…in the beautiful Blue Mountains of Jamaica.
Thursday, June 13, 2013, Section and surrounds, Jamaica
All my life, I have heard about Blue Mountain coffee. I remember being thoroughly disappointed when I first tasted it some 20+ years ago. (My sister used the word “swill” to describe her first encounter and mine was pretty much the same.) Later I heard that far more coffee is sold as “Blue Mountain” than is actually produced, so the odds are that my first cup wasn’t genuine anyhow. Still, I wasn’t excited about spending a fortune on what may or may not be the real thing.
However, actually visiting coffee estates in the Blue Mountains was quite a different matter. I was happy to have the opportunity to taste “the real thing”. Also, the prices, while not cheap, were not astronomical either.
With Tony at the wheel, we took our four-wheel drive (absolutely necessary) Rav4 and drove up, up, on the narrow, twisty, potholed B-road into the mountains.
After over-nighting at the Starlight Chalet and Health Spa (blog-worthy in its own right), we visited two different small coffee producers.
We visited two small coffee producers on Thursday afternoon.
We’d met “Opi” the day before at the turnoff for the Starlight Chalet. At the time, we’d rebuffed his demand that we stop and buy coffee by promising to stop on our way out the next day — and would he serve us lunch too?
Opi is a Rasta. The walls of his sparely furnished front-room were decorated with posters and clippings of Haile Selassie and reggae.
A tasty lunch of curried spaghetti was prepared for us: textured soya protein with artificial mutton flavour — rastas are typically vegetarian and the textured protein fooled our meat-eaters. (We subsequently bought a package at the local supermarket; a quick shelf-stable meal.)
This was followed by coffee — served in an old-school urn. Actually, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the coffee neat, but enjoyed with a dollop of sweetened condensed milk while outside looking down into a Blue Mountain valley — the coffee was absolutely divine — one of the best and most memorable coffees ever.
James Dennis, Opi’s father had started the coffee business. They have five acres under cultivation and all the work is done manually — the coffee is roasted over a charcoal fire and stirred by hand. We bought a bag of Opi’s beans — freshly roasted for us that morning. Now we wish we’d bought more: A National Geographic article said the coffee was reputed to be the best coffee on Earth.
Old Tavern Coffee Estate
Our next stop was the Old Tavern Coffee Estate, founded by the late Alex Twyman, an Englishman (Cockney no less, like my TD) who had emigrated to Jamaica in the 1950’s. He and his wife Dorothy bought the Old Tavern as a weekend home and eventually (and with lots of hard work) turned it into a thriving coffee business. Dorothy and their son David now run the business. They now have 135 to 140 acres under cultivation.
The Old Tavern weekend home is quite charming, rustic; Tony describes it as “colonial hill farm” … whatever that means. David took time from a busy day to make us welcome until his mum was ready to begin our formal tasting. We were interested to learn that until fairly recently over 80% of all Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee was exported to Japan. This is no longer the case; the export is now more evenly distributed world-wide.
Mrs. Twyman started the tasting by taking the six of us into the small hand-sorting room off the kitchen. (The four of us plus Bridget and Alan*, a retired couple from Gloucester, who were a welcome and congenial addition to the coffee party.) We smelled and tasted beans of the five roasts that the estate produces: medium roast, medium dark roast, dark roast, peaberry, and 6-year aged (the beans are aged for six years in cloth sacks before being roasted).
What is a peaberry? Coffee beans usually grow as twins, two in a berry. The flat sides grow against each other. However, sometimes only one bean grows inside a coffee berry — these mutant singletons are referred to as peaberries. Peaberries are separated by hand from the regular beans. Some people believe that the peaberries taste better — one argument is that when the peaberries roast, they roll better and so the roast is more even.
Then, as a group, we decided on three of the roasts to sample as brewed coffee. Mrs. Twyman brews her coffee quite strong in a cone-filter (“Melita” type) machine. We tasted black, although, she did bring out honey in case anyone wanted sweetener. (We forgot to ask, “Why honey rather than sugar”?)
With each pot of coffee, the tempting tray of biscuits and Jamaican spice bun made the rounds.
How was the coffee? See my tasting notes below. For simple coffee-drinking pleasure, I liked the dark roast best. David admitted that that’s his favourite too. However, the lighter roasts are better for tasting the characteristics of the beans themselves.
It was a most enjoyable afternoon. On leaving, we bought bags of coffee and wished we could buy more; but we live on a boat.
Nose: Mild, astringent.
Palate: Smooth, no astringency on the finish. Pleasant to drink neat. Sweet; nutty, complex, a little acidic.
Nose: Stronger coffee nose, more burnt and tannic notes than the peaberry.
Palate: Strong, espresso-like, some bitterness on the finish, but smooth honey on the palate, too.
Palate: Short, nutty, winey like burgundy.
* Bridget and Alan: If you’re reading this, apologies if I’ve misspelt either of your names — if I have, please add a comment below and I’d be more than happy to correct.