The history of coffee in Jamaica actually begins in France. The French King Louis XIV was interested in propagating coffee in the colonies in order to create a French-controlled source of coffee. He obtained a live plant from the Dutch and propagated it in the Jardines des Plantes in Paris. In 1723 a French military officer brought three offspring of this original plant from Paris to the French colony of Martinique, marking the arrival of coffee in the Caribbean. In 1728 the Governor of Jamaica brought some coffee plants from Martinique to Jamaica and planted them in the foot hills of St. Andrews parish. Cultivation of coffee eventually extended into the Blue Mountains. The coffee plants flourished in the cool climate and high altitude of the mountainous terrain.
In the late 1700’s coffee production in Jamaica boomed, with up to 600 plantations at the turn of the century. But due to various factors – including a diminished labor source and rampant disease – coffee production declined dramatically by the late 1800’s. The quality of Jamaican coffee declined as well, becoming so low that the leading importers of Jamaican coffee, Canada and the US, stopped importing the product all together. The coffee industry was so vital to Jamaica’s economy that the government stepped in to manage coffee processing and the sale of the product, forming the Central Coffee Clearing House in 1944. The growers themselves eventually established their own governing body to improve and maintain the quality of Jamaican coffee. They formed the Coffee Industry Board in 1950. The formation of the Board invigorated coffee production and revived the quality of this coveted bean.
Coffee in Jamaica is typically grown at elevations between 450 and 1,700 meters. Only coffee grown above 900 meters receives the unique distinction of being called Jamaica Blue Mountain. Coffee grown between 450 and 900 meters is called High Mountain and coffee grown below 450 meters is called Supreme or Low Mountain. High elevations combined with a moist thick cloud cover and shade creates an environment where the coffee cherries mature slowly. This slow maturation process creates the rich sweet flavor profile that characterizes Jamaican coffee.
Coffee produced in Jamaica accounts for about .1% of global production. Recent increasing demand, especially from Asian markets, has coincided with a significant decrease in production resulting from a leaf rust epidemic and a berry borer infestation. The Jamaican Ministry of Agriculture gave a 29 million dollar grant to the industry in 2012 to help rehabilitate coffee cultivation. But despite the support, projections still indicate that production will fall short of demand over the next couple of years.