That’s Jaimanitas, Cuba between the studio of Jose Fuster and the Caribbean Sea. Photo by Michael Shess, April 2015.
The day before Havana got hit with one of the first big storms of the rainy season (usually May to October). It was noon when the tour bus exited the collection of gringos I was traveling with and I was in need of a cup of coffee—stronger the better.
Our tour guide told us we were in the northwestern Havana neighborhood of Playa Jaimanitas, which was home to a contemporary artist named Jose Rodriguez Fuster.
Fuster has made is mark on his ‘hood and a wonderful Cuba-based website called Havana Cultura will tell you all about him at http://havana-cultura.com/en/visual-arts/jose-fuster
But, I was in need of coffee. I knew if I didn’t get a decent cup soon I’d be worthless for the rest of the day. And, I didn’t come to Cuba to moan.
Coming in on the bus, I had spotted a small street side shed with one bar stool. It had to be the local pub or maybe coffee house.
While others immersed themselves into Fuster and his art (reminds one of Gaudi in Barcelona), I walked up to the establishment. Yes, it was the neighborhood restaurant, which served me what we call a pour-over in San Diego. Here in Jaimanitas, it was a plastic filter holder with a cotton sheet as the filter. The proprietress opened a yellow can of coffee and carefully doled out a nice sized scoop. Hot water heated over a countertop propane-fed stove was poured to make my coffee. The coffee she served was in a black Cubita cup. No extra charge I got a matching saucer.
It was fantastic. Price one Cuban Convertible Peso (the tourist currency equal to one US dollar). Drank it black and ordered cup #2. I normally can live without coffee for a day but I had been without now for two days. Just too busy seeing this magical island to stop and sip. Plus, the locals were more eager to serve us a rum based mojito with ice and mint than serve hot coffee near the Tropic of Cancer.
I tipped her a CUC for my two coffees and as I walked away I noticed the yellow can of coffee was none other than the U.S. roasted Café Bustelo. Pointing to the empty cup offered a sample of my limited Spanish: “Muy bueno.”
She thanked me in Spanish and smiled. As she did, a young Cubana joined us. I figured it was a relative of the Proprietress. The younger woman offered somewhere between a comment and a question: “you like my mother’s coffee” in English.
A third cup of coffee arrived (thankfully they were small in size) on the house. I learned the Cubana was the daughter, who was studying at the University of Havana to be an Engineer. She appreciated speaking English to a caffeine depleted Americano.
I asked how her mother came to serve a U.S. roasted Café Bustelo. (www.cafebustelo.com
“There’s a man in the neighborhood who has an uncle that brings over a case of the coffee. He supplies the cafes around here.”
Is it better than Cuban coffee?
She nodded her head affirmative.
Back in the States I checked Café Bustelo’s website to learn that Miami-based Rowland Coffee Roasters distributes the brand.
The Bustelo name goes back to the early 30’s. It all started when Gregorio Bustelo, a young man from Galicia, Spain, arrived in Cuba and fell in love with the coffee of the island. Eager to learn, he got a job at a coffee roaster, and after just a few months met the girl of his dreams — a young Cuban woman who shared Gregorio’s passion for coffee.
Shortly after the young couple married, they decided to travel to Puerto Rico, where Gregorio continued to work in the coffee industry. It was around this time that the United States Congress passed the Jones-Shafroth Act, granting the people of Puerto Rico U.S. citizenship. And so, like many others, the Bustelos left Puerto Rico to seek a new life in New York City.
East Harlem, also known as El Barrio Latino, became the couple’s new home. Unable to find jobs, they gathered their savings and bought a coffee roaster, and got their business off the ground by way of good timing. Because they lived close to a theater, they would roast coffee around the times movies would let out, so the wonderful and captivating aroma would greet people exiting the theater. They started selling coffee from their home at night, and during the day, Gregorio would sell to neighborhood restaurants. By 1931, a storefront on 5th Avenue — between 113th and 114th Streets — proudly displayed the “Bustelo Coffee Roasters” sign. The business prospered, and the brand’s popularity was no longer limited to El Barrio.