Blue Mountain Coffee: What Makes It So Expensive?
Today, we are going to tap into the elusive worth of premium, gourmet coffee with a Jamaican coffee that some people can’t stop raving about: Blue Mountain Coffee. We’re covering everything from what it is, why it’s noteworthy, what’s with the price point and even how to brew it.
At A Glance: Our Top 3 Picks for Blue Mountain Coffee
Quick Summary: The Best Blue Mountain Coffee
|Volcanica Wallenford Estate||Check on Amazon →|
|Island Blue Coffee||Check on Amazon →|
|Lina Epicure||Check on Amazon →|
What is Blue Mountain Coffee?
Blue Mountain coffee is cultivated in the Blue Mountain Range in Jamaica. However, not all coffee grown in and around this range is considered “authentic” Jamaican Blue Mountain (JBM). These coffee trees must be grown at 3,000 to 5,500 feet above sea levels in Saint Andrew, Saint Mary, Saint Thomas, or Portland parish.
The extra-high altitude makes the beans harder and more dense than the average bean, making them similar in texture to Peaberries. The result is a coffee that is admired for it’s smooth, clean profile complimented by a mild flavor, vibrant acidity, and almost non-existent bitterness. The aroma of JBM coffee tends to have notes of sweet herbs and florals, with overtones of nuts.
There are well over 10,000 farms that produce Blue Mountain Coffee and Jamaican High Mountain coffee. And many JBM coffees are sold using blends of that grade from several of these farms or estates. However, if you’re looking for specific estates to buy from, we do have a couple of recommendations.
The Clifton Mountain Estate is the oldest coffee estate in Jamaica and has been producing coffee since the 1790s. Located on the eastern slope of St. Catherine’s Peak, this coffee is grown at an incredible 5000ft!
Situated in the Grand Ridge in St. Andrew parish, the Clydesdale Estate is at the center of the Blue Mountain coffee region. This positioning has earned it the name “Heart of the Blue Mountains” and it’s coffee has subsequently stolen the heart of many a coffee fan.
The Craighton Estate is unique as it is one of the few Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee Estates that is open to the public. So if you’re ever in the region, you can get a tour and even purchase some beans straight from the source.
This region has been growing coffee since 1764, an astounding 218 years before it was officially founded as the Flamstead Estate. It is situated at 3,300 feet above sea level and the coffee plants are often covered by cool mists of the Blue Mountain and the shade of native fruit-bearing trees.
The Greenwich Mountain Estate, situated 4000ft above sea level, is the first fully integrated, single coffee estate in modern-day Jamaica. That means they produce all of the coffee cherries that they process in addition to roasting and selling their own coffee. The Estate started as a 5 acre farm 30 years ago and has since expanded to occupy 109 acres.
Last, but certainly not least, Wallenford Estate is host to some of the most popular Blue Mountain beans. It’s been running for over 250 years but was revived by Jamaican entrepreneur, Michael Lee Chin, in 2013.
Best Blue Mountain Coffee
Volcanica Wallenford Estate
Additionally, they offer Blue Mountain options from the Clydesdale Estate and Clifton Estates on their website, as well as a Peaberry (which is better for espresso if that’s what you’re into) and a Blend (which is about 1/2 the price and has 30% Blue Mountain beans).
Island Blue Coffee
The beans are vaccuum packed and air-freighted to their Miami facility. So you can rest assured that you are really getting 100% Blue Mountain coffee that has not been tampered with.
We’d personally peg these beans as a medium to light roast, so keep that in mind and pass on them if you’re looking for something dark snd oily.
What Makes it Special?
Internationally Protected Brand
You’ll notice that authentic Blue Mountain coffee carried a certification mark that is awarded by the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica (CIB). This certification is globally protected by the Coffee Industry Regulation Act. This mark indicates that the coffee has passed the intense quality-control vetting process we describe in the next section.
Thus, only coffee that has been properly examines and approved can legally carry this certification mark. So if the mark isn’t there, it’s not real JBM. Jamaica High Mountain, Jamaica Low Mountain, or Jamaica Supreme coffees are NOT the same as JBM and are grown at lower elevations than JBM. And, nothing is grown higher than JBM.
The quality control process has two main steps: sorting/grading and cupping/tasting. And each step is significantly more rigorous than most other coffees must endure.
First, after beans are processed (ie, the cherries are removed and the beans are dried but not yet roasted), the are graded by size and examined for defects. This process is usually carried out by local women rather than a automized color sorter. The purpose of hand sorting is to check for small chips and other defects that would go unnoticed in a machine sorter.
Beans that are excessively large or small without other defects are not approved for export but may be kept for domestic use. However, some beans may have minor damage caused by coffee borer beetle larvae. These are disposed.
After the beans have been properly sorted, they move not the next step in the process. The Jamaican Coffee Industry Board is responsible both establishing the guidelines for the growing, harvesting, processing and roasting of Jamaican Blue Mountain Beans as well as educating both growers and processors on these rules.
Additionally, the Industry Coffee Board must taste and approve of an estate or processor’s coffee before it is permitted to be exported. This brings us to the second loop Jamaican coffee must just through: cupping.
The cupping of Jamaican coffee is blind, meaning the tasters do not know which estate or processor provided the coffee they are tasting. Three cuppers from the Board evaluate the brew and complete a very detailed form to evaluate whether the coffee meets the standards of JMB coffee.
Only then can the coffee be exported to you. So that’s how you know that buying something with a Blue Mountain label on it is going to be good.
Explaining The Price Point
Small Supply, Big Demand
While top coffee producers are producing several billion pound of coffee each year, Jamaica only produces about 4-5 million lbs/year. That means that Jamaica is providing just about .1% of the world’s coffee. So the production and supply starting point here is already pretty low, even if all of it was available to the global market. Unfortunately, it’s not.
About 80% of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is exported straight to Japan immediately after production. That only leaves about .8-1 million pounds to be sold to the rest of the world. The natural result is some premium mark ups and a seriously high price tag. Most Blue Mountain coffee comes in at about $58/lb!
Labor Intensive Harvesting
Firstly, Jamaican Blue Mountain means take twice as long as other coffees to mature. And, of course, the cherries on each individual tree do not mature at the same rate. This means harvesters must make repeated passes over the same section of coffee trees at different times to ensure they can get as many beans from their already limited supply as possible.
In addition to that tediousness, the terrain of the Blue Mountains presents its own unique challenge. Instead of the luxury of plateaus, rolling hills, or large mostly-flat growing areas, the workers often have to contend with dangerously steep and sometimes slippery terrain thousands of feet above sea level. While the rain is vital for growing quality coffee, it makes things a lot more challenging for those harvesting it.
As we mentioned before, there is a pretty intense quality control process that JBM beans have to go through. Every single bean is hand-inspected before roasting to ensure that the bags are absolutely perfect. This process alone eliminates about 15% of the already small harvests, leaving only 85% of the beans with the potential to be exported.
After this, more beans and even entire batches are eliminated during the post-roast inspection and cupping evaluation.
We mentioned earlier that there’s a pretty grueling process beans must undergo in order to earn the blue mountain certification. However, this only applies to bags that are 100% Blue Mountain coffee. It does NOT apply to Blue Mountain blends.
A bag that is labelled as a Blue Mountain Blend my have as little as 10% authentic, top-quality Blue mountain beans. So if the blend comes at a premium price, you should definitely avoid it. Aside from the “blend” trick, there are a few ways to spot fakes among the Blue Mountain diamonds.
Your first line of defense is checking the packaging…thoroughly. All JBM coffee is not only grown on the island, but is also roasted and packaged on Jamaican estates. So, if the bag mentions that it was roasted or packaged anywhere else, run the other direction.
One of the easier things to check for on the package is the seal of certification. The blue coffee board stamp. It has the image of a mountain with a island map, barrel, and coffee beans. This little logo of sorts signifies that the CIB has vetted ALL of the beans in the package. It is illegal for producers to use this label if the beans are not authentic.
Lastly, if you’re in the market for a some JBM, try staring with a brand you already trust. Brands that take pride in the authenticity and artisanship of their products likely bring that commitment to any JBM offerings they may have.
Step one of any good brew is making sure you are grinding your beans fresh and as close to your brew date as possible. This rule of thumb is even more important with Jamaican Blue Mountain beans, because if you’re paying a premium price, you need to make sure you’re getting the most out of your brews.
Once you have your fresh grind, we recommend using an immersion-style technique. That includes Aeropress (inverted), French press, cold brew, and Moka pots. The extra extraction time lets you really squeeze every ounce of delicious flavor out of these beans.
Additionally, you should make sure you’re using filtered water that is not excessively hot. This is true for all coffee brewing methods; however, it is particularly essential here to ensure that you don’t ruin your rather expensive grounds.
So there you have it, everything you need to know about Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee from the tree to package. Many people at this point are likely asking, “Is it worth it?” The answer is maybe. In our opinion, you are mostly paying for the artisanship and labor that goes into making these beans. And that does indeed translate to some pretty impressive brews.
However, especially with on-line buying, it can be difficult to fully vet what you’re getting. Plus, brewing this coffee does take a good bit of time and care. So if you aren’t willing to carry that artisanship into your home, then you aren’t going to get a brew that’s worth the price.
But, with a burr grinder, a French press, and some patience, you might just see why some people are only drinking Blue Mountain coffee.
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