Zach Dyer is a writer living in Saint Louis. He did his thesis research on coffee farmers in Southern Mexico. Since then, he has visited coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Mexico as well as roasters and cafés across the U.S. He blogs about coffee for Gut Check every Wednesday.
It came in a small black trash bag. My friend, nervous that she had violated U.S. Customs law, had tried to disguise the parcel as best she could with the humble wrapping, but the smell gave it away immediately. The telltale aroma wafted up into a halo around the plastic bag -- my anticipation only enhanced the enticing smell further. I opened the black plastic and found another, smaller plastic baggy.
(It felt a little dangerous; all this sneaking around with airtight plastic packages from the Caribbean.)
And there it was: contraband Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee.
Contraband might be a strong word when talking about coffee, but Jamaica Blue Mountain is one of the exceptions. This is one of the most expensive retail coffees you can buy (that hasn't passed through an Indonesian cat
). Averaging $35-$50 a pound, depending on your supplier, the coffee gets its famous name from the Blue Mountain region in Jamaica where it is grown. The high elevation and good soil are the keys to the mild flavor and lack of bitterness. The brand is a globally protected certification, like Kona or Kenya AA, and only coffee grown in the region can be sold as Blue Mountain.
My caffeinated contraband started off as a simple offer from a friend vacationing in Jamaica. When I found out that she was going, I asked her to get me $20 worth of the coffee. Expecting a touristy package with rustic font and mountain silhouette, I was surprised when she presented me with the black trash bag. My friend's guide, a former Peace Corps volunteer, pointed out that along the road leading to the plantation local farmers sold the famous beans at a fraction of the price. Eager to stick it to the man and save some cash, my friend bought the coffee from a local. Now, I was looking at the oily black beans in the coffee-equivalent of a dime bag.
As soon as I got home, I set the beans aside and waited for my after-dinner cup. I scooped the beans, ground them to a rough consistency for my stovetop Moka Express
and set it to percolate. As soon as I heard the gurgling of a full pot of coffee, I rushed over to kill the heat and enjoy the aroma.
But wait! Where are the sweet notes, that full-bodied smell? No worry -- surely the taste will be there. I serve the coffee for my boyfriend and myself, but the smell still isn't right. I taste...dog water. The coffee tastes hollow, flat, slightly burnt; woody, even. My friend brought me awful coffee.
I've had Jamaica Blue Mountain before. I never thought it was worth the price, but it's not bad coffee by any means. No, this was a case of bad roasting.
One of the biggest problems facing coffee growers in many parts of the world is that they don't drink their own product. While this might sound like a Nebraska Husker who's never had corn on the cob, coffee is a cash crop and production has little to do with local consumption. Mexico, for example, is the world's fifth largest producer of coffee, but has the smallest domestic consumption of any major producing nation. How can you grow beans to accentuate certain flavors and avoid bitterness, much less roast them properly, when you don't know what you're looking for?
This was a problem facing coffee farmers I met in Cuba and Mexico. In the coffee-growing regions of Mexico they drink café de olla
, a sweet coffee flavored with cinnamon. While in Cuba, almost all the coffee I drank was served in demitasse cups loaded with sugar. Both serving styles mask the burnt taste underneath, down playing the need for good roasting.
Some fair trade organizations directly address this problem with a focus on farmer education. Sustainable Harvest
in Portland, Oregon, has elevated the practice to an annual international conference, Let's Talk Coffee
. There, growers, importers and even baristas experience farming and roasting techniques as well as cuppings (coffee tastings) led by experts from around the world.
That guy who sold my friend the coffee understood that the bean itself was a valuable commodity, but what he didn't realize is that coffee, like a diamond in the rough, doesn't reach full potential in its raw state. Not until the beans are properly roasted does the real value percolate to the top. After all secrecy and anticipation, perhaps it was appropriate that my contraband Jamaica Blue Mountain arrived in a trash bag.