Coffee Mountain High in Jamaica

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There’s coffee and then there’s coffee.  The world’s best cup may be Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, with its smooth rich flavor and lack of bitterness.

The Blue Mountains of Jamaica are so named for the azure haze that wreathes its peaks, which 2,256 meters above sea level. Covering the eastern parishes of St. Andrew, St. Thomas, Portland and St. Mary, the mountains boast the ideal conditions for coffee growing, with their cool mists, abundant rainfall, rich volcanic  soil offering excellent drainage and prolonged growing season.

Only coffee grown at elevations between 3,000 and 5,500 feet and certified by the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica can be labeled as Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee. Coffee grown at elevations between 1,500 and 3,000 feet is called Jamaica High Mountain and coffee grown below 1,500 feet is called Jamaica Supreme or Jamaica Low Mountain. Land above 5,500 feet is a forest preserve, so that no coffee is grown there. The higher altitudes produce a denser bean that translates into richer cups of java.

Coffee cultivation got its start in Jamaica in 1728, when Jamaica Governor Sir  Nicholas Lawes brought six Arabica plants home from Martinique. Today many of the coffee trees are descended from the original ones planted by Sir Nicholas. And while some coffee growers are experimenting with new varietals, Arabica Typica is by far the most commonly planted  tree.

Blue Mountain coffee comes with an impressive price tag. Perhaps not as high as Thailand’s elephant dung coffee, but it will command your respect. The reason for the cost is that gathering the beans on the steep, inaccessible slopes of the Blue Mountains is a labor-intensive affair. Roads are narrow and winding – many are just dirt tracks – and often not navigable except by  4WD vehicles. From September to January, approximately 200 workers harvest the beans by hand among the plants that grow among other vegetation, including banana, yucca trees and native hardwoods, which help retain the soil.

The coffee beans are only picked when they are completely red, meaning they are cherry ripe. They are then floated on water and discarded if they are underdeveloped or have insect damage. Soon after the beans are brought to factories for pulping – placed in holding tanks, inspected, washed and placed on large concrete slabs called ‘barbeques’ for drying. After at least 10 weeks of aging in a warehouse, the beans are ready for ‘hulling,’ where the outer shell is removed leaving the famous green bean.

After being graded by the Coffee Industry Board, the beans are loaded into barrels made from Aspen. The large complex-tasting coffee beans with concentrated flavor start making their way to coffee lovers worldwide.

Well, perhaps not worldwide. You may have a hard time finding the coffee if you don’t live in Japan. In 1981, Ueshima Coffee Co., Japan’s largest coffee company, bought Jamaica’s  Craighton Estate coffee plantation. Today as much as 80 per cent of the Blue Mountain coffee goes to that lucky country. If your barista doesn’t serve Blue Mountain Coffee then pick up a bottle of Tia Maria liqueur, since the Jamaican coffee bean is used for its flavor base.

But the best way to ensure you get a good cup of Blue Mountain Coffee is to go to Jamaica yourself and order it from the source. And if you would like some food suggestions to go with your coffee, check out this article.

Originally written for the LaCure magazine blog.

 

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