to the outside, until it reaches 11% moisture."

Besides Alto Grande, Garrido & Co. also produces two supermarket coffees -- Cafe Crema and Cafe Adjuntas -- and operates Aroma Coffee Break and Executive Coffee Break on a local basis.

One reason gourmet coffee costs so much is that the beans must be picked by hand. In Puerto Rico, the federal minimum wage applies, and few Puerto Ricans are willing to pick beans for less than that wage. Some people are urging the Commonwealth's Labor Department to permit the importation of workers from the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Yet, as Garrido says, "many people, including the government, are worried that those immigrants from the Dominican Republic might stay in Puerto Rico illegally after their permits expire."

"As we get more sophisticated, the government should try to make this a feasible vehicle for everyone in agriculture. I strongly recommend that we use other very good sources -- Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Costa Ricans, Haitians -- who do not have main roots in the Puerto Rican community."

In past years, the Dominican Republic had not only supplied coffee workers but also the coffee itself. Demand in Puerto Rico had out-stripped supply, and local production just wasn't enough. Yet this year, says Garrido, Puerto Rico isn't importing coffee from anywhere. Its production of 300,000 quintales is sufficient. Fortunately, he says, "there are new incentives, and more young people are getting involved in the farming of coffee."

A visit to Hacienda Buena Vista

PONCE -- More than 150 years ago, the best coffee in Europe was Puerto Rican coffee; early documents from Rome show that the Vatican imported only Puerto Rican beans for the Pope's morning coffee.

Those days are long gone, with simple agriculture having since been replaced by high-tech manufacturing. But now there's an attraction in Puerto Rico sure to tug at the heartstrings of coffee buffs eager for a glimpse into the past.

The place is Hacienda Buena Vista. In the last eight years, the non-profit Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico has loving restored this plantation to its 19th-century beginnings. Those who take the time to visit this out-of-the-way tourist attraction come away with a deeper understanding of the importance of coffee to Puerto Rico's early economic development.

Located on Highway 10, along the twisting, mountainous road from Ponce to Arecibo, the plantation dates from 1833, the year nobleman Salvador de Vives bought 482 cuerdas of land from the Spanish government, which at that time owned Puerto Rico.

According of the Conservation Trust, the property started out as a simple "estancia," a small cash-crop from planted with cacao, corn, plantain, yams, pineapples and coffee. Within a few years, Vives purchased a corn mill, a rice-husking machine and a coffee depulper.

Vive's son, Carlos, expanded the hacienda's operations by diverting the nearby Canas River and building an elaborate canal system to power his hydraulic machinery. By the time Carlos died in 1872, a coffee boom began to transform the Ponce economy. Within a few years, the family installed a new depulping machine and a coffee-bean husking and polishing machine. They were both powered by a water wheel.

Puerto Rico's coffee fame, however, came to a sudden end in 1899, when the Hurricane of San Ciriaco destroyed 60% of the island's coffee crop. The same year, international coffee prices collapsed, forcing Buena Vista to slash production from 335 quintales (hundred-weights) of coffee in 1897 to just 78 quintales in 1900.

In the early 20th Century, Hacienda Buena Vista was abandoned, and termites gradually took over the property. Much of the original machinery had been left at the site, but it was badly deteriorated and covered with rust in the tropical climate. In 1984, when the Conservation Trust took over the plantation, restorers began working at the site, using 19th-century building techniques to recreate the coffee plantation atmosphere. Today, all the machinery is intact and working, and the rooms of the manor house have been restored to the style of the 1980's, complete with furniture donated by the Vives family.

For those contemplating a visit of Hacienda Buena Vista, tours must be reserved by calling (809) 722-5882. The Conservation Trust charges a nominal $4.00 admission fee for adults ($1.00 for children under 12). Tours last about two hours and are scheduled four times a day, at 8:30AM, 10:30AM, 1:30PM and 3:30PM. Larry Luxner is a freelance journalist based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on a restored coffee plantation in Puerto Rico
Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Previous Article:International trends and their influences: from bistro cooking to eau-de-vie, Armani and more.
Next Article:Out of Africa.

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