HAVANA — Liber Hernández’s family business was born of the tourists’ thirst for one of the country’s most popular cocktails: the mojito.
Next to cigars, there is no greater iconic Cuban image than the mojito. And there can be no mojito without mint, which is blended in the drink with lime, sugar, rum and ice.
Hernández’s uncle who works at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, the five-star flagship of Havana accommodations, said with more tourists landing in the island, it was becoming harder and harder for hotels, bars and restaurants to find hierbabuena — mint.
The law of supply and demand led the Hernández brothers to capitalize on the mint shortage, a concept straight out of American business schools.
Hernández, a fifth-year law student, and his brother Liuben Hernández, a mechanical engineer, started to grow the plant about 2½ years ago.
“We started with the one row in the house’s courtyard, then three,” Liber said in Spanish.
And then, as orders increased, they took over about 2 acres the family had for pasture in a farm near Bejucal, about 18 miles south of Havana. Their father, an agronomist, helped them.
They nourish the plants with water from a wheel, using a turbine. They protect the plants with material similar to a mosquito net they install above the plants with sticks so that the rain doesn’t damage the leaves.
“It’s somewhat rustic,” Liber Hernández said.
They usually cut between 8,000 and 10,000 sprigs a day on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and deliver them to Havana the next day. They price the mint at about a penny for five sprigs.
After picking thousands of sprigs by hand — with two full-time workers and, sometimes, temporary help at peak times — they clean, sort and check the sprigs for quality. The mint needs at least three to four pairs of leaves, and must be free of spots and bugs.
They soak the mint in a solution so it can last four to six days, and they package the sprigs in plastic bags where they write the name of the client. They deliver the bags using public transportation — they are repairing their 1975 Fiat 125 — or walk to tourist spots in Havana: Hotel Nacional, Floridita, La Bodeguita del Medio — where Hemingway used to enjoy mojitos — and about 30 other clients, including emerging private paladares, or private restaurants.
It’s mostly a cash business, but they pay taxes and are licensed.
And they’d like to grow their business, and make improvements for customers.
The brothers want to use nylon boxes to protect the mint when packing and distributing it, instead of using plastic bags.
Although they try to avoid chemicals as much as they can — they use organic fertilizers — they need some pesticides to fight disease, and that is not easy to find. They sometimes can get Monarca pesticide through a cooperative, but they usually have to resort to the black market, Liuben Hernández said.
Cuba’s climate is very hostile to the delicate mint plant, and the plants need to be sprayed with a chemical with an organic base that will help absorb the bacteria, Liuben Hernández said.
The brothers hope to use 33 acres of state-owned land, where they can grow more mint to meet the demand. While there is no cost for using the land, they cannot find financing for the equipment they need.
“Now more foreigners are coming, and demand is going to increase, but I keep not being able to buy supplies, equipment,” Liber Hernández said.
Liuben Hernández said before accepting a new client, they prioritize making sure they will be able to serve existing clients.
“The demand is greater than the supply,” Liber Hernández said. “There are a lot of people interested in buying mint, and we cannot sell to them.”