Ask any Jamaican about Blue Mountain coffee, and though many may not have ever had it in its pure form, almost all will, with matter-of-fact arrogance, tell you that it’s the best coffee in the world. But does that match up with the price of the commodity?

It is with that in mind, that there now comes a call for the price of Jamaica’s Blue Mountain coffee to be detangled from the movement of coffee prices on the global commodities exchange. Currently, though, Blue Mountain coffee sells for between US$26.40 to US$39.60 per kg and, in some cases, up to US$65 per kg — prices far above the US$2 to US$4 that is paid for coffee on commodities exchange — its price tends to follow the ups and downs of prices on the global commodities markets.

Lenworth Fulton, president of the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS), thinks it should not.

“If the Blue Mountain coffee is one of the best in the world, why should the price of the Blue Mountain coffee be co-mingled with the average coffee in Colombia and in Brazil and India, Vietnam, and those places? So that everytime they get a good crop, supply and demand will affect the price, [and] it [also] affects the Blue Mountain coffee. I am still at odds here as to how Blue Mountain Coffee is marketed,” Fulton told a recent Jamaica Observer Business Forum.

He said he wants to see Blue Mountain coffee marketed like a luxury product whose prices are unaffected by market conditions.

In terms of quality, the standard for coffee quality is well established. There is a cup test quality, there is an aroma test, and there are some other attributes that the Blue Mountain coffee possesses to make it a niche market. So what else?” he quipped.

But Donald Salmon, president of the Jamaica Coffee Growers’ Association, doesn’t want to leave anything about the quality and eventually, the price of Blue Mountain coffee to chance. Salmon said he wants the Blue Mountain coffee to be established as the world’s best, based on comparative quality tests with other premium coffee such as the Panamanian Geisha or the Hawaiian Kona.

“In June, we will have an international panel of Q Graders coming to Jamaica to have quality testing of the coffee in a competition called “Best of Jamaica” and that will allow us to compare and contrast the quality of the Jamaican coffee with other coffee in the world,” Salmon told the Caribbean Business Report. A Q Grader is a trained and Coffee Quality Institute (CQI)-licensed coffee cupper that can evaluate coffees based on the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) practices. Q Grader is a trained and Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) licensed coffee cupper that can evaluate coffees based on the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) practices. In this competition, various coffee farmers in the Blue Mountain will have the quality of their product assessed. A Q Grader is qualified to give a coffee a score out of 100 and can therefore classify it as being speciality or non-speciality. Salmon explained that a Q-Grade above 85 would be considered good, but he is hoping that some farmers will get grades well above that, in the mid-90s.

Island Coffee Traders JBMC Green Coffee Beans

“We don’t want people to just say the Blue Mountain coffee is good. We want the international grade that shows we are above the best. We want to re-establish that our coffee is that good. It would just solidify what we are doing, and we will get significantly higher prices for the high-end graded coffees,” Salmon added.

Coffee getting scores in the mid-90s have gone for thousands of US dollars. Panama’s Geisha coffees were assessed last year in a competition called Best of Panama with a farm, Carmen Estate, having its coffee scored at 96.5. That farmer’s coffee was sold for US$10,005 per kg in an e-auction last August. The price is the highest-ever paid for a coffee at auction. The buyer was New Zealand’s Coffee Tech Company. The auction sold 25 kg of this bean for a total of US$250,125.

The Panamanian Geisha is normally priced at between US$55 to $65 per kg.

Diversify market

But the quality of the beans aside, one of the issues raised was the high level of concentration in the marketing of Blue Mountain coffee.

“One of the major problems in coffee is the lack of market diversification where we are selling about 70 per cent of coffee to one market, Japan; and so we need to diversify the market,” Salmon said. He pointed out that with Japan taking so much Blue Mountain coffee, buyers in that market set the price paid to Jamaican farmers. Falling prices, have burnt farmers over the last few decades as a result. In 2000, there were 15,000 coffee farmers, now fewer than 5,000 bother to grow the beans.

“Coffee has been on the decline since the turn of the century. The Blue Mountain coffee was 500 thousand boxes and it is less than 300 thousand boxes now,” Salmon noted. The decline in production for High Mountain coffee is more stark. From a total of about 300,000 boxes produced at the turn of the century, the country is now producing under 12,000 boxes per year. It means that towns like Papine in St Andrew, and Buff Bay in Portland, which were centres for coffee farmers are no longer teeming with these people in much the same way bauxite’s decline has caused some rural communities which depend on the industry to decline into being little more than ghost towns.

Salmon said he believes the decline can be put down to a few things, but amongst those he named is the lack of what he called “a specific marketing plan”.

“We just sell some coffee, there is no real plan for that,” he said.

Still, it was not the only issue.

“One of the things we have to look at is blended. You have a lot of inferior coffee blending with your Blue Mountain coffee and calling it Blue Mountain blend and we are selling that in the market internationally and locally. How do we move from a blend of 20 or 30 per cent and call that Blue Mountain blend? You should call that Colombian blend or Brazilian blend because their coffee is the majority in it. And that is how we are trying to market our coffee as such and no one is looking at the decline in the High Mountain region where farmers rely on that over the years with mixed cropping. They need a chance to come back into the industry, and the plan that the government has, I don’t think it is going to move the coffee sector as how it should.”

“The infrastructure in the coffee areas is also extremely poor. Farmers are disgruntled, and the regulation of the coffee sector through JACRA, it is unfair and it is not to the benefit of the industry. It affects cocoa and the others but I have to talk for coffee. It’s very, very unfair as to how it is regulated, because the Jamaica Coffee Growers, we don’t get what we believe is justice.”

Women grading coffee at processing facility in Kingston, Jamaica

The Jamaica Agricultural Commodities Regulatory Authority (JACRA), as the name suggests, regulates the coffee industry amongst others such as cocoa, coconut and some spices. Both the JAS and the Jamaica Coffee Growers don’t believe it is regulating or developing the sector as per its mandate.

“The management of JACRA, as is, needs to be looked into because, in my view, they are not competent to manage the coffee sector,” Salmon said. “Everybody at JACRA is acting. You have the acting MD (managing director) and the person in charge of coffee is acting, and they don’t give the coffee growers a chance to compete. All they do is put hurdles in our way.”

Salmon said the changes that are needed at the regulator “would need more time [to outline] than the meeting can accommodate.” But he pointed to issues such as not being able to sell their coffee, locally or in the export market, without the regulator’s permission which can be denied “for some frivolous reason which you have to accept”.

He, however, rejects the notion that without JACRA, farmers would drop the standard for the coffee produced.

“As the farmer, we produce 80 per cent of the coffee and we want to increase our sales. So, when it comes to standardisation and that aspect where JACRA does the specific quality tests, we have no problem with JACRA and the quality tests. It’s the methodology of how export is done and how they go about it and how they stop you exporting,” Salmon said.

As for Fulton, he believes JACRA is spread too thin doing what it is doing, and need to focus on its core mandate.

“JACRA should remain as a regulatory body, but presently, JACRA is in extension, JACRA is producing seedlings, JACRA is doing everything that RADA is supposed to do, just duplicating their functions,” he said.

Both say they believe if JACRA gets its house in order, the coffee — and other industries which it regulates — would benefit from having a better product and prices for farmers.”

“Blue Mountain coffee on a whole is one of the first set of specialty coffees worldwide,” Salmon pointed out. It is why he wants to see the prices reflecting the special place it has amongst coffees worldwide.

Source: Jamaica Observer