If you are passionate about drinking the very best coffee, give Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee a try.
What is Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee?
Although other Caribbean islands grow coffee, certainly Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee is the best, and the most well-known. The name Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee is a registered trademark of Jamaica’s Coffee Industry Board. Connoisseurs characterize Jamaica Blue Mountain as a perfect combination of acidity, body and aroma. It is rich and flavorful, with no bitterness and a hint of chocolatey sweetness – a very smooth, mild coffee. Some say it is also very low in caffeine.
Blue Mountain is not a brand, but a coffee-growing region. At the Eastern end of Jamaica, the Blue Mountains form the backbone of the island and are among the highest mountains in the Caribbean, rising to 7,402 feet. To be called Jamaica Blue Mountain, the beans must be grown at altitudes between about 3,000 and 5,500 feet in the parishes of Saint Andrew, Saint Mary, Saint Thomas or Portland. Above 5,500 feet, the lushly wooded forest, which is home to over 800 species of plants and more than 200 species of birds, is maintained by the Jamaican Government as a Forest Reserve. (By the way, there are great hiking trails throughout this area.) Beans grown at lower elevations are called Jamaica Low Mountain or Jamaica High Mountain, based on elevation, and, while they may produce fine coffee, they tend to be more acidic and cannot legitimately be called Jamaican Blue Mountain.
There is usually a cool misty cloud cover hanging over the Blue Mountains and the region gets about 200 inches of rain each year. This constant mist gives the mountains a bluish hue, which is where they derive their colorful name. Combined with volcanic soil rich in potash, nitrogen and phosphorus and good drainage, it makes for an ideal coffee-growing region (think about the climatic similarities with the Hawaiian Kona coffee-growing region). This perfect combination of factors causes the beans to mature more slowly (as many as 10 months to harvest), developing more character and producing a larger, harder bean with more intense flavor. This is compared to other regions in the world where the beans mature in 5 or 6 months. Most of the coffee trees are of the Arabica Typica variety which produces delicious coffee.
Coffee is not native to Jamaica. The beans were brought to the island in 1728 by the governor at that time, Sir Nicholas Lawes, and coffee growing began as a plantation slave crop. Jamaica was able to produce such high quality beans that the industry grew quickly, resulting in more than 600 coffee plantations by 1814. After slavery was abolished, many former slaves acquired their own land and began to grow their own coffee. This caused a dramatic decline in the industry primarily due to labor shortages and, by 1850, only about 180 coffee plantations remained in operation. Revived in the 1870s, some (mostly white) plantation owners started designating their coffee as Blue Mountain to distinguish it from the beans being produced by the emancipated slaves. These estate owners had access to better processing equipment and benefitted from their connections to merchants in colonial Britain (in power at the time), so their crops could be sold at the highest prices. Their reputation for high quality caused a high demand around the world even though this Blue Mountain coffee was only a small part of Jamaica’s total production.
Jamaica’s coffee production has suffered many hardships caused by unscrupulous dealers, hurricanes and lack of organization. But in the 1950s and 1960s Japan developed a taste for their coffee, forming relationships with growers and processors, and investing in the production of the coffee crop. Today, Japan buys over 80% of the Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee crop under contract, adding to its rarity in world coffee markets.
Responding to the various problems, the Jamaican Coffee Industry Board (C.I.B.) was established in 1953 to reorganize and develop the industry, control the quality of the crop and provide assistance to farmers. Quality was once again the number one priority. The Coffee Industry Board carefully examines crops, evaluating bean size and other qualities to determine whether or not the coffee will be certified, and how to grade it. Grade One Jamaica Blue Mountain is the finest coffee. Today, there are many coffee cooperatives consisting mainly of small farmers with plots between ½ to 10 acres. Jamaica’s farmers send all their beans to designated pulperies and are paid per box by CIB. Once certified, the coffee can be sent for roasting to a CIB-licensed roaster who is also the only entity authorized to market Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee in Jamaica and around the world.
In addition to its use for brewed coffee, the beans are the flavor base of Tia Maria coffee liqueur, another delicious Jamaican product.
Because of the restricted geographical range where it’s grown, Jamaica Blue Mountain is available in limited quantities and can sometimes be difficult to find and rather expensive. Its production of about 2,000,000 pounds per year makes Jamaica a small fry in comparison to the large coffee producing countries of the world like Brazil, Columbia, Guatemala and Costa Rica. About 65% of the total production is exported, with about 95% of that going to Japan. That doesn’t leave much for the rest of us and it explains the high prices this great coffee commands!
Its coffee exports earn between $25 and $30 million a year – far less than its other exports like sugar, bauxite and rum. But Jamaica can rightfully say it produces the premier coffee of the world!