Blue Mountain Coffee Is One of Jamaica's Greatest Treasures
Alton Garfield Bedward, aka Junior, is a 37-year-old Jamaican entrepreneur specializing in the island's famous Blue Mountain coffee. Junior, as he likes to be called, was born with this liquid gold — one of the world's rarest and most expensive coffees — in his blood. He grew up in the Blue Mountains, raised by parents who are coffee farmers, so it was inevitable that coffee would be a big part of his life one way or another.
As a boy, he took a summer job at Craighton House Coffee Estate in Irish Town, a major Blue Mountain producer, and he impressed his bosses so much that he was offered an opportunity to continue there when he entered the workforce fulltime. He has been with them ever since, earning degrees in marketing and business administration and a diploma in tourism and hospitality along the way.
Craighton Estate has an interesting history. The house itself was built in 1765 by a man of Scottish and Italian descent, but not much else is known about its early days. In 1805, it was acquired by George Craighton, who built the estate around the house and renamed it Craighton Hall. After Craighton left Jamaica, the property was acquired by the government and used as a second residence for several successive governors of the island. It had numerous owners and tenants throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, among them, a team of American lawyers who, according to Junior, re-introduced coffee to Craighton on a much larger scale than it had previously been grown.
In 1981, Craighton Estate was purchased by UCC Ueshima Coffee Company Ltd., a Japanese enterprise founded by the late Tadao Ueshima. UCC still owns the property.
It is a working estate that has expanded over time and now covers about 83 acres, about 60 of them planted to coffee. Two single-origin brands are produced, Rose Hill Estate and Craighton Estate. These are the first coffee plantations in the Caribbean to receive Rainforest Alliance certification.
It's not surprising that Craighton Estate is in Japanese hands, since the Japanese love Blue Mountain coffee. Some 85 percent of Jamaica’s coffee is exported, with about 70 percent of the total going to Japan. It was once as much as 95 percent, says Junior, but the European and the North American markets have grown over time.
"As early as 1953, we started trade with Japan in coffee," he says. "Mr. Ueshima would have been at the forefront of that. Normally there would have been agents in London, and the coffee would go to London, and then be sold to the Japanese market. And then in 1958, we started direct trade, based on the fact that we could produce a quality coffee. And the quality of Blue Mountain coffee it would have befitted the Japanese diet, as they are very keen in terms of what they eat, and what they drink — whatever they consume."
Not all Jamaican coffee is Blue Mountain. "We produce three distinct categories of coffee across the island," Junior explains. "It is generally categorised by altitude and location, which are factors that affect the actual development of the characteristics of a coffee. The coffee grown below 2,000 feet locally is classified as Jamaica Prime Washed. Over 2,000 feet, you have Jamaican High Mountain Spray." True Blue Mountain comes from the range of that name, "a geographic region," says Junior, "that spans the eastern parish of St. Andrews, as well as St. Thomas and Portland in general, and a very small section of St Mary."
Coffee harvesting in Jamaica runs from August to June, but on the estate it usually takes place between September and January. The washed method is employed here. Only red cherries are harvested, by hand, then placed in water. The bad cherries (called floats) are removed, then the cherries go to the wet mill for de-pulping. The wet parchment beans are then dried in the sun for two weeks on flat concrete surfaces called barbecues, then stored for three to four months. When they reach the right moisture level, they are de-hulled or de-husked using a dry mill.
The green beans are then selected and graded using international standards of quality, then exported or roasted locally. (The husks are taken to chicken farmers, whose chickens will litter in this material; after it breaks down, it’s returned to the estate as chicken manure — which provides 70 percent of the nitrogen that coffee plants need.)
What does Blue Mountain coffee taste like? As Junior puts it, "The cup of coffee should never be sour. That’s key. The bitter oils in this coffee are identical to those found in the cacao beans used in chocolate, so it is a mild bitterness. The cup is naturally sweet, so you should be able to drink Blue Mountain coffee without adding a sweetener. Blue Mountain is alkali and not acidic. It is full-bodied, very strong in flavour. The texture is smooth, it has a distinct fragrance and aroma, and it is non-volatile — if you decide to drink 10 cups of Blue Mountain, there is no ready reaction to your cardiac nor your nervous system."
Though chains like Café Blue, serving Blue Mountain coffee, are popping up, Jamaicans are not generally drinking their own home-grown java. Junior says that there is a lot of instant coffee in Jamaica now, which the locals are buying because it is cheap. They also like "pop coffee." As he explains it, people are more interested in "the modernity" — so they've largely given up the traditional Jamaican way of brewing coffee, a kind of filter method which involves putting the grounds into a cotton bag and immersing it in hot water. Instead, says Junior, "We have adapted the Starbucks way, which is frappé, cappuccino, Mochachino, and then everyone thinks that they are a barista, because they can put coffee through a machine."
Coffee in Jamaica has also often taken a back seat to tea. The Jamaican coffee industry traces its origins to 1728, when half a dozen arabica plants were introduced to the island. Coffee was first exported from the island, primarily to the U.K., around 1737. By 1814, Jamaica had reached its peak production of about 34 million pounds (it's less than half that today), and Blue Mountain had become known as "the coffee of kings and queens" and "the king of all coffee."
Social conditions in the U.K. changed all this. As Junior explains it, "By the early 1800s, there was a move to propel tea as a drink that had more aristocratic collateral. It was more proper. It was a more conservative beverage, while coffee was this drink that was untamed and uncontrolled, and had a history of these eccentrics, these rebels, these persons that were against the status quo. [The coffee houses of the era were notorious hotbeds of revolutionary fervor.] By the 1840s, Britain had suppressed their coffee culture, and where continental Europe said ‘coffee,’ Britain said ‘tea.’ When Britain said 'no more coffee,' Jamaica could not produce what it could not trade, so all of the planters of coffee moved from Jamaica, and huge estates across the island were left to become woodland. That basically saw the decline in Jamaica’s industry for over 100 years."
By the time the industry began to rebound, in the 1940s, tea had long since become the preferred hot beverage in Jamaica, to the point that even when people did drink coffee, they called it 'tea.' "Tea is more a noun, a broad noun, a collective noun," says Junior. "Everything is tea."
When he was a child, he recalls, actual coffee was "nullified" in Jamaican life. "There was an aura about coffee," he says. "If you drink coffee, you won't learn, and stuff like that. Drinking it was sort of like a guilty pleasure."
Today, says Junior, coffee has become more than just a beverage. "Coffee is a drink of the world," he says. "If you want to know how a market is growing, look at their coffee consumption. If you want to know if a city is doing well, look at its coffee consumption — look at how many coffee houses it has, against bars and taverns. I am not saying we should stop drinking our rum and beer, but if we had as many coffee houses as we have bars and taverns, probably we would be a more productive society."
He adds, "My dream is that one day, like in London, New York, all those major cities, you’ll have Jamaicans who are opening coffee houses and investing in the development of the industry, and telling a Jamaican story. You have your Costas, Lavazzas, you name it — those companies are from countries that don’t produce coffee. And we are Jamaican, and we are producing coffee. By now, almost every Jamaican in London should probably have a coffee house."