I just returned from a wonderful visit to Jamaica. The Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica, under the leadership of Christopher Gentles (Director General), had requested our assistance for an intensive training session with the professional cuppers of the country. Traditionally, cupping protocols in Jamaica have been geared towards the prevention of defects. In the past, coffee tasters were trained to protect the integrity of the Jamaican bean by sorting out and separating any potential flaws in the flavour and by applying a strict grading protocol for the preparation of export shipments. As a result, certified Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee gained a distinct positioning among buyers in Japan, Taiwan and a range of upscale boutique roasters in Europe and the US.
The history of Jamaica’s coffee legacy presumably started in 1723, when King Louis XV of France sent three coffee plants to his colony, Martinique. Two of the plants died en route and the third plant or cuttings of this tree ended up in Jamaica in 1728, brought by the former Governor, Sir Nicholas Lawes (1718-22). Lawes first planted coffee at Temple Hall, St. Andrew. Jamaica’s climate was so conducive to coffee production that the coffee industry expanded rapidly from St. Andrew to the Blue Mountains and the hills of Manchester, St. Ann and Elizabeth. By 1814 there were 600 coffee plantations on the island. In the 1830s with the abolition of slavery came a shortage of labour and a decline in coffee production.
By 1850 only 186 coffee plantations were still in operation. Close to 100 years later, in 1943, the coffee industry nearly collapsed due to labour shortages, mismanagement and a lack of organization. Overseas, concerns were also being raised as to the quality and consistency of Jamaican Coffee and valuable markets were lost. In an attempt to address these issues, the Colonial Secretary created the Coffee Industry Board in 1953. Production became more streamlined, a centralized marketing system and a rigid system of standards control were developed.
In the past thirty years, the image of Jamaican coffee suffered various setbacks. Buyers of “Genuine Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee” became concerned about the trade of “wannabe” Blue Mountain beans and the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica has been successfully preventing the trade of counterfeited Jamaican coffee. To make matters worse, several hurricanes struck the island: Gilbert (1988), Ivan (2004) and Gustav (2008), causing serious damages to the island’s coffee farms and threatening the economic livelihood of the 7,500+ coffee farmers. On top of that, the proliferation of the global specialty coffee industry caused a shift in quality paradigms with specialty coffee buyers. Professionals around the world, both in producing as well as in consuming countries, became interested in modern coffee tasting protocols, focusing on the intrinsic coffee flavour attributes. As a result, countries like Panama, Honduras, Ethiopia and Hawaii started marketing “super quality” specialty coffees with unique and distinct flavour profiles. The success of the Cup of Excellence (CoE) added to the surge of this new, refreshing wave in the coffee industry.
The past week, I presented a training session in specialty coffee cupping protocols for more than sixteen professional cuppers. The objective was to train the students in the assessment and evaluation of flavour attributes, using the FACT (Flavour Attributes Coffee Tasting) form, developed by Boot Coffee and the cupping form of the SCAA. The course included intensive blind tasting sessions with coffees from Panama, Honduras, Ethiopia and Jamaica. The results were encouraging; various Jamaican coffees scored higher than 84 points with notes of berry, chocolate and an intensive, savory sweetness, followed by a lingering floral aftertaste. I was pleasantly surprised and I sincerely hope to continue supporting the renaissance of this coffee legend.
October 22, 2012