Best of brew — Caribbean coffee | Cookup

Coffee grown in the Caribbean is some of the world’s finest. Pricey Blue Mountain coffee from Jamaica’s high elevations is celebrated by connoisseurs — but can locals actually afford it? And what can Trinidad and Tobago’s farmers learn from Jamaica as they seek to revive their own coffee production? Franka Philip talks to the experts about the present state and future prospects for the business of coffee beans

Photo by Amenic181/Shutterstock.comCaribbean coffee exports in metric tons, 2015/16. Source: International Coffee Organisation

So many people say they can’t start their day properly until they drink a cup of strong coffee. In the Caribbean, where several countries can boast about producing world-class coffee, it should be easy to get a decent cup of joe.

Across the region, there’s been a proliferation of coffee shops offering a cuppa and free wi-fi. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, global coffee chain Starbucks has established four outlets over the last year. Add those to the many branches of the local coffee chain Rituals, and it would be easy to assume that a coffee culture is taking hold in the nation. But do those chains actually sell the best local or regional coffee?

In short, the answer is no. Starbucks sells Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee in the United States, Canada, and online. In Puerto Rico, Starbucks sells locally sourced coffee, but it’s not available in other parts of the Caribbean.

Coffee bloggers consistently rate coffee from Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Jamaica very highly. I’m not the biggest coffee drinker myself, but I’ve been introduced to a variety of coffees by connoisseur friends, and Jamaican Blue Mountain strikes me as extremely well balanced and enjoyable.

According to the World Atlas of Coffee, only “coffees grown between 900 and 1,500 metres [in elevation] in the parishes of St Andrew, St Thomas, Portland, and St Mary can be referred to as Jamaica Blue Mountain.” Jamaicans speak with great pride about their national coffee, and a leading evangelist is Norman Grant, managing director and CEO of the Mavis Bank Coffee Factory. Grant is known as “Dr Coffee”, and he has over thirty-five years’ experience in the business. He is internationally certified and has worked at every level in Mavis Bank. After speaking with Grant and listening to his interviews online, it’s clear that maintaining quality — from the bean to the cup — is central to their success.

“Our farmers take care of their crops. Quality is what has allowed Jamaica coffee to be at the top,” Grant tells me. In an online interview, he explains that farmers are encouraged to get the coffee to the factory within six hours of picking, and the processing begins almost immediately. Another fundamental element is managing pests and diseases.

“Our bean, the arabica typica, allows certain characteristics to come out, but at the same time it is susceptible to certain diseases,” he explains. “The Jamaica Coffee Board does research to ensure that the nutrition element is good and that we’re fertilising in a timely fashion — part of quality and healthy coffee is to ensure the plant is being fed right.”

Mavis Bank produces the Jablum brand, most of which is exported to places like Japan, the US, and Europe (you can also buy it at the airport in Kingston). Jablum has exclusive deals with high-end outlets like Harvey Nichols in London. In Japan, a cup of the coffee can retail for US$8 a cup. Ironically, this means the average Jamaican can’t afford their own premium coffee. And, according to the Global Voices website, Jamaicans drink a lot of tea and (gasp!) imported coffee.

In this industry that brings in up to US$35 million a year for Jamaica, the farmers and producers are well rewarded. “Our coffee has always been in high demand. The supply has lingered behind the demand, and has helped to keep prices robust,’ Grant says. “The prices fluctuate, but our prices are substantially higher than what others get.”

 

Things are not as rosy at the other end of the Caribbean, where the Trinidad and Tobago coffee industry is in decline. Some of the factors contributing to this are high labour costs, farm inefficiency, ageing farmers, and the inability of the sector to attract young people. This is in contrast to the cocoa industry, which is battling against similar odds but enjoying something of a renaissance. While T&T’s cocoa has a history of excellence, and is used by the world’s leading chocolate makers, it’s not the same for the country’s coffee.

“The local coffee industry is practically dead,” says lifelong coffee farmer Sham Rampersad. “The prices that were paid to the farmers by the Cocoa and Coffee Industry Board over recent years were not viable for the investments made by the farmers to upkeep this long-term business venture.”

Rampersad’s grandparents owned cocoa and coffee estates, and his parents were buying agents for the national coffee board for many years. These familial bonds have engendered his love and passion for cocoa and coffee, he explains. The south Trinidad farmer belongs to the Cocoa and Coffee Marketing Co-operative Society Ltd (CCMCSL), an organisation that seeks the interests of cocoa and coffee producers.

“The volume of coffee beans purchased is declining rapidly. To increase production, the stigma of being a farmer has to change,” Rampersad says. “[We need] an education drive to show a successful business model. That has to capture the youthful entrepreneurs with the objective of showing that cocoa and coffee farming is a business that could change the community in which you live.”

Trinidad’s coffee isn’t awful, but it’s definitely not as well balanced as Jamaican Blue Mountain. However, many locals swear by long-established brands like Hong Wing and Chief, and are comforted by the familiarity of the taste.

“Our coffee beans are called robusta, whereas the Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee beans are arabica,” Rampersad says. “Both are different in planting material, taste, and price. As the name says, our variety is a more robust plant, and a taste which all locals have grown accustomed to.”

Robusta beans have a higher caffeine content, and this means the coffee they produce is more bitter. One way to counteract this is to pay more attention to the roasting process. This is the belief of Hanson Harribans, who along with his wife Shalimar is behind the Trinidad-based online artisan coffee retailer Roastel.

In an interview with a local newspaper, Harribans explained that it’s difficult to get an even roast from robusta beans, and most local roasters tend to burn the bean in the process. But “you could apply a modern approach to it, a different roast profile, and combine that with different ways of brewing the coffee, and you could acquire a really nice taste from the robusta,” he says.

Like Sham Rampersad, Harribans and his wife are from coffee families. He acknowledges the difficulties facing the coffee sector, and says they have used creative strategies to come up with a premium product. It seems to be working. More T&T restaurants and small coffee shops are stocking Roastel coffee. Their Harmony blend, a mix of local and imported beans introduced in 2016, has been well received.

“We have achieved tremendous range with this flavour profile by delicately contrasting a lightly roasted Peruvian bean with a dark roasted Rio Claro robusta,” Harribans says on his blog Coffee Corner. “With the aim of using as much local content as we can, we’re moving full steam ahead in our journey to provide fresh, premium coffee and to create a new-wave coffee culture in our lovely T&T.”

Bringing the coffee sector back to life is the mission for Rampersad and his colleagues in the CCMCSL. They are working with T&T’s Ministry of Labour to establish small co-operatives in coffee-growing areas. The CCMCSL has streamlined the method of coffee processing and packaging, and they are finding markets in which to sell the coffee on behalf of the farmers. “We can help them develop the value-added products, and it is our aim to eventually provide all the hotels and guest houses with ground coffee,” says Rampersad. “This is a much better way of operating, because the farmers in their own co-operatives will get a better price for their coffee.”

These forward-looking approaches to revitalising the coffee industry are a good place to start if Trinidad coffee is eventually going to be a player on the world stage.