Exploring the evolution of Jamaica’s coffee industry
The Caribbean has a rich history of coffee production. In fact, some of the earliest commercial coffee farms were established in Jamaica and Haiti in the early 18th century.
Jamaica in particular is widely known for its Blue Mountain coffee, which is some of the most expensive and sought-after coffee in the world. However, despite the reputation of Jamaica Blue Mountain (JBM) coffee, the history of the country’s coffee sector is tied to colonialism and slavery.
So, how has Jamaica’s coffee industry changed over the past few centuries? I spoke with several local experts to learn more about the country’s coffee sector and what the future might hold. Read on to find out what they had to share.
You may also like our article exploring Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee.
The origins of Jamaican coffee
In 1723, the first Typica plant was cultivated on the Caribbean island of Martinique. It’s believed that this was the first Typica plant grown in the Americas.
Some five years later, the first coffee plant was brought to Jamaica – which at that time was under British colonial rule. Following this, commercial coffee farms were quickly established, and within nine months, Jamaica had exported its first harvest.
Courtney Bramwell is the CEO of Sherwood Forest Coffee Estate in Jamaica. He explains that besides this information, there is little known about the beginnings of many Jamaican coffee estates.
However, research conducted by the Jamaican history professor Dr. Kathleen Monteith provides some insight, particularly in her book Plantation Coffee in Jamaica 1790-1848.
According to Dr. Monteith, the monocropping of sugarcane in the 18th century had a significant impact on Jamaican coffee production. But towards the end of the century, the production of cheaper sugarcane in countries like India helped to bolster coffee farming in Jamaica.
The country’s production volumes also increased around 1791 when many African slaves revolted in the nearby island of Haiti. This ultimately caused the decline of Haiti’s coffee production, which led several French coffee estate owners to flee to Jamaica. Sadly, the French colonists continued using slave labour to produce coffee once they arrived.
How did Jamaica’s coffee sector change during the 1800s?
Between 1800 and 1840, Jamaica became one of the largest coffee producers in the world – producing an estimated 70,000 tonnes of coffee per year.
“Sherwood Forest Coffee Estate is first mentioned in records from Kingston Wharf dating back to 1801,” Courtney explains. “It was one of [Jamaica’s] earliest coffee estates.”
However, towards the end of this period, the number of Jamaican coffee producers started to decline. By 1836, there were only 353 coffee producers on the island, compared to the 700 or so which had been documented in 1799.
From 1840 onwards, Jamaican coffee production steadily decreased. The main reason for this was the abolition of slavery in 1834, which led the island country to become fully emancipated four years later.
In the years that followed, the country’s agriculture industry restructured itself entirely; coffee estate owners now had to formally and legally employ workers and pay their wages. This led to an increasing focus on worker efficiency, rather than producing large volumes of coffee.
Many former coffee plantations were also divided, with parcels sold off to smallholder farmers and former slaves who grew their own food, as well as smaller volumes of coffee.
In 1865, there was a period of economic hardship and social unrest in Jamaica. The following year, the House of Assembly of Jamaica – a system of self-governance which was established during British colonial rule – voted in favour of becoming a direct-ruled British colony.
Subsequently, the British began investing in Jamaican agriculture, including establishing a mass irrigation project in 1868. Before long, sugarcane was once again the biggest cash crop in Jamaica, with banana production not far behind.
Towards the end of the century, the British introduced the Crown Lands Settlement Scheme which allowed smallholder farmers to purchase two or more hectares of land.
The 20th and 21st centuries
After the abolition of slavery, Jamaica’s coffee industry struggled to increase its export volumes for decades, as well as coffee quality and yields.
It was only in the 1950s that the country’s government attempted to boost coffee production with the implementation of new regulations and initiatives.
Jason Flynn is the operational manager at Trumpet Tree Coffee Factory in Jamaica. He explains that these regulations were the result of the 1944 Wakefield report.
Mr. A. J. Wakefield, who was the inspector general of agriculture for the West Indies at the time, recognised the need to invest in Jamaica’s coffee industry.
“Among many things, the report suggested legislation and an official coffee board to regulate the island’s coffee industry,” Jason says.
In turn, the Coffee Industry Regulatory Act was passed in 1948. This led to the establishment of the central Coffee Industry Board (CIB) in 1950 to “encourage the development of the coffee industry in Jamaica, and for the promotion of the welfare of the persons engaged therein”.
Jamaica eventually gained independence in 1962, but still remains part of the British Commonwealth today.
By 2000, however, the process of fully deregulating the Jamaican coffee industry was well underway.
“For a long time, the government-owned processing facility and exporter Mavis Bank – as well as others such as Wallenford and Jablum – were the only known Jamaican coffee brands sold overseas,” Courtney tells me. “These groups processed coffee from all of the island’s smallholders, which they collected through a network of depots across the Blue Mountain range.
“All of the coffee was then processed together and sold under these brands,” he adds.
Courtney explains that over time, this central processing model became unpopular with many in the country’s coffee sector.
“Now, traceability and transparency are more highly valued, so other exporters now have a better value proposition,” he says.
The Wallenford brand was sold in 2013, while the government-owned processor and exporter Mavis Bank was sold in 2016; both to the same buyer.
“The shift from a state-owned main exporter to privatising all government-owned stakes in the coffee industry was significant, and the effects can still be felt in the market today,” Courtney tells me.
In 2018, a new agricultural commodities body, the Jamaica Agricultural Regulatory Authority (JACRA) was established to promote and support the country’s coffee sector.
How has Japan influenced the evolution of Jamaican coffee production?
To anyone who looks closely, it’s clear that Jamaica’s long standing relationship with Japan has definitively influenced its coffee industry.
“In 1953, Mavis Bank exported its first three barrels of coffee to Japan,” Jason says. “In 1967, the largest single shipment of Jamaican coffee to date (1,400 60kg bags of green coffee) was sent to Japan.
“Over the years, Japan has become the primary importer of Jamaica Blue Mountain (JBM) coffee,” he adds.
This coffee is grown in Jamaica’s famous Blue Mountain range, which is recognised for creating highly desirable flavours and aromas. Today, JBM coffee is geographically recognised by a global certification. This means that only coffee that is certified by a Jamaican governmental exports body can be labelled and sold as JBM coffee.
Courtney says since the establishment of the CIB, coffee quality control has improved significantly in Jamaica. He believes this led to increasing interest from Japanese buyers.
“By the 1990s, Japan was purchasing around 90% of all of Jamaica’s coffee,” he tells me.
It’s estimated that Japan now imports around 75% of the total JBM coffee output from the country. One of the biggest reasons for this is that the Japanese market for exclusive and rare coffees is becoming more and more prominent – as it is in other East Asian countries, too.
Looking to the future
Beyond Japan, interest in JBM coffee seems to be growing around the world.
“The US accounts for around 20% of JBM coffee exports, with remaining exports going to other markets around the world,” Jason explains.
He notes that there has been recent growing demand in the North American market – particularly from the boost in ecommerce during the pandemic. He also says there is growing interest from China, the Middle East, and Europe.
Courtney agrees, but says that demand for JBM coffee seems to be outgrowing supply.
“The increase in at-home coffee consumption around the world means that more people are looking to buy JBM coffee in countries which historically have had low demand,” he says.
He tells me that Sherwood Forest Coffee partnered with Oubu Coffee to target new markets through new sales channels.
“Our approach to entering new markets, including the Middle East, is to use blockchain technology and smart farm systems,” Courtney explains.
This is mostly because of fake JBM coffee, which has been a problem for the Jamaican coffee industry for several years now.
There have been reports of some Blue Mountain blends containing as little as 10% authentic, certified beans, which has led some JBM brands to use NFTs and QR codes to validate their coffee products.
Besides this, there are still a number of difficulties which the Jamaica coffee sector is facing.
“The challenge now is to ensure that rising demand doesn’t lead to sharp increases in market prices,” Courtney says. “We need to ensure that we have sustainable growth.
“Our customers need to be reassured that their JBM coffee can be traced to one of our high farms, or selected partner farms,” he adds. “We use blockchain technology as part of our supply chain verification process.”
Ultimately, he hopes that this will create a new standard in the Jamaican coffee industry to improve authenticity.
Jamaica’s coffee sector has certainly seen its fair share of challenges over the last few centuries. However, it has proved its resilience by continuing to produce some of the world’s best coffee.
Jason says that in order for the island country’s coffee industry to thrive, expansion into new international markets will be essential.
“Market diversification will directly benefit the Jamaican coffee industry, including the smallholders of the Blue Mountains,” he concludes.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on addressing colonial inequalities in the coffee sector.
Photo credits: Sherwood Forest Coffee Estate
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