Monday, July 30, 2007

The Price of Excellence, Part II

Why is Jamaican coffee so rare and expensive?

Jamaican Coffee is often known to be the “rarest, most expensive” coffee in the world. Both the high price and rarity stem from the low-yield farms that are growing beans in the region. In the mid-fifties with the introduction of the Industry Board, farming for quality, not quantity, became the priority. That being said, the thing that hurts Jamaican coffee consumers the most is Japan.

That’s right, the little island that is the same size as California consumes more Jamaican coffee than everywhere in the world - combined. To be specific, Japan buys 90% of all coffee grown in the Blue Mountain region. The US, in comparison, buys 2% of the coffee, with the remaining 8% taken mainly by the UK and Europe. Why does Japan get so much you might ask? Because they are willing to pay for it! In America prices are now between $35 and $50 a pound for Jamaican coffee; in Japan try $60 to $75 per pound!

Another rumor is that in the early 60’s when Jamaica was almost wiped out by a hurricane (perhaps Hurricane Flora on 10/5/63?), Jamaica sold out the futures on a certain percentage of coffee in return for financial aid from Japan. This is total coffee conspiracy theory and I can’t back it up with facts. I have one friend that owns a farm in the Moy Hall co-op, which is how we source our coffee, and he’s never mentioned the hurricane. Until we get some evidence, it will just be something Joe and I talk about at the office, but it seems a likely story to me.

So, the moral of the story here is this: Jamaican coffee is amazing, but it comes in small quantities. If you like it, you’ve got to be willing to pay for it! The prices are going up steadily as word gets out and demand increases, but the farms yield the same amount of coffee (or less if they are damaged by hurricanes like 2 years ago with Hurricane Rita).

How to try Jamaican coffee: We offer Blue Mountain Mavis Bank coffee as of now, and are working hard to get some from the Moy Hall co-op. Give it a try and tell us what you think. I’d love to hear some feedback (hopefully positive) so I can convince Joe to let me post another blog sometime soon.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Price of Excellence, Part I

Please excuse this interruption of the usually scheduled blog: Joe has been on vacation in Alaska for a couple weeks, and while I am down here roasting beans in his place I figured I could simultaneously hijack his blog and see what happens. Shhhh! Don’t tell him, and he might not notice…

As you can imagine while selling coffee for living, I field all kinds of questions about coffee every day. If they are technical questions about roasting, making espresso or the specific qualities of any particular bean, I immediately refer the person asking to Joe. He knows a lot more about that stuff than I do! I find that when I try and quote him, much of it gets lost in translation. More and more often though, and especially lately, people want to know about Jamaican coffee. Some questions include, but are not limited to, “is it really the best coffee money can buy?”, “why do you run out so often?” and “why is it so damn expensive?” So while I’m here “borrowing” Joe’s blog, I figured I could give a brief history of Jamaican coffee, and at the same time try and answer some of everyone’s questions.

A Brief History of Jamaican Coffee

Coffee was brought to Jamaica way back in 1728, while it was a British colony. The first governor, Sir Lewis Hawes, brought this addictive little bean over to see if it would take on the newly conquered island. Suffice to say that it did! For the next 200 years, coffee grew on the island and wasn’t considered anything special, although they did import quite a bit of it and it was the favorite of the Queen of England (the current Queen, Elizabeth II, only drinks Blue Mountain coffee).

By the early 1900’s Jamaican coffee was becoming recognized as some of the best coffee you could get into your cup. They started producing more and more coffee, and at some point after World War II the sheer volume they were producing was leading to poor quality as not enough attention was being paid to the important details of growing the crops. This led to the English government forming the “Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica” in 1953.

Jamaica would shortly thereafter become independent of the UK, but adopt the Industry Board into its’ fledgling constitution. From there, the current system quickly developed. The government created five co-operatives that every farmer in the region had to sell their beans to: Moy Hall, Wallenford, Mavis Bank, Langley and Silver Hill. The board started grading the beans on their shape, size and texture, creating 4 categories for the coffees: #1, #2, #3 and triage, from highest to lowest quality. After the farmers sold the beans to the co-ops, the co-ops would then process them, barrel them and sell them.

Why “Blue Mountain?”

The coffee is called “Jamaican Blue Mountain” because it is grown in the Blue Mountain Region of Jamaica. The Blue Mountain range gets its name from its’ low lying cloud cover, which forms a mist that often makes the trees on the mountain look green. Coffee grown in the region is required by law to be grown between 2000 and 5500 feet above sea level. The mountains reach 7500 feet in height, but the area between 5501 and 7500 feet is recognized as “preserved forest” by government law. The growing conditions in the Blue Mountain range are considered ideal by coffee growers world wide. Between the rich soil, heavy rainfall and easy drainage off the sides of the mountains, this coffee is basically perfect.

Why it is so rare, and expensive?
Click here for Part II...