"All the equipment just rusted away," said Terry Montague, who feels lucky to have tried the island's original bean, prized for its velvety sweetness. Montague is a roaster at Down East Coffee in New Brunswick, Canada, and he was introduced to Haitian brew by a minister named Paul Smith. In the late 1990's, Smith's church started a charity project called New Millennium Coffee. Congregants sent suitcases of clothing to a small orphanage in Haiti run by a woman named Marlaine Alix. There, Alix and her neighbors would harvest and process green coffee beans, fill the suitcases the clothes had arrived in, and send them back to Canada for Montague to roast. Many of the people who sampled that first batch, including Mark Prince of the popular online coffee community Coffee Geek, still rave about the taste more than 10 years later. In his tasting notes, Prince described the coffee as "chocolately, caramel, smooth, velvety with low acidity."
Photo by jakeliefer/FlickrCC
Decades of political unrest and government corruption, however, made farmers too afraid to come down from the mountains to sell their crops. Over time, many Haitians lost the skills needed to grow, harvest, and process coffee, and Brazil eventually cornered the regional market, aided by modern facilities. Between 1998 and 2002, annual coffee exports fell to only four million dollars, less than one sixth their former size. Marlaine Alix also struggled to maintain the high standards of her first batch, and her project fell apart completely when her house burned down, leading her to resettle in the United States.
A promising moment, however, was the arrival of a bean called Haitian Bleu. Developed by a cooperative of coffee farmers (the Fédération des Associations Cafétières Natives) under the guidance of USAID, Haitian Bleu was an instant success story. Modern processing made the coffee more palatable to North American consumers, and because it was fair trade certified, it enabled farmers to demand a living wage as they moved into the specialty coffee market.
The Haitian Bleu revival was short-lived: producers had trouble controlling quality, and bribery and corruption made the export process costly. Montague's shop has only four bags of Haitian Bleu left, and he says it's very difficult to find—now especially, because of the post-earthquake chaos. Still, the coffee is one of Montague's favorites, and others feel the same way. Coffeereview.com says that "at its best, the coffee is rich, opulent and sweetly low-toned."
But the beans didn't win everyone over. George Howell (owner of his namesake coffee company and terroircoffee.com) carried it years ago when he owned the popular Boston-based roaster the Coffee Connection, which was later bought by Starbucks. Like Montague and Prince, Howell remembers tasting an impressive sample back in the eighties, but the problem, he said, has always been consistency.