Coffees from the Americas : Jamaica

The central Blue Mountains of Jamaica are an extraordinary landscape. The higher reaches are in almost perpetual fog, to which the tropical sun gives an otherworldly internal glow, as though the light itself has come down to settle among the trees. The fog slows the development of the coffee, producing a denser bean than the relatively modest growing elevations (3,000 to 4,000 feet) might produce elsewhere. Coffee grown in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica is the world’s most celebrated, most expensive, and most controversial origin.

Jamaica Blue Mountain has been an admired coffee since at least the early 19th century, when for a brief time Jamaica led the world in coffee production. After World War II the British colonial government, alarmed that undisciplined production was on the verge of ruining the Blue Mountain reputation, instituted a rigorous program of regulation and quality control under leadership of the newly established Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica. After Jamaica achieved its independence from Britain, the new Jamaican government continued that coffee policy, requiring that all Blue Mountain be wet-processed at government sanctioned mills and dried, dry-milled, cleaned, and graded at centralized facilities.

Volume Increases, Quality Decreases. In the mid-1970s, when I first tasted Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee from a mill that exported a famous mark called Wallensford Estate, it was indeed a splendid coffee: without drama, perhaps, but extraordinarily rich, balanced, resonant and complete. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, the Coffee Industry Board began investing in Jamaica Blue Mountain with money provided by Japanese interests. New mills were constructed that use a short-cut version of the wet-processing method called aquapulping or mechanical demucilaging, and volume increased dramatically while quality decreased despite the Coffee Industry Board’s efforts to maintain it.

The famous Wallensford mark now has become close to meaningless: It simply describes coffee wet-processed at a mill that pretty much resembles all of the other government mills. (True, the Wallensford mill is located in the central part of the Blue Mountains, which may give its coffees a slight edge in altitude over coffees produced by some of the other mills.) Most Blue Mountain coffees now are a decent to mildly impressive version of the Caribbean taste profile: fairly rich, soft, with an understated acidity that is sometimes gently vibrant, other times barely sufficient to lift the cup from listlessness.

Blue Mountain Estate Coffees. A prolonged recession in Japan (Japan supported Jamaica coffee prices by buying Blue Mountain heavily) and a general, worldwide plunge in coffee prices has the Jamaica Blue Mountain industry in trouble. At the same time, the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica has embarked on an unprecedented experiment by allowing several farmers to wet-process their Blue Mountain on their farms and export their coffees as separate and distinct estate coffees, rather than as generic Blue Mountain. These new estate Blue Mountains include Alex Twyman’s Old Tavern Estate, and the RSW Estates, a group of three family-owned farms that wet-process their coffees at a common mill. All of these estate coffees are processed using the traditional ferment-and-wash technique, rather than the mechanical demucilage method used to process generic Blue Mountain.

I do not have sufficient experience with RSW Estates to evaluate its coffees. However, I am very familiar with Alex Twyman’s Old Tavern Estate Jamaica Blue Mountain, and can vouch that it often approaches the original Wallensford Blue Mountain in its combination of gentleness and deep, vibrant power. However, Old Tavern currently suffers from inconsistency: A slight, almost undetectable hardness sometimes haunts its bouillon-like richness. Time will tell whether Old Tavern becomes a consistently exceptional coffee, and whether it, the RSW Estate coffees, and more vigorous leadership from Jamaica coffee officials can help lead the Jamaica Blue Mountain industry generally out of its quality doldrums.

Jamaica Blue Mountain’s fame and high prices have encouraged the usual deceptive blender creativity: Blue Mountain Blends that contain very little actual Blue Mountain, or Blue Mountain "Style" blends that contain no Blue Mountain whatsoever. These coffees may be excellent, but they are not Blue Mountain.