Haiti’s King of Coffee

Donkeys laden with bananas plod down the mountain path, followed by village women, carrying goods to market atop their heads. On either side of the trail, wild taro and cacao fill the slopes. TiGeorge Laguerre stops and points to a wooden shack. “My cousin lives here. She just had a baby.”

Laguerre grew up in this region of Haiti, the Nord’ouest province, on the northwest coast. Locals call these mountains “nan gro mon.” The hillside we’re standing on has special meaning for him. It’s been in his family since the 1950s, when his father George owned a successful coffee operation.

TiGeorge (“son of George”) no longer lives here, having moved to America years ago, and now owns TiGeorge’s Chicken, a Haitian-cuisine restaurant in Los Angeles. But he has agreed to show me the origin of his restaurant’s amazing coffee, which he imports from these hills.

The beans are strange bluish-brown in color, carmelized as well as roasted. He prepares it as a café au lait, with bay leaf and key lime zest. If you like coffee, the taste is like no other.

TiGeorge sells bags of Haitian coffee over the counter and through mail-order. But his plans are much larger. He wants to increase production from the family property. Export more coffee overseas. Maybe even open a coffee-themed B&B as a destination for local tourists, modeled after the wineries of California.

His vision isn’t just for profit and his family’s legacy. He also believes it will be good for the country. What Haiti needs is a sense of being, he says, a sense of responsibility, rather than the current national mindset of passivity, accepting hand-outs from relief programs with no eye to the future.

It’s no secret that Haiti is a nation climbing out of decades of turmoil. Poverty, corruption, and apathy have rendered it a shell of a Caribbean paradise. Two former presidents remain in exile. Headlines continually portray a country on the brink of collapse, policed by U.N. soldiers, and propped up by international relief projects.

Perhaps this is what Haiti needs, a countryman returning home to generate industry and promote self-determination for the locals. Why not? It’s not depressing enough to make the nightly news, but that’s not to say it won’t help.

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We begin hiking up the hillside, and the view is a complete opposite of Haiti seen on CNN — a postcard of green, pristine valleys under the warm sun. The island of Tortuga rises off the coast, its sandy white beaches contrasting with the rocky shoreline of north Haiti.

At a fork in the trail we come to a large concrete sign that reads “Tigeorge.” He has installed this here deliberately, to let people know that coffee production will soon return to the area. Behind the sign are the abandoned ruins of the family coffee mill: a crumbling fermentation vat, and a rusty pulper machine. Everything else has been scavenged for scrap metal. This plot of ground has sat idle since the 1960s, when the bottom fell out of Haiti’s coffee market.

“The money was not there,” TiGeorge shrugs. “There was no need to cultivate coffee.”

On this site he hopes to rebuild a coffee processing plant, and jumpstart the local coffee industry. Farmers who still grow coffee must send it elsewhere for processing. This plant would keep the business here, and provide jobs.

“There’s so many things that need to get done,” TiGeorge says over his shoulder, as we continue up the trail. “We have the workers, the sun, the soil.”

He points out a coffee tree a few feet off the path. These plants grow wild, in shade underneath the taller forest, favoring the altitude’s cool humidity. Coffee can grow up to seven feet, yet the stalks are very thin, no more than three inches. The fruits are still green and haven’t yet ripened. The season will be in two months, he says.

Coffee is a delicate plant, and can take four to five years before it fruits. Much like wine grapes, several factors can affect the finished product. Coffee grown at different altitudes will vary in taste. Wild coffee trees produce different flavors than cultivated plants.

Laguerre gestures to an almost barren hillside, clearcut long ago for firewood. “All this used to be coffee. As you can see, the bigger trees are gone.”

I mention that perhaps the local farmers could cultivate new coffee plants here.

“Replanting is difficult, to bring that into their soul, because they think there’s no need to do that,” TiGeorge answers. “Whatever I’m doing, I know it’s not short-term.”

A woman stops us and says to him in French Creole, “You are the son of the agronomist George! I can see what you’re doing. It will be like in the past.”

TiGeorge speaks briefly with her, and then turns to me and says, “The beauty is when you make contact with the peasants. These are the real people.”

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We return down the trail, wade through a river and arrive at the small isolated village of Anse-a-Foleur, literally the end of the road on a map.

There may be little in the way of electricity or potable water here, but the modern world has definitely intruded. Teenagers wear Tupac and Florida Marlins T-shirts. A boy rides by on a bike, talking on a cellphone, which everyone seems to have. A truck drives through, a loudspeaker announcing that a soccer match will be playing on the big screen later, at the next town.

At the central square, we stop at a food booth that TiGeorge recommends. The cook is a young man named Richard that he wants to encourage. Because in the villages, cooking is for the women. Richard has a skill, TiGeorge says, and he should know that he’s good at it.

We sit on a bench, eating fried fish and a fantastic Haitian cabbage slaw called pikliz, spiced with habanero peppers. We wash it down with bottles of Prestige beer, and watch a funeral procession of mourners in their Sunday best, followed by a New Orleans-style brass band.

Although TiGeorge grew up in Haiti, he moved to Brooklyn for high school, and in 1980 got a film degree. He moved to Los Angeles to find work as a cameraman, and a few years later started a party rental business out of his garage, providing tables and chairs for private events. It was profitable for awhile, but was slowly succumbing to more competition. A friend at a party told him he needed to get back to his roots.

“I took his advice,” TiGeorge admits. “I flew to Haiti searching for any pieces that were left behind. If I could put them together, I could put myself back together.”

He returned to Haiti and suddenly remembered his grandmother used to own a restaurant. As a boy TiGeorge would help her cook, especially the squash soup. It dawned on him – he was going to do exactly what she used to do.

After endless wrangling of permits and equipment, he opened TiGeorge’s Chicken restaurant in 2002, on Glendale Boulevard in North Hollywood. He served only a few dishes, and didn’t even have a menu. Nevertheless, local press and bloggers got wind of the unique cuisine, and it started attracting more customers. One of them happened to be a percussionist for the legendary Haitian Konpa group, Tabou Combo.

“This guy called me, he says, ‘I’m selling CDs of Haitian music, and Haitian coffee.’ He sent me a humongous bag full of coffee and CDs. People start falling in love with the coffee. People kept buying, and I kept selling. Then I ran out of coffee. I call him and say, ‘Hey, I need more coffee.’ He says, ‘No TiGeorge, it was a one-time deal. I do not have coffee anymore.’ I said, wow. The product that people fall in love with, and I don’t have the product to sell.”

The enterprising TiGeorge quickly found another source of Haitian coffee – smuggling bags of beans through customs, in passenger suitcases. Ten pounds here, 20 pounds there, whatever it took to keep the restaurant supplied. But he knew he needed to turn legitimate, and eventually obtained a credit line from UPS, to ship legally from Haiti.

His coffee comes via a complicated route, from the hills above Anse-a-Foleur, along a six-mile stretch of brutal potholes that is charitably called a road, to the northern city of Port-de-Paix, then aboard a commuter plane to Port-a-Prince, the capital, and then finally UPS flies it into the United States, where it’s roasted at a California facility. TiGeorge is the first to admit, “It’s a torturous way to bring coffee.”

His patrons in Los Angeles aren’t aware, they just salivate over the coffee. Some customers even request that Tigeorge be the only person to prepare their coffee, and will call the restaurant to make sure he’s in before driving there. The popularity is a bit strange. People accidentally leave things in his restaurant all the time, he thinks, because the coffee experience is so distracting.

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We finish our fish and walk back through the village, passing rows of extremely simple houses, made from concrete, wood and tin. Women are sweeping the dirt in front of their doors. Boys play soccer barefoot on the gravel road. Little girls in their orange school uniforms walk home in noisy packs. It’s a polite society. Everyone says hello, and they expect you to respond.

We arrive at the house of TiGeorge’s brother Reginald, which doubles as the local office for TiGeorge’s coffee business. The front room is filled with paperwork and sacks of fragrant green coffee beans. As far as I can tell, this is the only residence in town with electricity, powered by solar panels on the roof.

Someone pulls out some plastic chairs, and we sit in the office sipping beers. TiGeorge introduces me to Frankie, Remy, and Wilson, a few of his local associates, who are also helping with the coffee business. They don’t know much English, but that’s okay. TiGeorge is a great conversationalist, his strong personality carries the room.

Currently, he says, the business ships two bags a month out of Haiti, at 150 pounds each. TiGeorge sells one of these bags a month, with the rest served in the restaurant. He would love to eventually import up to 50 bags a month.

Haitian coffee has a long history, dating back to 1734, and at one time the region produced half of the world’s coffee supply. The primary growing areas were in the cool, wet mountains.

By the early 1950s, Haiti’s economy was strong. Tourists were coming from all over. Mining and agriculture were profitable. George’s father was a coffee grower, a coffee speculator, and owned the mill to process coffee. He sold primarily to European countries, who favored the smooth rich taste, particularly France.

Some processors use chemicals to remove layers of the coffee fruit, before reaching the seed, which is the coffee bean. George Laguerre Sr. used a more delicate method, instead fermenting the coffee and then carmelizing it in a secret mixture of ingredients.

“You will have bees, flies flying over it,” TiGeorge allows. “The fermentation, that’s what brings the quality.”

Although it’s slower, TiGeorge uses this method today. It’s still an eyeball process, people knowing when to add the ingredients, when to remove the coffee.

As we talk, children drop by with their mobile phones to leave them overnight for charging. The Western Union office down the street charges a fee for this, but Reginald doesn’t have the heart to ask them for money.

When TiGeorge’s father was forced to abandon the coffee business in the late 1960s, he reluctantly moved to America with his family. Local villagers simply moved onto the neglected Laguerre property, and have lived here free ever since. TiGeorge returned in the 1990s, and realized he had to resolve this situation.

“I still allow them to live on the land, but gradually I’m letting them know there will be development made there,” he says. “And every now and then, one has to leave. They’re okay with that. I’m also using them to work there, too. So therefore it is beneficial to them.”

Part of TiGeorge’s plan includes paying the farmers upon delivery. In the past, coffee producers would pay the growers a year in advance, but often the growers took the money and never delivered. TiGeorge says this is very common in Haiti. You see buildings all over the country that are half-finished, abandoned once the contractors received advance payment.

“I think that’s probably what created the failure of Haiti. That was an ongoing thing. Many Haitians still live that way. They hunt for today, but they never hunt for tomorrow.”

Giving people money or food isn’t necessarily the best solution to Haiti’s problems, TiGeorge believes. They’ll just expect the same tomorrow. People do need help, but in a way that gives them confidence. That’s why, for the past few years, he’s commissioned street signs for Anse-a-Foleur, and brought them in from Los Angeles. Like most of Haiti, the village’s streets and houses are unmarked.

“You must have an address,” he says. “A society that does not have a direction, you do not know where you’re going. People are not going to be able to communicate with you. Having a street address, it’s communication. If you allow other people to see you, they’d be able to see others.”

TiGeorge is also importing portable propane stoves, so that people don’t use up the vanishing supply of wood. But everything he does, from the coffee business to other projects, he knows it must be done slowly.

“I think we have too much character,” he says. “There’s no shortage there. Emotions. The ego. A guy doesn’t know where he’s gonna get the next meal, but yet he’ll stand up in a way where he would rather die of hunger. Pride is good, but then again you have to know when to use it.”

We finish our beers and say good nights. I walk out onto the porch to look at the sky. The streets are completely dark, except for the beam of a flashlight from someone walking back home.

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At the Port-a-Prince airport, waiting for a flight to Miami, TiGeorge and I check out the Haitian coffee in the gift shop. His coffee is not yet available here. His competitors’ packaging is cheap, one brand doesn’t even list an address or contact information. TiGeorge looks at this and shakes his head, as if to say, come on guys, not even a phone number?

In a sense, the Haitian coffee renaissance has already begun. Coffee is now America’s largest food import. Haiti’s product is excellent quality, and a good value compared to more expensive coffees from Jamaica and surrounding areas. Plus, the profits help support the local economy in places like TiGeorge’s base in Anse-a-Foleur.

We watch American church volunteers standing in line to check their bags. “I will always want to buy coffee only from my back door,” TiGeorge says. “That is the region I grew up, and I feel obligated to really help. And pick up where my dad left. This is something that is in my blood.” He thinks a moment. “This is something my dad would have enjoyed.”