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Experience the perfect cup of coffee in Puerto Rico

BY JIM FARBER Modified: January 10, 2013 at 10:43 am •  Published: January 14, 2013
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The Slow Food movement has emerged as a worldwide force that advocates for a healthier, tastier, more sustainably grown alternative to fast food. Founded by the Italian culinary writer Carlo Petrini in 1986, the movement's 100,000-plus members in 150 countries strive to preserve traditional and regional cooking techniques while promoting the small, personally overseen farming of plants, seeds and livestock that protects local ecosystems.

The goal is to promote local small enterprises that can produce healthier, more sustainable products that offer an alternative to large-scale corporate agribusiness.

I recently visited a boutique coffee plantation, Cafe Lucero, where the care taken in growing, harvesting, sorting, roasting and brewing the perfect cup of coffee is emblematic of what the movement is all about. Located on 216 acres high in the verdant mountains of Puerto Rico, this family-owned plantation is tiny compared to the massive farms that supply coffee beans to mega-sellers such as Maxwell House or Starbucks.

It is, in fact, a labor love that is overseen by co-owner and coffee gourmet Lucemy Velazquez. To her highly sensitive nose and trained palate there are as many subtle differences in the flavors of a fine cup of coffee as there are in a glass of the finest wine.

And many of the terms she uses to describe those differences — robustness, finish, acidity, smokiness and fruitiness — are the same terms used at wine tastings. It is that level of sensitivity that has earned her the position of judge at coffee-tasting competitions around the world.

Cafe Lucero is harvested in the volcanic mountains that rise to the east of Puerto Rico's second largest city, Ponce. The plantation itself is located in San Patricio, adjacent to the towns of Adjuntas and Jayuya. It is situated at 2,500 feet above sea level, where the rain is plentiful, the air is cool and the soil is rich, making it ideal for growing coffee.

Getting to Cafe Lucero is, however, a challenge. It is about 60 miles from Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan, and 25 miles from Ponce. My group's Puerto Rican driver even got confused on the winding two-lane mountain roads. In the end we had to call for help, and Velazquez came and guided us to her front gate.

From that moment on we were treated with hospitality that began with a walking tour that wound its way along the plantation's steep hillsides, where brightly colored coffee beans could be seen ripening.

The focal point of the tour was the "factory," a metal-roofed building where several members of the staff were painstakingly hand-sorting recently harvested beans, separating them based on their color, ripeness and any impurities.

The size of the staff is small, and the feeling is one of a family operation.

The planting, harvesting and roasting, Velazquez explained, is done under the most rigorous standards.

"We control the entire cycle of the growing, from the ground preparation through the planting process up to the final packaging of the coffee," she said. "The planting and harvesting is done by hand to guarantee the quality of the coffee. And we use environmentally friendly machines to minimize the quantity of water we use. Then the wastewater is reused.

"In 2009 we received from the National Resources Conservation Service of the Department of Agriculture of the United States the South District Conservationist Farmer of the Year Award. We are very proud of that. Puerto Rican coffee has long been one the best of the world. Our goal is to implement the best possible agricultural practices to obtain the best possible product."

Then it was time to make our way back up the hill to the aroma-rich tasting room. But before were allowed to sip our first cup, Velazquez took time to describe the various stages the coffee beans go through, from picking and roasting to grinding and brewing.

"Cafe Lucero is made with the best selected Arabica bean, which strengthen its flavor," she said, urging us to savor the aroma of a freshly brewed cup. "The selection of the beans contributes to the distinctive character of the coffee and its particular flavor.

"We vacuum-pack the coffee in resealable foil pouches that preserve the freshness. It's the combination of altitude, climate conditions, rainfall, soil quality, harvesting and perfectly roasting the beans that makes for a great cup of coffee. That's what growing specialty coffee is all about. Our goal is that our customers will enjoy our coffee as much as we enjoy producing it."

Then she gave us a perfectly brewed cup of Cafe Lucero espresso to sample, and it was heavenly. The large coffee companies have some real competition on their hands.

WHEN YOU GO

Cafe Lucero, 46 Morena St., Playa de la Ponce, Puerto Rico; 787-848-8387, www.cafelucero.com. Tours are available and lunch can be arranged for group visits.

 Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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