Date: July 2007

Column/Title: Caribbean Coffees 2007: Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Dominican Republic

Author: Kenneth Davids

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This year's review of coffees from the islands of the Caribbean is notable as much for what isn't here as for what is. Samples of Caribbean coffees were hard to come by this year, even from Jamaica's famous Blue Mountains. And only the tiniest smattering of offerings turned up from Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. This despite all of these islands' long and distinguished coffee histories and their engaging coffee stories: the glamorous reputation of Blue Mountain; the grown-in-America appeal of Puerto Rico; the coffee-centered efforts to help Haitians, the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere.

Those Caribbean coffees we did turn up, with a couple of exceptions, tended to be predictably (and appropriately) low in acidity but surprisingly light in body and limited in aromatic range and complexity. By aromatic complexity I mean the little whiffs and tickles of floral- and fruit-based notes that expand the range of sensation in cup and aroma. The most common aromatic note in these coffees was a pleasant cocoa-toned chocolate, which is one guise that fruit notes can take in coffee under the impact of processing or roast. But too often, a variant on this note was the only intrigue in an otherwise simple cup.

With one of these coffees, the Wallenford Blue Jamaican Blue Mountain (91), I felt that single note was all that was needed because it was a pure and complexly nuanced note, supported by a delicately balanced structure of fundamental taste and texture. In other cases, like the Old Tavern Estate Jamaica Blue Mountain Medium Roast (89), the superb chocolate-toned aromatics were splendid in the nose but faded in the cup. Martinez Fine Coffee, the company founded by the great Jamaican coffee man John Martinez, sent several Jamaican coffees, all beautifully packaged and impeccably clean in character (two are reviewed here at 87), but all a bit short on intensity and complexity.

The one Haiti coffee that turned up, the Haitian Bleu from Coffee Masters (87), was similarly limited but quite pleasant in character, a good value compared to the expensive Blue Mountain coffees, and a worthy choice for those who want to support the struggling Haitian coffee industry.

The three Puerto Rico coffees that we cupped all were marred to some degree by musty or mildewed notes (a taint usually caused by rain- or moisture-interrupted drying). The best of the three, the SpecialtyJava.com Yauco Selecto (85), was otherwise sweet and sound enough to turn the mild musty notes toward the rough maltiness that many coffee drinkers find attractive in traditional Sumatra coffees.

Why so relatively few Caribbean coffees available in the North American market, and why so few displaying clear quality and distinction?

From an aficionado's perspective, Caribbean coffees never were particularly startling in their character, tending toward a low-key, syrupy richness and balance rather than complex aromatic fireworks. And in the case of Blue Mountain Jamaicas the high prices asked for such low-key richness never made much sense from a pure dollars-to-distinction perspective.

Nevertheless, the 2006/07 versions of these coffees, as represented by the twenty-five or so we sampled this month, seemed particularly underpowered and aromatically simple.

I know that climate change owing to global warming is regularly cited as a prime suspect in an increasing menu of the world's ills, but in the big picture it also may be a background reason for the declining number and quality of Caribbean offerings in North American specialty. Hurricanes and tropical storms have increased in frequency and intensity in the Atlantic. And Caribbean growing regions, owing to their inevitable proximity to the ocean, are particularly vulnerable to such catastrophes. Tropical storms and hurricanes are often devastating knock-out punches to coffee growing regions that take years from which to recover, years during which other regions with less severe weather crises (all growers face them) continue to sell coffee and grow market share. Hurricane Ivan devastated Jamaica in 2004, and Alex Twyman of Old Tavern Estate in Jamaica reports that his trees are only now beginning to produce coffee of pre-Ivan quality. And, although we can't blame global warming, the history of coffee growing in Puerto Rico is a long tale of cyclical recoveries from repeated hurricane devastations.

Compounding the storm problem is the specialty coffee world's understandable tendency to give up on coffees that are both sporadic in availability and expensive in favor of origins that are consistently available at better prices. Jamaica Blue Mountain, of course, is one of the world's most expensive coffees and Puerto Rico coffee, owing to relatively high labor costs, is also quite expensive. No Caribbean coffee, to my knowledge, is a bargain. So buyers for roasting companies quietly pass them by for the more plentiful, often more distinctive and usually less expensive coffees from Central America, East Africa and Indonesia.

Caribbean producers sometimes compensate for the loss of buyers for their green coffee by roasting and packaging their coffees themselves, usually for the local market, including the tourist market. This may work for the tourist market, but can be a problem when these same coffees, frequently very simply packaged, are air shipped to be sold in the United States or Canada. Unless they are roasted and shipped on demand, these coffees, in their technically limited packaging, may be half stale by the time they reach their North American consumers. This appeared to be the problem with some of the Caribbean coffees that we sampled but did not review here, including the only two samples we received from the Dominican Republic.

What I fear is that the apparent fall-off in production and quality in the Caribbean is simply the canary in the coal mine in regard to the general impact of climate change on coffee growing worldwide. Changes of this kind are difficult to read year by year because they are obscured by the complicating temporary factors that impact production and quality in any given growing region. But I suspect we will begin to register such changes over the long haul, perhaps benefiting some growing regions but definitely hurting others.

Hopefully, however, I'm wrong about the impact of global warming, hurricanes will spare the coffee growers of the Caribbean, and we will see a re-emergence of the richly complex, deeply sweet coffees for which this region is famous.

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