Jamaica, a great place to visit, but what about the coffee? The world's best or most over-rated? I can say for sure that it is not the world's best coffee, and no serious coffee taster would ever attempt that argument. It has potential to be a decent, mild coffee, if harvested and processed well, and if promptly and carefully transported. We found that the post-harvest processing is rarely done well, that the humidity of the climate challenges the stability of the green bean, and it rarely realizes its potential in the cup. On top of that, a lot of coffee sold as Jamaican is not true Jamacia Blue Mountain, or is blended. If you pay $15 per Lb. for Jamaica coffee, it cannot be true Blue Mountain. It is either the lower-grown Jamaica High Mountain, or most likely a blend that contains a small percentage of JBM.
The History of Jamaican Coffee
The history of coffee in Jamaica is epic. In 1728, Sir Nicholas Lawes, then Governor of Jamaica, imported coffee into Jamaica from Martinique. The country was ideal for this cultivation and nine years after its introduction 83,000 lbs. of coffee was exported. Between 1728 and 1768, the coffee industry developed largely in the foothills of St. Andrew, but gradually the cultivation extended into the Blue Mountains. Since then, the industry has experienced many rises and falls, with some farmers abandoning coffee for livestock and other crops. In order to save the industry, legislation was passed in 1891 "to provide instructions in the art of cultivation and curing coffee by sending to certain districts, competent instructors." Efforts were made to increase the production of coffee and to establish a Central Coffee Work for processing and grading. This effort to improve quality, however, was not very successful. Until 1943 it was unacceptable to the Canadian market, which at the time was the largest buyer of Jamaican coffee. In 1944 the government established a Central Coffee Clearing House where all coffee for export had to be delivered to the Clearing House where it was cleaned and graded. Improvement in the quality of Jamaica's coffee export was underway. In June 1950 the Coffee Industry Board was established to officially raise and maintain the quality of coffee exported.
The Blue Mountain region is in the Eastern part of the island, and only coffee grown within can be called JBM. Jamaica High Mountain refers to coffee grown outside the true region. Wallenford (recently sold after a period in receivership) and Mavis Bank are the two most prominent names, Old Tavern is a third. Moy Hall is a co-op created from one of the older farms, and one of the 4 certified sources along with the above-mentioned in 1951. But these are not farms, they are coffee mills that purchase coffee from the surround JBM small farms and mills it. I am concerned that Wallenford is milled at sea-level in Kingston --not a good practice (of course, if the cup is good i will buy it regardless of my biases).
Mavis Bank is milled and stored at altitude. They have really improved the output with better quality preparation. But remember, the cup is mild, mild, mild. If you are new to roasting and determined to roast JBM, try the smallest amount in an order, along with a really good Central (a Guatemalan for example), a really good Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, a really good auction lot Kenya, a premium small-farm Colombian. In the larger scheme of things, a very good JBM cups simply as a clean, mild cup, soft but uninspiring next to these muscular coffees with pronounced cup character.
Here are some older roasting tips I had noted for Jamaican Coffee: Like other island origins, even the best, highest-grown Jamaican coffees lack the very high elevations of an origin such as Kenya or Guatemala or Colombia. This leads to a lower bean density in the cell structure, and a different roast treatment. You should roast this coffee with a lower initial temperature during the warmup stage, until the coffee is yellow/light-brown in color. Our drum roasters like the Behmor or HotTop have fairly low initial temperatures already. You can really kill JBM with a high initial temperature and a short roast time. You should use an initial environment temperature of less than 350 F, and gently bring in up after 4 minutes or so, shooting for a total roast time of no less than 11 minutes. On the air roast side, an air popper or the Freshroast is a bit fast, so use 20% less coffee to allow more air flow and an even warm-up of the coffee through the yellowing stages.