Meet the maker: the keeper of Puerto Rico’s coffee-making traditions

For Roberto Atienza, the key to making the finest coffee is sticking to the methods — and even the equipment — that have served his family well for four generations and nearly a century.

By Farida Zeynalova
Published 27 Mar 2021, 08:00 GMT, Updated 28 Mar 2021, 17:15 BST
65-year-old Roberto has been working at the family farm, Hacienda San Pedro, for the past 45 years. ...

65-year-old Roberto has been working at the family farm, Hacienda San Pedro, for the past 45 years. It's been a family business since 1931.

Photograph by Dennis Manuel Rivera

In the central mountains of Puerto Rico, artisanal coffee farmer Roberto Atienza still uses the same century-old coffee-drying drums once used by his grandfather, Don Emeterio.

“He came here from Palma de Mallorca in the late-19th century and developed a passion for agriculture and coffee,” says the 65-year-old. “I have no memory of him, but from the stories I’ve heard, he was a humble and honourable man, and it’s my responsibility to emulate his passion for high-quality coffee.”

Roberto has been working on the farm for the past 45 years, taking over from his father, Alberto. The Hacienda San Pedro plantation sits high up in the leafy valleys of the Jayuya municipality, in the middle of the Caribbean island. It’s been a family business since 1931, and his team includes his daughter Rebecca, who also owns four coffee shops in the island’s capital, San Juan.

An ordinary day for Roberto starts at 4am with a cup of black coffee with no sugar, or ‘puya’, as it’s known locally. He claims that coffee runs in his veins and, seeing as he drinks 10 to 12 cups of the stuff every single day, that could well be true. Everything, from picking and milling of the cherries (the term for the reddish fruit encasing the beans) to the roasting and even the eventual packaging of the coffee, takes place at the family farm, a process the Atienzas call “project seed to cup”. The result? A coffee that’s velvety and slightly sweeter than most, with hints of chocolate and spices.

“Although the processing machines have changed [since Don Emeterio’s times], the procedures remain traditional: the coffee is pulped, the fermentation process is either natural, wet or dry, and the coffee is dried in metal drums or sundried on African beds that were used by my grandfather,” says Roberto.

Roberto with his daughter, Rebecca, who owns four coffee shops in the island's capital, San Juan. 

Photograph by Jahan Ravilo

He pays particular attention to the critical coffee-drying process and, just like Don Emeterio, often spends nights awake next to the drums waiting for just the right moment, marked by a distinctive sound, to unload the coffee. He’s even continued the family tradition of giving each and every coffee tree on the plantation its own name.

When asked what makes Jayuya so well suited to the cultivation of coffee, Roberto credits the area’s high rainfall, cooler temperatures and rich combination of soils. This, combined with his artisanal approach, has made Hacienda San Pedro a favourite among locals, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the Atienzas. In September 2017, Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico and destroyed approximately 90 per cent of the island’s coffee harvest and plantations.

“It was the beginning of the crop season,” says Roberto. “Everything was destroyed within a few hours.” Since then, Roberto and his team have been working tirelessly to restore the farm — planting new crops, pruning, fertilising and rebuilding all that Hurricane Maria took away.

Today, visitors to the hacienda can tour the fields, try the coffee in the cafe, learn about Puerto Rican coffee at the on-site museum, and take home a bag from the hacienda’s shop.

Despite the temptations to bring in new equipment or machinery, Roberto is perfectly happy making coffee the same way it was done almost a century ago. You could say he marches to the beat of his own drum. Well, his grandfather’s drums, actually. 

Everything, from picking and milling of the cherries to the roasting and even the eventual packaging of the coffee, takes place at the family farm. 

Photograph by Dennis Manuel Rivera

Where to try coffee in Puerto Rico

Café Cola’o, San Juan
This relaxed, bayside cafe in Old San Juan offers a selection of coffees from small farms dotted around the central mountains of Puerto Rico. 

Don Ruiz Coffee Shop, San Juan
Inside Ballaja courtyard is this coffee shop and museum, where you can try not only Puerto Rican coffee but rum, smoothies and cigars. 

Café Tres Picachos, Jayuya
One of the island’s oldest haciendas, complete with a water mill, roaming turkeys and an antiques museum. 

Café Nativo, Jayuya
Situated on top of a hill in the heart of lush Jayuya, Cafe Nativo offers a sublime menu of waffles, sandwiches and, of course, coffee. 

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