Coffee is not indigenous to Jamaica; rather, its origin is in the Middle Eastern country of Yemen. Legend has it that, in 1723, French King Louis XV sent three plants to the French-owned island of Martinique. Only one plant survived the crossing. Mysteriously, this plant wound up in Jamaica, thus beginning an important industry.
Today, some of Jamaican coffee is among the most sought-after in the world. The most highly prized (and expensive) is so-called Blue Mountain coffee. Why can it cost as much as $50 a pound in the U.S.? Coffee aficionados will tell you: Its aroma, mellow, sweet, full-bodied taste, combined with a naturally lower caffeine content than ordinary coffee, explains why. Jamaican coffee comes from the Arabica bean—which is more fragile and flavorful than Robusta beans produced in much of the rest of the coffee plantations of Southern and Central America. One of Blue Mountain’s biggest fans was Ian Fleming (who lived on the island for part of his life), the author of the famous James Bond series. In the boon, Live and Let Die, special agent 007 declared: “Blue Mountain coffee, the most delicious in the world.” Enough said.
What makes Blue Mountain coffee so unique and expensive? The answer lies in a combination of factors which relate to geography, climate and preparation. Blue Mountain coffee is only grown in the Blue Mountain Region of the island. This area comprises only a small fraction of the country’s total land surface. Only 30,000 acres of land is devoted to any form of coffee production and, of these, only 9,000 acres are officially classified as Blue Mountain. These 9,000 acres are between Kingston and Port Antonio and only coffee grown and processed by 4 estates (Mavis Bank, Silver Hill, Moy Hall and Government Station at Wallenford) can legally be certified and sold as 100 percent Blue Mountain coffee. In 1973 the government established 3 other grades of coffee: Blended Blue Mountain (containing a minimum of 20 percent Blue Mountain), High Mountain Blend, and Low-Land coffee.
In order to be designated in any way as a Blue Mountain product, the coffee must be grown above 2,000 foot elevations. While soil composition is a factor influencing the taste of the product, 3 other ingredients significantly affect the end result: time, altitude and preparation.
When it comes to creating the best taste, growers allow the seeds to germinate from one to two years. During that time the plant develops two root systems. When the germination period ends (like tree seedlings in the U.S.), one of the root systems is removed and a permanent planting transpires. Without the second root system, the growth of the tree proceeds slowly. Five years then elapses before the beans or cherries (because of their red color) as they are properly called are ready to harvest. At picking time, the gathering is done manually – which adds to the cost of the product, even in spite of the country’s low wage scale. The trees are periodically pruned to keep their height at levels reachable by hand.
Other factors which distinguish Blue Mountain coffee from its lowland cousins are altitude, temperature and moisture. The higher the elevation the better. Why? Because coffee plants thrive best in an average temperature of 70 degrees. At such heights, the high mountain mists keep the plants and the soil damp year around. Almost a year is necessary to produce a new crop. Time thus allows for high-yields, full-flavor and optimum acidity.
In recent years, the Jamaican coffee industry has suffered setbacks. The first came in 1989 when hurricane Gilbert hit the island and destroyed nearly three-quarters of the fields and factories. The second reversal, which is currently still in evidence, relates to disease. In order to stop the spread of the disease, it was necessary to destroy large numbers of plants. This, obviously, has an impact on price.