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Cuban Coffee Coming to the U.S. for First Time in 55 Years

In Nespresso pod form, no less

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

For nearly 55 years, some of Cuba's most iconic exports — coffee, rum, and most famously, cigars — have been subject to an economic embargo. At least one of those products will soon be available to American consumers (or at least, those who own one of Nespresso's at-home brewing devices): Switzerland-based Nespresso announced this morning that its Cafecito de Cuba pods, made from Cuban beans, will be available to U.S. customers beginning in fall 2016.

President Obama lifted various travel and financial restrictions with Cuba in 2014. In March, Obama held a joint press conference with Cuban President Raul Castro, where both men called for an end to the trade embargo.

In April, the Department of State updated its list of goods produced by independent Cuban entrepreneurs that can be imported to the U.S. Among that list was coffee, which paved the way for Nespresso — and, over time, others like it — to offer the product in the U.S.

"We are looking every single day for new coffee experiences, new ideas, to delight and surprise customers," says Nespresso's U.S. president, Guillaume Le Cunff. "Cuba has always been an area of interest. But once the regulations changed, everything became possible."

The coffee will initially debut as a limited edition but Nespresso hopes to expand the project long-term. It's currently working with TechnoServe, a nonprofit development organization, to help support farmers in Cuba with the production of sustainable coffee.

Ultimately, says Le Cunff, Nespresso hopes to offer Cuban coffee for years to come. "We are starting this initiative with a very, very big hope: the ability to have a permanent [edition] coming from Cuba," he says. "The aim is to have Cuban coffee on the market even next year."

According to the International Coffee Organization, Cuba harvested 100,000 60-kilogram bags of coffee in 2015. Colombia, by contrast, will harvest approximately 13.3 million bags in 2016, according to the USDA — and that's a slightly lower-than-average number.

A spokesperson for Nespresso said the company can't currently comment on how its new product will affect current or future harvests of Cuban coffee. They did say, however, that Nespresso and TechnoServe "will explore how to work with smallholder coffee farmers in Cuba as we have in other coffee origins. The ultimate goal is to support farmers in their production of sustainable coffee and contribute to expanded economic opportunities for them in the long-term."

Technically, Nespresso's Cafecito de Cuba will mark the first time Cuban coffee has been brought to the States in more than 50 years. But Cuban immigrants likely won't be overly excited about the news — mostly because they've been drinking Cuban-style coffee for years.

"In the United States, we can get Cuban coffee — or Cuban-style coffee, at least — anywhere. Certainly in New Jersey, South Florida — any place with a lot of Cuban exiles," says Dr. Jose Azel, a Cuban exile and Senior Scholar at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban & Cuban American Studies.

Azel, who left Cuba in 1961 as a 13-year-old political exile, began drinking coffee when he was just a child. "It is pretty much an ingrained part of the Cuban community," he says. "My mother would have a thermos of coffee waiting for me in the kitchen when I was nine, 10 years old. It was such an ingrained part of the culture that we always drank coffee. Now, I have six or seven cups a day and I'm in my sixties."

The traditional way to consume Cuban coffee, says Azel, is standing up, in a cafe, usually with a cigarette or cigar. Of course, that was in pre-Castro Cuba. "Today, I'm sure that's not the case, because there are no cafes to speak of. And, for most of us the smoking part has disappeared. But the coffee remains."

Though exported Cuban coffee beans aren't currently available in the U.S., making Cuban-style coffee at home isn't too difficult a feat. In fact, Azel says he makes it in his Nespresso coffeemaker already.

"At home, you can make it with brands like Bustelo and Nespresso already. It might not be technically made with Cuban beans but it is a very, very similar type of coffee, in terms of strength and flavor. I think my Nespresso makes a pretty decent cup of Cuban coffee already."

TechnoServe's Senior Vice President, David Browning, says Nespresso went "deep into the science of coffee" to create its Cuban blend. He equates the flavor profiles to those of a fine wine, noting that the coffee was influenced by the soils, and the unique climate of Cuba.

"The wood notes of coffee can affect the taste — some can be flat, or moist, scented like the sap of a young tree," says Browning. Cafecito de Cuba, for instance, has "wood notes from cedar," which lends it "mouth weight with a nice caramel finish."

Exiles like Azel, however, aren't overly precious when describing Cuban coffee: "We drink very, very strong coffee in very small quantities — in one shot. A Nespresso machine wouldn't be economically feasible in Cuba, of course, so it's a much more complicated process — you have to manufacture the foam yourself, with a little spoon."

And Nespresso' infamous pods — similar versions of which have been criticized for their harsh environmental impact — are likely nowhere to be found in Cuba. "In the Cuban countryside," says Azel, "people use cloth socks to make coffee."