Ranking with truffles and caviar as an exquisite indulgence, Jamaica’s famed Blue Mountain coffee recently suffered economic body blows from knockoff artists and Mother Nature.
Industry leaders can’t do much about the weather, but they have lobbied the government to protect the reputation of Jamaica’s prestigious export and to step up the pace of rebuilding roads to farmland ravaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
With more of their product getting to market and illegal labeling on the wane, the farmers who grow Jamaica’s famous beans say they should be able to recover lost production by the end of this decade.
Jamaicans’ defense of the Blue Mountain brand shows how a small nation must go to great lengths to protect the authenticity of its produce -- or face financial ruin.
Only five years ago, coffee regulators here deployed undercover agents to the U.S., Asia and other key markets to identify imitations, said Norman Grant, chief executive of Mavis Bank Coffee Factory Ltd., a big exporter under the label Jablum.
Coffee is the largest source of foreign exchange in Jamaican agriculture and second only to sugar in domestic earnings. In 2003, the year before Hurricane Ivan, production had grown to an all-time high of 5.3 million pounds, raking in $40 million.
Many connoisseurs rank Blue Mountain as the best-testing java in the world. That’s why it fetches $40 a pound on the mail-order market. But a decade ago, the beans grown in these cool, rain-forested highlands began attracting corrupt tradesmen who mixed Blue Mountain beans with inferior coffees and marketed it on the Internet as the region’s namesake product.
The coffee cops “brought back samples for us to test to provide evidence so that the coffee board could issue cease-and-desist orders,” said Grant, who is one of the island’s seven certified tasters. “We have a vested interest to ensure that when coffee reaches consumers that they are getting the product they expected.”
The board took some coffee vendors to court to force them to pull illegally labeled stock from store shelves and websites, he said.
The coffee board also instituted a registry of approved roasters and sent envoys to meet with the Asian importers of beans to ensure they roasted the coffee in accordance with the brand’s standards, Grant said. “We don’t see Blue Mountain coffee as a commodity. We see it as an experience and a brand that must be protected.”
As the island’s Coffee Industry Board was gaining ground against the imitators, Hurricane Ivan wiped out 55% of the Blue Mountain coffee crop in 2004 and the livelihoods of many of the island’s 170,000 growers, pickers, roasters and sellers.
A decade ago, Blue Mountain was exported almost exclusively to Japan. Jamaican Coffee producers are now diversifying their market by delivering about 20% of their output to U.S. distributors and 5% to Britain.
Japanese coffee importers were instrumental in helping Jamaica develop its Blue Mountain brands in the 1970s, providing loans and business expertise as the government slowly divested itself of what was then a state-owned industry.
After Ivan, Blue Mountain output fell to 2.4 million pounds last year, halving the $40-million income of the previous year’s crop. Thanks to a massive replanting effort, production is expected to exceed 3.5 million pounds this year and grow steadily over the next three to four years to surpass the pre-Ivan level, said Arlene Daley, the coffee board’s communications manager.
Even without the hurricanes, managing growth in the exclusive coffee market has been a challenge for Blue Mountain producers, as the cultivation zone is small and poorly developed. To earn the right to affix a Blue Mountain label, the coffee must be grown 2,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level and be processed as well as grown in the area graced with ideal rainfall, cloud cover and drainage.
But the terrain is often an obstacle. En route to the coffee factories and collection points, trucks must negotiate winding, rutted roads flanked by sheer drop-offs, and must cross rivers that redefined their courses after the storms.
“After Hurricane Ivan, we literally couldn’t get to the farms. There was major devastation throughout the coffee-growing areas. But we can’t be a road-construction entity,” said Ciata Bishop, acting chief executive of Wallenford Coffee Co.
Jackie Minott lost less than 10% of his coffee trees to the hurricane’s 100-mph winds but was cut off for months by road damage and mudslides.
“We had to cut a new road from another Blue Mountain farm, but it’s still very, very difficult to get our inputs [fertilizer, pesticides, seeds] in and our cherries out,” he said, referring to the harvested beans that are bright red before drying, hulling and roasting.
Most of the farmers who lost their crops to the hurricane have yet to be compensated because their insurer, Dyoll Insurance Co., declared bankruptcy. The government is negotiating with a reinsurance company to cover the local underwriter’s losses, said Dave Gordon, data coordinator for the coffee board.
As industry officials continue to steer the post-Ivan recovery, they have helped with seedling nurseries and financing the purchase of inputs. But they caution against expanding the acreage devoted to coffee until they get better productivity on the 12,000 acres already under cultivation, Gordon said.
“We’re going on a very, very hard drive to ensure our farms are fully utilized and yield maximized,” Wallenford’s Bishop said.
Noting that fewer than 1% of last year’s beans made the top grade, she said Jamaican farmers who lease company land now must adhere to stringent new planting, spraying, fertilizing and harvesting standards to retain the right to grow the company’s signature coffee.
Like many in the industry, Bishop believes Jamaica’s coffee output from areas outside the Blue Mountains is underappreciated. About 40% of her company’s 2,100 acres is planted in lowland coffee.
“All Jamaican coffee is specialty. Even the lowest category fetches at least five times the price of commodity coffee,” Daley said.
Despite rutted roads, mediocre productivity and persistent imitators, Jamaica’s premium coffee producers see a promising niche for themselves in the booming world of specialty coffee.
“I don’t see how the Jamaican coffee industry can go wrong -- unless Mother Nature sticks in her ugly head again,” Bishop said.