Coffee has a tumultuous history, a history that speaks to colonialism, capitalism, and interestingly, intellectualism.
But let's start with Jamaica's unique love affair with the global coffee industry. Introduced to Jamaica in 1728, coffee got its start in the hills of St Andrew. Two Arabica plants from our Caribbean neighbour Martinique (though some argue it was Haiti) were planted to test their ecological viability in the Blue Mountain range.
Arabica coffee is known for its delicate and luxurious nature, not just in taste but the environment and care needed for optimal growth. Typically, the Arabica coffee plant that's common in Jamaica is known to grow at higher altitudes, about 3,000 plus feet above sea level. The Arabica coffee plant requires the right shade, rainfall, and cool subtropical temperatures to produce the best coffee beans. The Blue Mountain range provides the right environment for this plant to flourish.
Coffee production on the island expanded in the early 1800s due to the availability of enslaved labour, which subsequently increased the market value of the product in Europe. Jamaican planters rushed to produce as much coffee as they could.
By 1800, 686 plantations were in operation. In 1814, exports totalled 15,199 tons, the largest quantity of coffee ever exported from the island. While Haiti was the largest producer of coffee during this time, Jamaica quickly emerged as a leading exporter of the product. However, the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and subsequent Emancipation in 1838 removed access to the exploitive labour provided by the enslaved, and so global coffee production significantly decreased.
The Arabica Coffee Bean
The Arabica typica coffee bean, primarily grown in Jamaica, produces a high-quality coffee experience in taste and aroma. High-quality Arabica coffee has a slightly sweet flavour and is more alkaline than Robusta coffee beans. It is less bitter and comes with hints of chocolate, nut, and caramel flavours. Though Arabica coffee is the more globally desired coffee variety, it is also less commercially available. Instead, most commercial coffee drinks, beans, and products typically use the more affordable Robusta beans. So retail coffee sold in local supermarkets is often a blend of Arabica and Robusta beans.
Women and Coffee
Jamaica's colonial and post-slavery production of high-quality Arabica coffee is inextricably linked to the involvement of master pickers. The local industry has carefully crafted a tradition in which women who are pickers of the coffee beans over centuries have become skilful master pickers.
Alton Bedward, a master taster and coffee connoisseur noted that these women are one of the most vital elements in the cycle of coffee production in Jamaica. He made it clear that, "You pay these women what they ask for," because harvesting coffee beans is a skill which master pickers have perfected, and if high-quality beans are desired, then these women must be listened to and paid well.
The opinion of these women are respected by planters as well, since they are experts who know, for instance, when beans are ready for harvesting and how to detect defective beans.
Technology has allowed for innovation in agro-processing of coffee in other parts of the world. Without a doubt, technology has assisted producers with efficiency, quality control, and even climate resilience.
Nonetheless, one can argue that Jamaica's unique ability to consistently produce high-quality beans is undeniably linked to women master pickers, who innately understand when to harvest the perfect beans. There is a secret to this method, which no technology could replace.
The Local Coffee Market
Overall, Jamaica's coffee production is largely focused on exports rather than local consumption. It is estimated that 90 per cent of the high-quality coffee that is produced locally is exported to global markets in Japan and other parts of the world.
In 2019, the global coffee market was estimated to be valued at US$102.15 billion and has possibly rebounded since the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, there is a sustained dedication to high-quality coffee production instead of quantity, despite increased market demand locally from a burgeoning café scene and demands in the global market. This means that many Jamaicans have not and will likely never taste the finest of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, not even in our local cafés.
I believe that Jamaica's coffee industry occupies a unique place in our global economy, and Brand Jamaica, without question, is tied to the island's renowned coffee production. The industry model is focused on high-quality production, high international demand, and low production, which positively impacts the pricing of the Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.
Consequently, I do not believe Jamaica will be producing more coffee to meet both local and international consumption. This reality then begs the question: How do we innovate the coffee industry for high value and increase market share available to locals?
Innovation broadly speaks of new ways of doing things that add to the public good of our societies. Moreover, innovation does not necessarily mean the manipulation of technology to produce more. For the sake of this article, we must reimagine innovation and what it means to our industry. As such, we must utilise the unique position of Jamaica's Blue Mountain coffee brand in the global market to innovate locally.
For instance, Jamaica's coffee industry must first recognise the historical significance of coffee production to the identity of Jamaicans. We often hear, "Jamaicans are not coffee drinkers," but have Jamaicans been given the chance to try one of our island's best products? No.
There is certainly a market for the Blue Mountain coffee experience. Let us make the coffee experience accessible to those who are interested. We must continue to encourage coffee and café culture alike, but we must also prioritise the development of an artisanal coffee experience and introduce locals to the sensibilities of the high-quality Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee by amplifying the history of coffee, its economic benefit to many communities, its production, and what makes Jamaican coffee unique. It is a part of our identity as Jamaicans.
Coffee innovation is not just about tech and increasing production, it is about tourism and it is about local interest. Jamaica should be known not just for its high-quality Arabica beans but its unique coffee culture. We must encourage culinary exploration, an appreciation and interrogation of the local history of coffee, and a high-quality coffee-drinking experience in Jamaica.
There is huge market for coffee tourism in places like Ethiopia, and if given the chance, it could be huge in Jamaica too. We have everything for it to be successful.
Kimberly O Roach is an innovation, social sustainability, and development professional. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org
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