The Caribbean has been prized for centuries for its temperate climes. Today, that means relaxing vacations on beautiful beaches, but for the islands’ first colonizers, it meant agriculture. The history of agriculture in Puerto Rico is one of centuries of exploitation and suffering, but it’s an essential part of what we consider Puerto Rican culture today. The image of the original Puerto Rican is the jíbaro laborer—descended of Taíno natives, Spanish conquistadors and West African slaves—wearing his pava straw hat, wielding a machete, and tending to the crops.
Coffee has been an important part of our identity since the Spanish began cultivating it on our fertile volcanic soil in the 18th century. The main island once hosted several hundred haciendas and was one of the top coffee exporters in the world. Ours was once served in all the best coffee shops of Paris; it even found its way to the royal and imperial courts of Europe and Japan. The industry declined after U.S. occupation, but Puerto Rico is still recognized as a grower of first-rate coffee, albeit at a much smaller scale.
Yaucono, Café Crema, Café Rico, and Alto Grande are to my mind the brands most likely to be found in a Puerto Rican home, although recent years have seen a rise in the variety of special gourmet brands from small farms. Café Crema had a processing plant in my hometown, and I always loved to take deep breaths when we drove past it to catch the smell of roasting beans in the air. Curiously, both Café Rico and Alto Grande advertise themselves to the predominantly Catholic population as having been the coffee of choice in the Vatican. Bustelo is mistakenly thought by many to be from Puerto Rico, but it was founded by a Spaniard in the Bronx.
Baristas are pretty much a global plague now, but for a long time our coffee was just unfussy café con leche. I was actually tickled to see the moka pot become a craze among American coffee fanatics. It’s how I remember my abuelita making coffee when I was little, so to me it could only be mundane, if a little old-fashioned.
Growing up with some of the world’s best coffee so readily available, I never felt the need to worry about brewing or serving methods. You really can’t go wrong. Puerto Rico sets the bar so high that Boricuas can’t drink a cuppa abroad without making an unconscious, often negative mental comparison. But as far as problems go, I guess that’s a good one to have.
The original colonial cash crop that has left an indelible mark on our culture is sugarcane. The first sugar mills producing refined sugar as well as rum were established in the 16th century. Hundreds more followed, and their tall columns would remain some of our most distinctive landmarks for centuries. Long after the last sugar mill shut down, production (and copious consumption) of rum continues in Puerto Rico. Distillery tours are among the top tourist attractions.
Rum is enjoyed in various ways in Puerto Rico. Aged rum is sipped like whiskey to better appreciate its complex flavor profile. Puerto Rican rum is known to be particularly smooth, with much subtler flavors than the harsh molasses notes typical of rum from Anglophone islands. Gold rums can be sipped or blended into cocktails. White rums, which are filtered to remove all color, are normally used in cocktails because they’re incognito. Spiced rums, popular though they are abroad, are not part of our tradition.
Don Q, Palo Viejo, and Ron de Barrilito are popular local brands. The much more famous Bacardi is thought to be from Puerto Rico, but it actually originated in Cuba. Its Puerto Rico branch became its main base of operations after the revolution. You could say it was born in Cuba and raised in Puerto Rico. This does not make it Puerto Rican enough for my mom’s satisfaction.
Despite the availability of quality rum, its clandestine distillation is commonplace in the countryside. It’s just an inextricable part of the culture. Our moonshine rum is called pitorro or cañita, and it naturally has a much higher proof than the commercially available stuff. Production ramps up around the holidays, as people love to bring it to gatherings and freely share it with friends and family. It’s often infused with local fruits (like quenepa, tamarind, coconut, mango, and passion fruit), blended into cocktails, or downed as a shot.
A traditional drink deserving of mention is maví, known as mauby in the Anglophone Caribbean. It is a fermented beverage made with sugarcane and bark. It has a slight sweetness that reminds me of the smell overripe fruit but which is overpowered by its sour, musty character. It’s a bit of an acquired taste.
Piña colada, the world-famous frozen cocktail, was invented in a Puerto Rican hotel in the 1950s. It’s made with canned pineapple juice, canned sweetened coconut cream (Coco López is the most trusted brand), crushed ice and rum, then it’s garnished with fruit. Mixologists outside the Caribbean suffer from a compulsion to add different juices, liqueurs, or fruit purees to make it more interesting, but they only succeed in making a different cocktail altogether. I love it just as it is! Its very simplicity is a big reason the piña colada has transcended its original context as one more product catering to the foreign rich man and penetrated the local culture so significantly in such a short time. I have fond memories of blending virgin piña coladas at school to raise money for clubs and charities. As a history enthusiast, I also appreciate the original recipe because it represents the zeitgeist at the time of its creation: the mid 20th century, when processed foods were still new and exciting. I’m not the only Puerto Rican who will tell you that I won’t drink a piña colada outside of the islands.
Coquito is less famous abroad, but it’s coveted by many in communities with a large Puerto Rican population. Similar to eggnog in concept, it’s a sweet and creamy cocktail enjoyed over the holidays. It’s made with sweetened coconut cream, condensed milk, evaporated milk, rum, and one’s signature combination of ingredients like cinnamon and vanilla extract. Everyone has the special recipe they grew up with or have perfected to their own taste (spinoffs like chocolate coquito also exist), and each and every one of us is convinced that we make the best (I make the actual best). Mixing up large batches and gifting bottles to friends—with the obligatory cinnamon stick inside—is a cherished holiday tradition.
Fresh coconut water is just as popular as coconut cocktails. Many establishments serve whole coconuts with a hole and a straw in them—almost exactly as seen in movies and TV, save for the fact that we leave the thick husk on rather than exposing the hard, brown seed underneath. When you’re done with the water, you can bring it back to the vendor, who will give it a few more whacks with a machete so you can scrape off the meat with a spoon to snack on. Beachside bars sometimes offer whole coconuts with a mix of spirits poured inside for a drink I know as coco loco. There’s no widespread recipe or even a consensus on the ingredients, so no two cocos locos taste the same. They’re usually quite strong, and coconut water is a natural diuretic, so care should be taken to hydrate properly when drinking it in the hot sun.
Beer may be less historically traditional than rum, but it is enjoyed in Puerto Rico as it is all over the world. Microbreweries have been on the rise in recent years to the delight of craft beer lovers, but the most popular Puerto Rican beer is Medalla Light. It’s a light lager brewed in Mayagüez which has won awards in major beer competitions all over the world, hence its name (medal). It’s a crisp and refreshing beer that goes perfectly with the tropical heat as well as with our salty, fried foods.
A related beverage is malta, a lightly carbonated malt beverage which is basically unfermented (and thus nonalcoholic) beer. It is very popular throughout the Caribbean, but not well-known—or liked—outside of it. It was a childhood favorite of mine, but I gave up trying to get any of my non-Puerto Rican friends hooked on it years ago because no one gets it. Thick and dark, it has the appearance of a stout beer, but its taste is syrupy, heavy and sweet. Young ladies would drink it regularly, as an old wives’ tale touts the beverage’s ability to ease certain monthly symptoms, but its main audience is sugar-craving children.