Coffee trees from Ethiopia were introduced to Jamaica in 1728 by Governor Sir Nicholas Lawes, and they flourished on the cool slopes of the Blue Mountains. Cultivation reached new heights of excellence during the first half of the nineteenth century, when expert coffee growers arrived from revolution-torn Haiti, soon meeting an increased demand from European coffeehouses. Jamaica became one of the world’s main coffee exporters, producing up to fifteen thousand tons of beans per year.
The industry suffered its first crushing blow with emancipation in 1838, as streams of former slaves left the plantations to set up their own small farms. Soon afterwards, Britain abolished preferential trade terms on coffee, and direct competition with the coffees of South America crippled small Jamaican farmers. The decline continued into the twentieth century, and it was only after World War II that the Jamaican government took belated steps to save the Blue Mountain plantations. It established quality guidelines for both cultivation and processing, stipulating that only coffee grown at a certain altitude and on the regional soil type could claim the Blue Mountain name (you’ll see coffee produced in Mandeville called High Mountain and elsewhere around the island Low Mountain). This exclusivity heightened the coffee’s cachet and helped to underpin its reputation as one of the world’s finest. Given that expansion of the precious beans was finite, high prices were ensured.
During the 1980s and 1990s, production of Blue Mountain coffee reached its zenith, with Japanese companies drawing on a big domestic market to invest huge amounts in the best of the plantations. Until as recently as 2010, up to eighty percent of the crop was sold to Japan; with traders there controlling the larger part of the market, Europe and North America saw very high prices for the coffee. While today Japan still imports around a third of the crop, deals between the Jamaican government and China appear to have widened the market, and Jamaican exporters have sought new deals in North America, Europe and Russia, as well as in the Far East.
Blue Mountain coffee has always been vulnerable to hurricane damage, and hillside deforestation has only heightened this. During Hurricane Ivan in 2004 the usual rainfall for September fell in two days, resulting in the loss of valuable topsoil and mature plants in landslides. With entire plantations wiped out, there was a shortage of beans for three years, costing Jamaica US$30 million and leading to a huge burden for small-scale mountain farmers, many of whom had effectively no income during 2005. More recently, coffee rust disease has added to farmers’ travails, with around twenty percent of trees lost since 2012. While natural risks certainly help to maintain Blue Mountain Coffee as a limited and high-end label, the on-the-ground reality for coffee workers is that of extreme livelihood insecurity, heightening the need for tourism revenue.