A Kiwi in Cuba: Q&A with Geoff Marsland / by Rachel Eva Lim

Coffee has been an essential part of New Zealander Geoff Marsland's life for the past two decades. His Wellington-based roasting company, Havana Coffee Works, has been importing green coffee from Cuba since 1997 and remains the only Kiwi organization to do so. After a fateful visit to a cafe in Vancouver, Canada, nearly three decades ago, Marsland was inspired to create a coffee-centric community hub back home. Together with his business partner, Tim Rose, Marsland founded Havana Midnight Espresso—cheekily named for its Cuba Street location—in Wellington in 1988, and followed it with another cafe, Havana Deluxe, three months later. To keep up with the coffee demand of their two businesses, ensure the quality of their beans, and live up to their establishments' names, Marsland and Rose decided to enter the roasting market by opening Havana Coffee Works and sourcing a significant amount of their beans from Cuba.

Though Marsland and Rose's first trip to Havana coincided with a grim recession triggered by Russia's economic withdrawal from the country, the pair was able to forge a lasting relationship with the Cuban government. Today, they import around six shipping containers full of green coffee each year. The beans, transported to New Zealand on a three month journey via the Panama canal, are then roasted locally using a modified Petrocini hot air coffee roaster. Here, Marsland talks about why Cuban coffee is worth the trouble, how selling tie-dye on tour with the Grateful Dead helped shape his coffee future, and what it's like to share a cup of joe with Cuban officials.

What were your experiences with coffee like before you started Havana Coffee Works?

It all started with spending a season selling tie-dye on tour with the Grateful Dead in 1987. I used to sell my tie-dye in London and people on the street would tell me that the Grateful Dead would love my stuff—so I took my big bag of tie-dye to Los Angeles, bought a huge yank tank [slang for a 1950s or 1960s American car], found out where the Grateful Dead were and ended up traveling along the West Coast with them. They were playing with people like Jimmy Cliff, Robert Cray, and Bob Dylan, and there were about 25 tie-dye stores that traveled with them. I used to call myself Nuclear Free Clothing and my tie-dye was totally unique; people really loved it, so it ended up being a really successful trip.

After the tour ended I went to Vancouver where I visited a little coffee shop called Joe’s Café on Commercial Drive. I hung out there, just drinking coffee and eating donuts with all sorts of different people. I absolutely loved it, and I thought, “I’m going to go back and do this in New Zealand!” I bought a coffee machine right there and then, shipped it home with my mate and told all my friends I was going to open a coffee shop. So, in 1988, Tim and I opened Havana Midnight Espresso in the middle of Cuba Street, which I later found out was named after a ship called Cuba that used to bring coffee to New Zealand in the 1840s. 

Why did you start importing Cuban coffee beans into New Zealand?

Now that we had our own coffee roaster I thought, “Shit, I’m gonna go and find the best coffee in the world.” So, in 1991, I jumped on a plane and went to Jamaica. The coffee was so expensive. Then I realized Cuba was right next door. So, I wrote to the Cubans and Tim and I flew to Havana in 1997, which was when we imported our first container of Cuban coffee. We were young, only in our twenties, when we first visited Havana, and it was such an amazing place where it’s so easy to just get caught up in the romance of the city itself. It felt like going to the moon.

What do you love about Cuban coffee?

I’ve been working in coffee for 26 years and I think that, to put it in simple terms, coffee is like the place it comes from. Indonesian coffee is very gnarly and Cuban coffee is like the music, rum, and cigars. It’s, ooh la la!—absolutely delicious. 

There are roughly three different growing areas and about four or five grades of Cuban coffee. The highest one is called Crystal Mountain, which is just a step below Jamaican Blue Mountain. The Japanese buy almost all the Crystal Mountain, but I manage to snag a little bit of it. Then there’s Extra Turquino Lavado, then Lavado, then Super Serrano, which are all from different regions. I’ve been able to taste each of them, and they’re all just beautiful. 

Can you talk a little about the logistics of importing coffee from Cuba to New Zealand?

In New Zealand, we’ve never had any trade restrictions with Cuba, but the Americans have given us lots of problems. They’ve said that we’re trading with the enemy or that we’re terrorists, and our money’s gone missing multiple times. So it’s been a real problem getting our payments through to the Cubans because the Americans would freeze our money transfers, which meant that our shipments would miss the boat to New Zealand. The Cubans themselves have been amazing to deal with, but the Americans have made it very difficult.

How have your interactions been like with the Cuban government?

The Cuban government has been absolutely wonderful. When we first went to Havana we brought along suitcases full of foreign coffee to show them to prove that we were legit. But we initially had it all confiscated at the airport and had to explain who we were, where New Zealand was and what we were doing. Once the government officials found out what we had, they rushed over to the airport because they’d never experienced high quality coffee from places other than Cuba before. So we took our coffee to their government department in Havana that has these massive marble floors, big boardroom tables and huge photos of Che Guevara everywhere. They have a room where they work with their exporters, so we went inside, sat at a cupping table with them and watched them sample the Columbian, Kenyan, and Ethopian coffee we’d brought. Gathering like that with these government guys in their sixties who’ve lived in Cuba and worked in coffee their entire lives was just a magical experience. And when Tim and I finally got to taste the Cuban coffee they had we were like, “Oh, we’ve won the lottery!”

What have you learned about the industry over the years?

The Cuban coffee growing industry is pretty closed. It isn’t somewhere like Columbia where you can come as a tourist and just visit the plantations and stuff. In Cuba, it’s not like that. They don’t let you go into the processing plants. They’re lovely people and everything, but it’s still a pretty closed economy and their system is very old-school.

What's your relationship like with the farmers, then?

The best part of all this has just been the really human experience of interacting with them, especially back in the early days. When we started importing coffee in the ‘90s there were very few people going to the plantations and interacting with the coffee growers. Now every man and his dog goes to visit the origins and buys a suitcase of coffee—that’s how you get to call yourself a coffee importer—but back then it was really rare for a coffee farmer to meet the end user. It was a wonderful experience for us to go to Cuba, to be able to talk to these people about New Zealand, to bring toys for their kids and to have the opportunity to sit around with people from different cultures and generations, playing music and eating together after a long day of harvesting coffee. It was just such a pinch-yourself experience. 

Knowing what you know about Cuba, what do you see for the future?

There’s already a coffee shortage in Cuba. Plus, there’s a lack of money and a bad economy that’s compounded by the fact that everything is run through the government departments. The Cubans haven’t had enough money to put any nutrients back into the soil or to keep investing in the plantations. It’s definitely a worry for me. I’ve already had other people in America contacting me, trying to bypass the trade restrictions by buying Cuban coffee from me. I’m worried that the Americans are gonna be trying to get all our coffee! But I’m also hoping that the Cubans remember the people, like us, who’ve been with them since the early days.

As first published in Volume 3: Havana of Drift