Blue Mountain Coffee: Jamaica’s Treasure Brew

One of the world's most luxurious products is produced right here in the Caribbean. Robert Beers looks at the market for Jamaica's famous Blue Mountain coffee

Illustration by Russel HalfhidePhotograph courtesy the Jamaica Tourist Board

Think old black and white movies, men in fedoras, women in seamed stockings. They glide into café booths and toss down pennies for gulps of coffee, always served in cups and saucers, calling it java, or “Joe”. That was coffee then.

Coffee now, well . . . the dress is anything from Armani to Nike, you plop down on an overstuffed chesterfield, and are relieved of a tidy sum for a mug of latte, or a cappuccino. Today’s era of specialty coffees has turned the bean industry into a beverage business.

Jamaican coffee, considered among the world’s best and at the top of the high-end market, was perfectly positioned for these pricey days, when coffee houses, designed like posh living-rooms, dominate coffeedom.

But the world of coffee, like many other worlds, changed dramatically on September 11. The New York Coffee Exchange, the largest in the western hemisphere, located in the World Trade Centre, was lost, along with so many thousands of innocent lives.

For several years before, the price of raw coffee had itself been under attack, leading to a market free-fall. Back in 1997, it hit a high of three dollars a pound, but recently it dropped below 50 cents a pound, a victim of over-supply.

The weather in South America has been ideal for some time. Brazil, the biggest producer in the world, anticipated a bumper crop last year. Vietnam is entering the market in a big way; once a small producer, it is now capable of a harvest equal to about one-quarter of Brazil’s. Too much coffee for sale around the globe means decreasing prices for growers.

However, it has not meant a big reduction in prices at the grocery or in coffee shops — on the shop shelf, prices have dropped only slightly, and in “latte-land,” prices are actually increasing.

“The customer pays for the rent and the ambience — all the overstuffed chairs cost a lot more than the coffee,” says Grace Bush, manager of an Atlanta coffee lounge.

And one kind of coffee costs a lot more than all the others. Jamaican Blue Mountain is 24-karat coffee. Prices sampled in Miami and Toronto run up to US $40 a pound.

It does not trade on any exchange, and the small volume is always outstripped by high demand.

The Jamaican Coffee Board says the nation’s famous brew is distinctive because of “appearance (big, bold, bluish-green beans) and taste — aromatic, mild acidity, clean (no extraneous taste or smell), sweetish and good body.”

The board is proud that Jamaica’s coffee is grown with a “reduction in the quality and type of pesticides” used, minimising environmental contamination.

Coffee of this price and quality overseas has few competitors, making it a niche brand that goes head-to-head with only Kona from Hawaii, Emerald Mountain from Columbia, and Africa’s Kenya AA.

Yet if you want to stop at a coffee emporium for a mug of Blue Mountain, you may need to travel to a traditionally tea-drinking land where premium products are prized, and things associated with leisure-class wealth are always en vogue, for it is in Japan that 85 per cent of Jamaica’s coffee finds a home.

In the late 1940s, with US soldiers requesting “java” all over occupied Japan, coffee drinking became a fad among the Japanese. “American blend” was the Japanese name for the weak-tasting cup favoured by the GIs, quite bland to a nation that prefers the piquant flavour of spice. In their search for a better blend, the Japanese discovered Jamaica’s superior coffee some 50 years ago.

Only 10 per cent of coffee’s Cadillac ends up in the US, and only five per cent is drunk in Europe and the Caribbean. The rest crosses the Pacific to Japan, where even that dull American blend costs US$3.50 a cup, and Blue Mountain can fetch US$25 for a single mug.

There is an alternative: fly BWIA to Jamaica. Not only will you find the world’s best blend virtually everywhere coffee is served, but the bill will feature black-and-white-era movie prices.

For example, Burger King in Jamaica proudly advertises it serves only Blue Mountain. The price is US 80 cents per cup. For around a dollar, there are many fancier places where the rich brew is served Jamaican-style, individually filtered at your table.

Coffee Industries Ltd. has outlets at locations around the island, including the two international airports, and its coffee houses are perhaps the only source of tins of decaffeinated Blue Mountain.

There’s also a variety of plantation tours offered by various estates located along the slopes of the Blue Mountains in eastern Jamaica.

So one of the world’s most expensive commodities is also one of Jamaica’s greatest bargains. Perhaps not reason enough by itself to plan a visit, but when you factor in the island’s lush terrain, world-class hotels and picturesque inns, and the first spot south of North America where a warm day on a lovely beach is guaranteed, Jamaica is always well worth the trip.