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Trinidad coffee: highly aromatic and delectable

Sunday, March 13, 2016
Back in Times
Freshly harvested coffee beans in the late 19th century.

Coffee may have been first cultivated by the early Spanish settlers who in the 17th century planted cacao in the fertile Maracas Valley of the Northern Range. Coffee, like cocoa, grew well in the cool valleys of the Northern Range and was not exported in any significant quantities but consumed locally. 

The beans were picked and “parched” or dried before being stored. When ready for the breakfast table it would be ground in a brass mortar or, in the more elite homes, a patent coffee grinder. Though not as highly regarded as Jamaica’s Blue Mountain variety, Trinidad coffee was considered to be highly aromatic and delectable. 

In 1838 a reasonable quantity of the product was exported to the UK not exceeding 20,000 pounds. This was due to the runaway popularity of the coffeehouse in London, which became a social space for trading opinions and ideas over a steaming brew. On the production of the bean, DeVerteuil wrote the following in 1857:

“As Trinidad has never exported much coffee, that which is grown in the island has no repute. Nevertheless, very good coffee might be produced here, and in abundance; it might even be cultivated on hilly parts. The bois immortel is planted along with the coffee to afford its protection of shade; though the latter has, in some cases, been known to thrive sufficiently well, within the intervals of the cacao ranges. The quantity exported, in 1853, was 64,115 pounds; but the greater part of this was coffee from the main-land the island producing, generally, only a sufficient quantity for home consumption.”

Despite its economic potential, coffee remained a secondary crop to sugar until the 1870s when massive land reforms under Governor Gordon saw the opening up of lands in the Central Range to peasant proprietors. Charles Kingsley wrote on this in 1869-70 thus:

“These Montserrat hills had been, within the last three years, almost the most lawless and neglected part of the island. Principally by the energy and tact of one man, the wild inhabitants had been conciliated, brought under law, and made to pay their light taxes, in return for safety and comfort enjoyed perhaps by no other peasants on earth. In 1867 there were in Montserrat 400 squatters, holding lands of from three to 120 acres, planted with cacao, coffee, or provisions. Some of the cacao plantations were valued at 1,000.”

As a result of the land reforms of Gordon, cocoa production skyrocketed fuelled by high world market prices. Coffee simultaneously found a boost in production. By 1883 exports had reached over 40,000 lbs and thereafter experienced a steep decline in production to a new low of 4,438lbs in 1888. This was due to lands being rapidly converted to cocoa which led to coffee being sidelined. Production rose to 20,000 lbs in 1892 but never again reached the levels of the 1870s and 1880s. 

In 1893 the following was written.

“Of the minor agricultural products of the colony, coffee is perhaps the most important. The coffee plant thrives well and bears abundantly in every part of the colony, yet the quantity produced is not even sufficient to meet the home consumption. Of late years, however, coffee has been receiving more attention, and the area under cultivation has been considerably enlarged. The fact that the beans can now be profitably shipped ‘in the parchment’ is likely to give a further stimulus to this industry. The quality of Trinidad coffee is equal to any produced either in the East or West Indies.”

During the early 20th century, in the poorer districts of East PoS, where the barrackyards abounded, tiny one-door coffee shops began to spring up in numbers, being operated mainly by Venezuelan refugees fleeing political persecution. These sold strong black coffee and sandwiches made from hops bread and fillings such as ham, cheese and buljol. The powerful black coffee was an appetite suppressant in a time and place where empty bellies were not easily filled. 

Some coffee is still grown locally and those fortunate enough to know where and by whom can count on some freshly roasted beans being served when visiting the countryside. For those not so lucky, pick up a bag of Hong Wing coffee to see what real coffee is supposed to be like.

For a generation, Hong Wing’s pungent aroma dominated Broadway since it was bagged and sold from an ancient building that had stood since the middle of the 19th century. Sadly, the march of progress has removed this icon from Broadway, though the good coffee produced is still commercially available for true connoisseurs.


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