C is for Coffee Culture?


Sometimes the coffee at work is really this bad!

Sometimes the coffee at work is really this bad!

Before we came to Jamaica, I had heard of their world famous Blue Mountain coffee and was excited to try it.  My first cup was at a small coffee chain called Cafe Blue in a shopping mall close to the Embassy.  It was very popular spot and it was hard to find a table, but I managed to find a seat in the Starbucks-like cafe and I tried my first cup.  I was surprised at first how mild it was and a little weak too, I thought.  I’ve always drunk strong Ethiopian-style coffee and the Blue Mountain Java was pleasant but it sort of underwhelmed me.  I bought a 1lb of beans to take home anyway, so I could try it in my own kitchen and it grew on me.  I think I brewed it a little stronger than the cafe (sorry Blue Mountain connoisseurs if this is sacrilegious.)  This helped and I developed a taste for the smooth flavour and mild non-acidic finish.  But it is expensive at about $30/pound.  We switched to Jamaican high mountain coffee, which is good –if not as exceptional as Blue Mountain — but a much more reasonable price, and it makes me happy that at least I’m drinking a local product that supports the local economy…but I did ask myself why I didn’t see a real coffee culture in Jamaica?

After all, before international products were easily available as we see now,  local food and drink traditions became popular because they were affordable and that’s what you could find.  Jamaican has a long history of coffee farms, but where are the coffee drinkers?  I don’t mean to say that no one drinks coffee or there aren’t any coffee shops, but there’s a distinct lack of coffee as part of local tradition and I wondered why?

There’s few basic reasons for this that I can see:  Here at $2.50+ a cup its expensive and not an every day treat for most people.  At work, unlike all other countries we’ve lived, there’s no decent coffee available – despite the fact that coffee is one of Jamaica’s most well-known exports.  Therein lies the problem, as its famous coffee is exported for a very high price,  Very little Blue Mountain coffee is available locally, and what remains is just crazy expensive for most people.  Add to that the threats from rust disease, hurricanes and the abandonment of coffee farms in recent years, which have further limited the availability and affordability of the drink.

Why can Blue Mountain coffee demand such a high price?    Because its unique flavour comes from the rare, ideal conditions produced on the high slopes of the Blue mountains,  Its expensive because harvesting in that difficult terrain can’t be automated and coffee cherries on the same tree ripen at different times, so harvesting doesn’t happen in one visit. It an ongoing, labour-intensive process, but the result is a higher quality product.  (In some coffee-growing countries, particularly on large farms on flat ground, the farmers compromise and harvest the cherries all at once, but the mix of ripe and unripe beans affects the overall quality. ) Unique conditions, limited terrain, and high processing costs results in high quality, high demand coffee and farms export about 70% of it to get the best price – most of it goes to Japan.

So, here in Jamaica, I don’t really experience a coffee culture.  (Making coffee in my kitchen doesn’t count.)  I miss having a coffee spot at work where you can easily grab a good cappuccino and a few minutes with a colleague.  The black stuff they serve in the cafeteria doesn’t count either!  But I’m sure they’ll be cafes a-plenty in Serbia – probably serving a strong Turkish-style cup.  Hope brews eternal!