October 20, 2021

What is Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee?

Jamaica Blue Mountain (JBM) coffee has been around for a long time. In fact, Jamaica’s coffee farms can actually be traced back with one coffee plant of three that were initially brought to the French Caribbean island of Martinique, on the orders of King Louis XV of France.

More recently, JBM has established a reputation as a “gourmet” coffee origin with a unique flavour. However, as a consequence, there have been a fair number of imitators trying to profit from its high price tag, somewhat limited availability, and desirable taste. In response, the industry has adopted a tough stance to stamp out the counterfeiters and prevent the use of the JBM name on illegitimate products.

But what exactly is JBM coffee? What makes it unique? And what is its relationship with the modern specialty coffee sector? To learn more, I spoke to two people who work with it. Read on to find out what they said.

You might also like our article on automation in coffee roasting.

jamican mountains

Defining Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee

First and foremost, it’s important to point out that not all Jamaican-grown coffees are classified as Jamaica Blue Mountain by default. This label is reserved for coffees grown in a particular region and at a particular altitude.

The region is actually a designated 6,000ha area of Jamaica’s Blue Mountain range, located on the east of the island. The size of this JBM coffee growing area is exclusively determined by the Coffee Industry Regulation Act in Jamaica.

Furthermore, not only is JBM coffee grown in its own unique region – it also has its own variety. The region grows arabica coffee, including a unique mutation of the Typica heirloom cultivar, also (confusingly) known as Jamaica Blue Mountain. 

Courtney Bramwell is the CEO of Sherwood Forest Coffee Estate in Jamaica, where his family produces and processes JBM coffee.

“The coffee variety is a Typica cultivar,” Courtney says. “That said, other varieties can be found, such as Geisha, across the mountains.”

This is especially significant at a time where many farmers are rapidly replacing the low-yield Typica variety. Newer varieties might boast higher yields and better resistance to pests and disease, but despite this, producers in the Blue Mountain region continue to cultivate their unique variety.

However, while the JBM variety has adapted to its namesake region, it is known to thrive in other parts of the world, too. However, while they may be the same genetically, these non-Jamaican crops don’t share all the attributes that make the “original” so special.

Jason Flynn works in sales and marketing at the farmer-owned Trumpet Tree Coffee Factory, a producer and exporter of 100% single origin JBM coffee. He first encountered Jamaican coffee 17 years ago.

“Although it cannot adapt to all climates and maintain its high-quality flavour profile, the Blue Mountain variety is grown in Kenya, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Cameroon, and Haiti,” he says.

Finally, altitude is another crucial aspect of JBM production. To achieve the classification, coffee has to be grown at an elevation of over 3,000 feet (around 915 m.a.s.l.). 

If it’s grown at an elevation of between 1,500 and 3,000 feet (approximately 460 to 915 m.a.s.l.), it receives a different classification: Jamaica High Mountain Supreme. 

jamaican coffee

Flavour profile & unique points

Let’s start with JBM coffee’s cup profile. It’s generally described as being “silky smooth”, “well balanced”, “full bodied”, “sweet and creamy”, and as having a mild taste overall. It’s also said to be chocolatey, with effectively no bitterness.

Before taking on coffee processing and production at Sherwood Forest Coffee Estate, Courtney tells me that he was an importer of JBM coffee for over a decade. 

He says: “[JBM has] a unique flavour profile, distinguishable by a refined, mild, and creamy sweetness with no bitterness.”

Jason agrees, adding that he notices hints of sweet herbs, nuts, and chocolate.

“[JBM is a] rare and unique coffee with special attributes that make it stand out from the rest,” Jason says. “[It’s] the best coffee in the world, in my opinion.”

One of the key factors influencing its flavour are its unique growing conditions. The Blue Mountains feature some of the steepest terrain in the world; alongside this, Courtney says that the soil composition, cloud cover, and slow maturity rate all play a role.

“The high altitude coffee [is] most often shaded in a misty cloud cover,” he says. “This lowers the temperature and in turn slows maturation, giving a more complex flavour profile.”

Because of the steep terrain, almost all crop cultivation in the Blue Mountains is high-maintenance. In this extreme environment, coffee cherries need to be manually picked, which is exceptionally labour-intensive. 

Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee is also a washed or wet processed coffee. This keeps the cup profile light. Cherries are pulped at communal stations in the region, although some of the licensed estates have their own processing equipment.

Marketing Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee

Jason explains that as a luxury, gourmet product, Jamaica Blue Mountain is marketed as a “rare and unique coffee”. Its signature trait in marketing is its distinct lack of bitterness.

Attempts to market the coffee also rely on its iconic handmade wooden barrels. While their utility is questionable when compared to hermetically sealed liners for classic 60kg bags, they are certainly unique.

Perhaps the most important factor in the marketing of Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee, however, is the trademark. 

“Every barrel of JBM coffee that is exported comes with a certificate of authenticity issued by the Jamaica Agricultural Commodities Regulatory Authority (JACRA),” Jason says “This ensures that every barrel has been tested and passed, and meets all JBM standards.”

To verify the coffee’s quality, professionals inspect a sample for defects in size, shape, moisture content, colour, and cup. If successful, it earns the all-important trademark seal. 

As a producer and exporter, Courtney says: “[In order] to market it as JBM coffee, the company behind it must be licensed and must [display] the JACRA seal and the words ‘Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee’ with a trademark icon.”

JACRA – formerly the Jamaica Coffee Industry Board (CIB) – issues and monitors registered trademark licensing for exporters and those who intend to market under the JBM name. JACRA monitors all steps across the Jamaican coffee value chain, from nurseries and processing facilities to exporters and importers.  

jamaica blue mountain coffee

How to recognise authentic Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee

We’ve already talked about what JBM definitely is, but it’s also useful to understand what it’s not. For starters, it isn’t any of the following:

  • Jamaica High Mountain Supreme: Jamaican-grown, but below the allowable altitude, and not necessarily in the Blue Mountain region.
  • Blue Mountain Jamaica 100% Arabica or any other variant of Jamaican coffee: Jamaican-grown but not specifically JBM.
  • Blue Mountain “blend”: May contain very small amounts of JBM.
  • Blue Mountain “style”: May not contain any JBM at all, although roasted to a similar profile.

Aside from the familiar packaging and the trademark seal, one of the surest ways to guarantee a legitimate product is to buy from a reputable supplier. JACRA is the best starting point for connecting with certified dealers and producers.

Courtney adds: “[If] JBMC [is offered] at a price way below market rate as a ‘good deal’, you are almost guaranteed that it is not authentic JBM.” 

However, in spite of JACRA’s best efforts, imitation products still appear. To counter this at producer and exporter level, Sherwood Forest Coffee Estate has started using a blockchain platform (“Verified and True”), to ensure that every step along the supply chain can be verified. 

“We provide serialised QR codes with pins to end-user brands that will irrefutably prove authenticity,” Courtney says. “You want to have that guarantee when you spend money on a luxury product.”

jamaican coffee

Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee and specialty coffee

With the emergence of specialty coffee culture in the past few years, people have changed their understanding of what is considered to be high-quality coffee. However, for a variety of reasons, JBM coffee is not always considered to be “specialty”, despite the fact that it has a cup score of above 80 points.

“JBM coffee was one of the first to be marketed as a specialty coffee as far back as the 1940s,” Jason says. “Over the years, the quality of coffee improved greatly in Central and South America and Africa, so the attention has shifted.

“JBM can and should be recognised as specialty coffee.”

Courtney, meanwhile, says that although JBM will always be in demand, the rise of third wave coffee culture and new marketing strategies have caused a shift.

“[Much like other origin countries], the Jamaican coffee industry, too, should embrace growth, innovation, and development,” he says. “I think the new generation of coffee farmers in Jamaica are more and more open to that.”

And, while he feels it’s sensible to use cup scorers and move into the specialty coffee market segment in major consuming countries, Courtney doesn’t believe it will necessarily result in more sales of Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee.

“The way most of our coffee from Sherwood is sold is through pre-order sampling, with our customers finding a batch that they are happy with,” he says. “Their Q graders are very skilled, and they know what they are looking for.

“The next step at Sherwood will be making a shift in how we provide traceability for such a high-end product, to ultimately connect the farmer to the end-user.”

coffee cherries

Despite ongoing challenges with perceptions of “specialty” and imitation products, Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee continues to enjoy high demand and luxury good status around the world.

However, without the implementation of innovations like those at Sherwood Forest Coffee Estate, farmers and JACRA alike seem set to fall behind in terms of marketing and the third wave of coffee.

One thing, however, is for sure: Jamaica’s Blue Mountain region will continue to produce some of the most popular coffee in the world, regardless of the perceptions of third wave coffee drinkers.

Enjoyed this? Then try our article on choosing a roaster for your coffee shop.

Photo credits: Trumpet Tree Coffee Factory, Unsplash, Oubu Jamaica Blue Mountain

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