THIOTTE, Haiti — Connoisseur Osier Jean steps into the sterile room, pauses and clears his mind.
With notebook and flavor wheel in hand, he quickly turns to the task at hand — checking the quality.
He sniffs, slurps and swirls, allowing his senses to take in the richness.
The liquid is not wine, but caffeine-rich Kafe Kreyol, Haitian coffee. It is the country's latest effort to revive a once-flourishing industry that has been crippled by decades of deforestation, political chaos and crises.
For years, bitter poverty and plummeting coffee prices around the world have made it much more profitable for farmers to chop trees for charcoal, and invest in cash crops, rather than coffee cherries. Now, with coffee consumption up and a shrinking supply of beans worldwide driving up prices, Haitian coffee is once again becoming a hot commodity.
But the coffee renaissance has its critics who wonder whether this revival, propped up by foreign aid, can sustain itself after the money runs out.
“Our biggest resource is our coffee,” said Archange Mardi, 51, a farmer in Thiotte, a mountain valley in the southeastern Belle Anse region, where the lush landscape is lined with shaded coffee trees growing in backyards, small gardens and family-owned plots. “Before we didn't understand; now we are beginning to.”
Farmers in Thiotte and other coffee producing regions here are gaining access to new global markets, like Italy and Japan, and fetching premium prices for their exported sun-dried coffee.
Quality beans from Gwo Chwal, a nearby mountain community known for producing one of Haiti's best coffee beans, once sold for 30 cents a pound. Today, Japanese roasters are buying it for $5.50.
“We have a demand that we can never satisfy,” said Robinson Nelson, a local coffee grower and manager of COOPCAB, a cooperative in Thiotte working with more than 5,000 coffee farmers in southeastern Haiti.
The success isn't just restricted to the southeast. Some 130 miles north, in the rural highland of Port-de-Paix, a smaller but similar coffee cooperative is also growing. This year, Cafe COCANO farmers are expecting to double exports of their organically grown coffee — already available on the Internet and in Italian espresso shops — to high end South Florida grocers.
“Haitian farmers can produce great coffee as long as there is an export chain that works and that can get them a fair price,” said Anthony Vinciguerra, director of St. Thomas University's Center for Justice and Peace, which has been working with the 300 families who comprise the northwest Haiti coffee growers' co-op for the past five years.
While the northwest farmers have been aided by the South Florida university's students — they assist with everything from social media and marketing to finding new export markets as part of class assignments — in Thiotte, farmers have benefited from the attention Haiti received after last year's devastating earthquake.
Earlier this year, the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund provided $1 million to Root Capital, a nonprofit social investment fund focusing on rural businesses in developing nations, to help boost small businesses in Haiti. One of its first loans, $150,000, went to COOPCAB, the Thiotte coffee growers. The money since has been paid back with interest.
“Our mission is not profits,” said Nelson, sitting inside the group's headquarters where Jean, 46, the region's only professionally trained coffee taster, works with others who dry the coffee beans, pack it in burlap bags and load it for shipment from Port-au-Prince.
“We are interested in helping our planters improve their lives. There is a transformation happening.”
Said Fritz Francois, COOPCAB's president: “It is almost impossible to find someone today in Thiotte cutting down a tree to make charcoal. Today, because coffee has a price, the farmers are motivated and they are leaving the trees because to cultivate coffee you need shade.”
Still, there are challenges.
Each year, coffee speculators from the neighboring Dominican Republic come across Haiti's porous borders to smuggle in an estimated 120,000 bags of Haitian coffee, avoiding Dominican taxes and paying desperate growers pennies on the pound.
“If you go to the Dominican Republic, you may drink a coffee that is very good, and most probably that coffee is from Haiti, but you wouldn't know it,” said Marcel Duret, a former Haiti ambassador to Japan who is working with COOPCAB to get its three varieties of coffee into new markets.
Duret estimates that Haiti loses $50 million annually to the illegal coffee trade. Money, he said, that could “provoke drastic changes for the better in the lives of the coffee growers.”
Not everyone views the Dominicans, the biggest consumer of Haitian coffee, as the threat to growing Haiti's coffee economy.
Critics say growers and exporters need to focus quality and quantity while the international community needs to help create an economic model that focuses less on subsidies and more on sustainability.
“Haitian farmers have lost the long-term vision,” said Stephan Jean-Pierre, who has worked in Haiti's coffee industry as a consultant, exporter and roaster for years.
“They live on a day-to-day basis, and waiting five years for a coffee tree to produce cherries is too long. They are mining whatever trees there are today until they run out.”
While Thiotte farmers may be reaping the success of the global coffee market, the cooperative model is not the answer to the country's “dangerously troubled” coffee industry, Jean-Pierre said. Twenty years after the U.S. Agency for International Development organized a group of coffee growers into the Federation des Associations Cafeieres Natives (FACN) co-op, and invested more than $10 million into helping them produce and market a high-end brand of coffee known as Haitian Blue, all it has to show for the effort is the copyrighted brand, existing on paper only.
“(The cooperatives) are very sexy on paper, but (once) you start digging you realize that without subsidies, they can't survive,” Jean-Pierre said.
Haiti needs to reorganize its entire coffee chain, said Jean Marc Ewald, production and quality manager of REBO, one of three traditional Haitian coffee exporters that remain.
“This is not the moment to be exporting small batches of 30 bags, 40 bags for $5 and then there are 400,000 bags in here that are not being sold,” Ewald said. “The system they are promoting will give a lot of money to just a few.”
If Haiti is to once again become a thriving coffee market, the effort needs to be a national project that begins with a massive tree planting campaign while convincing farmers that there is a strong future in Haitian coffee.
“We have to reorganize the whole chain. Government has to get involved,” Ewald said. “We just need to start planting again.”