Coffee, Rum, Sugar and Science in Puerto Rico

Visitors to Puerto Rico will no doubt enjoy at least one of its world famous beverages – rum, piña colada and coffee – while exploring this fascinating Caribbean island. It is interesting to note that two of these products were made more readily available due to the perseverance of Puerto Rican scientists, with the third reaching international markets due to the innovative thinking of Corsican immigrant farmers – all of which strengthened the Puerto Rican economy.

Puerto Rico has the reputation for producing the finest quality light rum, also known as white rum or silver rum, from the juice or by-products of sugarcane through a process of fermentation and distillation – the end product being served in many countries around the world. In the late 1800s, a mysterious epidemic hit the agricultural industry of Puerto Rico, with sugar cane suffering the most damage. With sugar being the mainstay of the Puerto Rican economy, the Spanish colonial government of the time called upon the scientific community to study the situation. Among the Puerto Rican scientists working on the problem were Fernando López Tuero (1857-1907) and Dr. Augustín Stahl, with the latter reaching the conclusion that the epidemic was a germ, but this proved not to be the case. At the time, Fernando López Tuero was working at the Agronomical Station at Río Piedras as the head agronomist. In 1894 he discovered that the epidemic had been caused by the white grub of the scarab beetle, genus Phyllophaga. While the beetles are nocturnal and thus seldom spotted during daylight, coming out at night to feed on foliage, it was the larvae of the beetles that were feeding on the roots of the sugar cane. Having isolated the cause, a solution to the problem was found and the sugar cane crops saved from destruction. So, next time you sip some Puerto Rican rum, you may want to raise a glass in memory of Fernando López Tuero.

Working on a project funded by the Government of Puerto Rico in the late 1940s to develop industries on the island, professor of agricultural sciences at the University of Puerto Rico, Ramón López Irizarry (1897-1982), invented an easier method of extracting coconut cream from the pulp of the coconut by using a precisely measured amount of natural cane sugar. The result was so successful that his product, Coco López, is sold in fifty countries around the world, and is most likely the main ingredient in the ever-popular piña colada.

Puerto Rican coffee is of a world-class standard, and many Corsicans who immigrated to Puerto Rico between 1830 and the early 1900s became coffee farmers, particularly in the area of Yauco. The Mariani family were among those who made this fertile region of Puerto Rico their home, and they set about establishing the coffee industry on an international scale. They converted a cotton gin which separates cotton fibers from their seeds, into a machine to dehusk coffee cherries in a manner that left them unblemished. They also sent representatives to present their product to the coffee buying centers of Europe, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now Puerto Rican coffee can be enjoyed in virtually every coffee-drinking country. The coffee plantations of Puerto Rico are a popular tourist attraction, as are the rum distilleries, so be sure to include a visit to at least one of these on your Puerto Rican holiday itinerary.