What is Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee?
Jamaica Blue mountain coffee is cultivated in the Blue Mountain Range in Jamaica but not all coffee grown in and around this range is considered “authentic” Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. These coffee trees must be grown at 3,000 to 5,500 feet above sea levels in Saint Andrew, Saint Mary, Saint Thomas, or Portland parish. The extra-high altitude makes the beans harder and more dense than the average bean, making them similar in texture to peaberries. The result is a coffee that is admired for it’s smooth, clean profile complimented by a mild flavor, vibrant acidity, and almost non-existent bitterness. The aroma of JBM coffee tends to have notes of sweet herbs and florals, with overtones of nuts.
Only coffee grown in the legally defined Blue Mountain range can be certified as Blue Mountain Coffee. It is not High Mountain Coffee, or Jamaican Coffee, or a blend containing Blue Mountain, it is 100% Jamaica Blue Mountain® Coffee. It is processed and requires a long process of inspection and cultivation before receiving it.
- Coffee is collected from farmers only after it is cherry ripe (completely red). The berries are hand picked and floated in water on each farm. The floated berries are then discarded if they have underdeveloped beans or insect damage. Farmers then bring the good coffee to stations where it is floated again to ensure only pre-floated coffee is received into the Factory.
- Collectors visit the depots daily and collect freshly floated coffee for pulping. This process starts late in the afternoon so that coffee can be pulped soon after picking. Once it arrives at the Factory, it is placed in large holding tanks and thoroughly inspected to eliminate any over fermented, green, or insect infested cherries. It is then washed to remove the mucilage, a sugary substance on the outer section of the bean. The product left after washing is a creamy, brown bean known as the wet parchment.
- The wet parchment is then placed on large concrete slabs called barbeques, for drying. This can take as long as 5 days depending on sunlight conditions. During peak rainy seasons mechanical dryers are also used. The drying process involves getting the moisture in the beans to specific levels. During this time more assessments are made to ensure only top quality beans make it through.
- The next step is the resting period. The dried parchment is now bagged and taken to the warehouse where it will remain for at least ten weeks. This is a critical stage of the processing where certain unique characteristics occur. Once the beans have rested they are ready for hulling.
- Hulling is where the ‘husk’ or outer shell is removed and what emerges is the world famous green bean. The husk is stored in a silo and used as fuel in the wood dryers. After hulling, the bean is polished to remove the silver skin on the outer layer and is now ready for sorting.
- All beans are sorted and sold based on certain specific characteristics verified by the Coffee Industry Board. The beans are graded according to size: Grade I, Grade II, Grade III , and Peaberry beans. A peaberry is a monocotyledonous, or closed bean. Next the beans must meet stringent tests regarding taste, body, and color. The last step is one final inspection, done by hand, where each bean is examined to eliminate any defect.
- Beans are then loaded into barrels made from Aspen wood and taken to the Jamaica Coffee Industry Board who will inspect them and label them as 100% Jamaica Blue Mountain® Coffee beans ready for export to those licensed to purchase and distribute them.
There are well over 10,000 farms that produce Blue Mountain Coffee. Many Jamaica Blue Mountain coffees are sold using blends of that grade from several of these farms or estates. Here are some specific estates:
- Clifton Mountain
The Clifton Mountain Estate is the oldest coffee estate in Jamaica and has been producing coffee since the 1790s. Located on the eastern slope of St. Catherine’s Peak, this coffee is grown at an incredible 5000ft!
Situated in the Grand Ridge in St. Andrew parish, the Clydesdale Estate is at the center of the Blue Mountain coffee region. This positioning has earned it the name “Heart of the Blue Mountains” and it’s coffee has subsequently stolen the heart of many a coffee fan.
The Craighton Estate is unique as it is one of the few Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee Estates that is open to the public. So if you’re ever in the region, you can get a tour and even purchase some beans straight from the source.
This region has been growing coffee since 1764, an astounding 218 years before it was officially founded as the Flamstead Estate. It is situated at 3,300 feet above sea level and the coffee plants are often covered by cool mists of the Blue Mountain and the shade of native fruit-bearing trees.
The Greenwich Mountain Estate, situated 4000ft above sea level, is the first fully integrated, single coffee estate in modern-day Jamaica. That means they produce all of the coffee cherries that they process in addition to roasting and selling their own coffee. The Estate started as a 5 acre farm 30 years ago and has since expanded to occupy 109 acres.
Last, but certainly not least, Wallenford Estate is host to some of the most popular Blue Mountain beans. It’s been running for over 250 years but was revived by Jamaican entrepreneur, Michael Lee Chin, in 2013.
What Makes Jamaica Blue Mountain Special?
Internationally Protected Brand
You’ll notice that authentic Blue Mountain coffee carries a certification mark that is awarded by the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica (CIB). This certification is globally protected by the Coffee Industry Regulation Act. This mark indicates that the coffee has passed the intense quality-control screening process.
Only coffee that has been properly examined and approved can legally carry this certification mark. If the mark isn’t there, it’s not real JBM. Jamaica High Mountain, Jamaica Low Mountain, or Jamaica Supreme coffees are NOT the same as JBM and are grown at lower elevations than JBM. And, nothing is grown higher than JBM.
The quality control process has two main steps: sorting/grading and cupping/tasting. And each step is significantly more rigorous than most other coffees must undergo.
First, after beans are processed (example, the cherries are removed and the beans are dried but not yet roasted), they are graded by size and examined for defects. This process is usually carried out by local women rather than an automated color sorter. The purpose of hand sorting is to check for small chips and other defects that would go unnoticed in a machine sorter.
Beans that are excessively large or small without other defects are not approved for export but may be kept for domestic use. However, some beans may have minor damage caused by coffee borer beetle larvae. These are disposed of.
After the beans have been properly sorted, they move not the next step in the process. The Jamaican Coffee Industry Board is responsible both establishing the guidelines for the growing, harvesting, processing and roasting of Jamaican Blue Mountain Beans as well as educating both growers and processors on these rules.
Additionally, the Industry Coffee Board must taste and approve of an estate or processor’s coffee before it is permitted to be exported. This brings us to the second loop Jamaican coffee must just through: cupping.
The cupping of Jamaican coffee is blind, meaning the tasters do not know which estate or processor provided the coffee they are tasting. Three cuppers from the Board evaluate the brew and complete a very detailed form to evaluate whether the coffee meets the standards of JBM coffee.
Only then can the coffee be exported to you.
So that’s how you know that buying something with a Blue Mountain label on it is going to be good.
Explaining The Price Point
Small Supply, Big Demand
While top coffee producers are producing several billion pounds of coffee each year, Jamaica only produces about 4-5 million lbs/year. That means that Jamaica is providing just about .1% of the world’s coffee.
About 80% of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is exported straight to Japan immediately after production. That only leaves about .8-1 million pounds to be sold to the rest of the world. The natural result is some premium markups and a seriously high price tag.
Labor Intensive Harvesting
Firstly, Jamaican Blue Mountain means it takes twice as long as other coffees to mature. And, of course, the cherries on each individual tree do not mature at the same rate. This means harvesters must make repeated passes over the same section of coffee trees at different times to ensure they can get as many beans from their already limited supply as possible.
The workers often have to cope with dangerously steep and sometimes slippery landscape thousands of feet above sea level. While the rain is vital for growing quality coffee, it makes things a lot more challenging for those harvesting it.
There is a pretty intense quality control process that JBM beans have to go through. Every single bean is hand-inspected before roasting to ensure that the bags are absolutely perfect. This process alone eliminates about 15% of the already small harvests, leaving only 85% of the beans with the potential to be exported.
After this, more beans and even entire batches are eliminated during the post-roast inspection and cupping evaluation.
Step one of any good brew is making sure you are grinding your beans fresh and as close to your brew date as possible. This is even more important with Jamaican Blue Mountain beans, you need to make sure you’re getting the most out of your brews.
Once you have your fresh grind, it is recommended to use an immersion-style technique. That includes Aeropress (inverted), French press, cold brew, and Moka pots. The extra extraction time lets you really squeeze every ounce of delicious flavor out of these beans.
Additionally, you should make sure you’re using filtered water that is not excessively hot. This is true for all coffee brewing methods; however, it is particularly essential here to ensure that you don’t ruin coffee grounds.
Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee can claim its origins from a decision taken by a French King in the 18th Century. In 1723, King Louis XV sent three coffee plants to the French colony of Martinique - another lush, fertile island 1,900 kilometres south-west of Jamaica. Five years later in 1728, Sir Nicholas Lawes, Governor of Jamaica, is known to have imported eight seedlings from neighbouring Martinique, which were then to be planted on his own property at Temple Hall in St Andrew. This is the first recorded instance of coffee being cultivated in Jamaica. Over the next 10 years, the Jamaican coffee industry expanded enormously, as seedling imports became more common and farmers set up their own plantations. Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee, considered by many as the best coffee beans in the world, serving as a prime example of exactly what happens when growing restrictions are so specific and strict.
Today, Jamaican coffee owes its quality, reputation and value to the very regulations that were introduced several decades ago to promote the production of top arabica coffee.