The bitter-sweet story of Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee – Anton Greenfield

The final leg of our long flight from Melbourne saw us cruising over the Caribbean Sea from Miami to Kingston, Jamaica. A bank of cloud marks the island’s position from afar. These clouds are formed as warm north winds blow across the sea from Cuba and the moisture laden air rises over the steep landscape of Jamaica. Condensation occurs, enveloping the rugged peaks in a mist that contributes to the ideal coffee growing conditions of Jamaica Blue Mountains.

Despite jetlag and lack of sleep, we embarked on our safari up the Blue Mountains immediately. Our appointment at the Mavis Bank Coffee Factory was at 2.30pm. The climb up the mountain in a Land Rover took longer than expected. The driver had to negotiate between potholes, goats, pedestrians and oncoming traffic on a winding track that was barely wide enough for one vehicle, let alone two! And thus we ran late for our appointment, but fortunately the island operates on ‘Jamaica time’…Jamaica no problem.

Mavis Bank Coffee factory is fascinating. Nestled in a tropical valley with the backdrop of the Blue Mountains, and vibrantly painted in various hues of blue, the factory is a monument to the world’s most expensive coffee. Antiquated equipment and modern machinery operate side by side, while teams of ladies meticulously sort and pack by hand. The expansive concrete coffee-drying patio dubbed the ‘Bar-b-que’ is hallowed ground, awaiting the next batch of coffee cherries. Streams of workers avoid walking on the Bar-b-que as they leave the factory, filing through security and disappearing along a multitude of mountain paths.

As the sun started to sink in the Caribbean sky, we continued our journey up the mountain track. Winding up the southern slopes we finally reached the misty regions that produce some the world’s finest coffee. Being late in the afternoon, we encountered farmers waiting in brightly coloured huts beside the roadside with their day’s pickings in sacks by their feet. These farmers have spent the day picking coffee cherries, generally sliding down the mountainside from tree to tree on the seat of their pants. Now they await a small 4×4 vehicle that does the rounds, collecting these small parcels of coffee and paying the farmer cash for their daily toil.

It was fantastic to get our hands on some of these famous cherries, splitting the red skins to reveal green slimy, parchment contained therein. Super-friendly farmers, the stunning setting of the Blue Mountains and coffee cherries in the hand was my personal euphoria!

Jamaica has around 10,000 farmers growing coffee, including Blue Mountain Coffee and what is generally called “High Mountain Coffee” outside the area denominated as the Jamaican Blue Mountain growing area. Mavis Bank alone purchases from 6,000 small farmers who are growing Blue Mountain Coffee. The average farmer is producing about 166 lbs of green coffee per year. Since each tree produces one to two pounds of green coffee, then each farmer has between 83 to166 trees each. Since over 600 trees can grow on an acre these farms are quite small.

Blue Mountain coffee cherries are sold by the “box” to the larger processors. Each box is 60 pounds of coffee cherries which will be processed into about 12 pounds of green coffee. Those 12 pounds of green coffee, once roasted, will yield about 9.6 pounds of coffee. A 60 pound box of coffee cherries would be bought from the farmer for about $87US. If each farmer produces 166 lbs green coffee per year that equates to 830 lbs coffee cherries. At $87/60lbs, we might assume the annual wage of a Jamaican coffee farmer is about $1203.50…

Coffee crops in the Blue Mountains have been hit recently with coffee bora, leaf rust and drought. These issues have reduced production, driving prices of this sought-after coffee higher than ever. Traditionally the government of Jamaica has stepped in to support the coffee industry through times of trouble, as this sector employs about 120 000 people, making it a significant contributor to the country’s economy. Another reason for the government’s involvement in Blue Mountain Coffee is that the beverage acts as an “ambassador” for Jamaica based on the fame of Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee in the world. It is a small percentage of international coffee sales, but is the one of the world’s most expensive coffees, recognized for its nuanced flavours, balance and lack of bitterness.