Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee
Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee is one of the world’s best-kept secrets—except in Jamaica and Japan. The product is a source of Jamaican national pride, and approximately 80% of each year’s harvest is exported to Japan. Blue Mountain Coffee is highly sought-after for its mild, bitter-less (almost sweet) flavor, so much so that over the years it has earned the distinction as one of the world’s finest—and most expensive—coffees. And it is Blue Mountain Coffee beans that serve as the flavor-base for the world-famous Tia Maria liqueur.
Traditionally, only coffee grown at elevations between 3,000 and 5,500 feet in the parishes of St. Andrew, St. Mary, St. Thomas, and Portland can be legally labeled “Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee.” And to be labeled as such, the coffee must be certified by the Coffee Industry Board (CIB) of Jamaica, the regulatory entity established to ensure the quality of Jamaican coffee. The CIB’s certification marks are globally protected.
Situated between Kingston to the south and Port Antonio to the north, and with an elevation of 7,500 feet (2300 meters), the Blue Mountains are some of the highest mountains in the Caribbean and also some of the best suited—anywhere in the world—for the cultivation of high-quality coffee: The soil is rich and with excellent drainage; and the climate is cool and misty, with abundant rainfall and adequate sunshine.
The first coffee plants in Jamaica were brought to the island from the French-Caribbean island of Martinique and are said to have been planted either in 1728 or 1730 at Nicholas Lawes’ Temple Hill estate, located in St. Andrew’s Parish. Lawes was a former governor of Jamaica, notorious for bringing pirates such as Anne Bonny, “Calico Jack” Rackham, and Mary Reade to justice.
But coffee is an Old World plant, native to Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan in East Africa. So when and how did the plant make its way to the New World, arriving in Jamaica in the first decades of the 18th century?
The accounts of coffee’s first use as a drink are as divergent as the drink is delicious. One of the most popular accounts is taken from a 17th -century text describing an alleged 9th -century event: Ethiopian goat-herder Kaldi, noticing that his herd would become especially animated after eating the bright, red berries of a particular bush, chewed upon the berries himself, obtaining a similar result. Kaldi shared his findings and some berries with a monk of a nearby monastery, but the monk disapprovingly threw the berries into a fire. Shortly thereafter, however, he noticed that the roasted berries emitted a most pleasant aroma—so much so that other monks of the monastery appeared on the scene to investigate. The berries were hurriedly retrieved from the flames, ground, and dissolved in hot water, resulting in the first cup of coffee.
In another story, recorded in the ancient Abd-Al-Kadir manuscript, Omar, renowned for his ability to cure the sick through prayer, was exiled from Mocha to a desert cave near Ousab. Desperate for sustenance, he chewed upon the bitter berries of a local shrub. Then, in an attempt to make the berries palatable, he roasting them, only to discover that doing so made them inedibly hard. In an attempt to soften the roasted berried, Omar tried boiling them, discovering that the berries produced a fragrant, brown liquid. He drank the liquid and became revitalized—for several days! Word of the magical drink reached Mocha. Omar was asked to return and was subsequently rewarded with sainthood.
The ancestors of today’s Oromo ethnic group of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia are the first people to have recognized the energizing qualities of coffee. By the 14th century, the plant was being cultivated by the Arabs. Evidence of coffee as an established drink dates back to the 15th century, in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen. It was also during the 15th century that the drink spread to Egypt and the rest of North Africa. And by the 16th century, coffee was known throughout the Middle East, Persia, and Turkey, the first coffee house (“qahveh khaneh” in Farsi) opening in Constantinople in 1554.
But coffee’s reception was not always warm. As early as 1511, the drink, on account of its stimulating effects, was forbidden by orthodox imams at a theological court in Mecca. (However, the bans were overturned thirteen years later, in 1524, by Selim I, Ottoman Turkish Sultan). A similar ban was instituted in Cairo in 1532, coffeehouses and warehouses destroyed in its wake. And, ironically, in Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, the drink was repeatedly banned until the 18th century: It was not until the 1880s that coffee would become popular in Ethiopia, largely due to Emperor Menilek’s penchant for the drink.
Regarded as a “Muslim drink” and dubbed “the wine of Araby” and “the bitter invention of Satan,” coffee created debate in the Catholic world as to whether the drink should be drunk by Christians. The debate was settled in the year 1600 by Pope Clement VIII—in favor of coffee drinkers. In 1615, coffee made its way to the West via Venice, Italy, at the time Europe’s premier port for the importation of African and Asian goods. Venetian merchants introduced the drink to the republic’s wealthy citizenry; and in 1645, the first European coffeehouse outside Constantinople [present-day Istanbul] was opened in the watery capital. Coffee houses quickly became the rage all across Europe, London alone having over 300 “penny universities,” as the houses were called, by the mid-17th century: City dwellers would converge on coffee houses to socialize, exchange ideas, and discuss the events of the times while enjoying a penny-cup of coffee. The custom of adding milk and sugar to coffee is believed to have originated in the Vienna, Austria coffee house opened by Polish military officer Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki in 1683. (Even today, the typical Viennese coffee, called “melange,” is comprised of coffee and hot foamed milk—with sugar to taste. It is traditionally served with a glass of water as a “chaser”—and for good reason since coffee is a diuretic). Paris’ first up-scale coffeehouse, “Procope’s,” opened its doors in 1686.
As demand for the beverage grew, it became ever-evident that the Arab monopoly of coffee production had to be breached. And in the late 17th century, the Dutch managed to acquire some seedlings, successfully planting them on the island of Java, present-day Indonesia. Coffee plantations were thereafter established on the islands of Sumatra and Celebes. Then, in 1714, in one of the more curious twists of commercial fate, the mayor of Amsterdam presented France’s King Louis XIV with one of the prized Dutch coffee plants—one measuring five feet tall. The king promptly had the sapling planted in the Jardin du Roi (Royal Garden) in Paris.
In 1723, Mathieu de Clieu, captain of the infantry in Martinique, returning to the Caribbean island from France, set sail from Nantes with three coffee plants, all saplings from the original plant at Jardin du Roi. His aim, as directed by the king, was to propagate the plant in the fertile Caribbean colony, with the hopes of establishing coffee plantations throughout the French-Caribbean in order to enrich the French crown. After surviving the guile of an on-board saboteur, the wrath of a storm, a pirate assault, and water rations, de Clieu managed to safely deliver one of the three saplings to Martinique. There, the plant flourished, so much so that all coffee plants of the New World—including those that grow in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica—are said to descend from that fateful sapling.
But according to coffee connoisseurs and experts, it is the terroir of the Blue Mountains that makes the Jamaican coffee superior to all others: its delicate floral aroma is balanced by its sweet, full-bodied flavor to produce a coffee unequaled in taste—and after-taste.