Jools Walker: Dear listener, just before we start this episode, we just wanted to let you know of a content warning for some of the things that will be discussed in this, which include slavery and the terrible conditions the enslaved people were kept in. We will let you know when that part comes up in the episode should you wish to skip it.
Scott Bentley: Welcome to Adventures in Coffee, a podcast about the citric and occasionally sour world of coffee, brought to you by Siemens Home Appliances and the Ikawa Home roasting system.
Jools Walker: Now, here on Adventures in Coffee, we love to serve you surprising coffee stories that will open your taste buds and mind, and hopefully inspire you to have adventures in your own kitchen.
Scott Bentley: My name's Scott Bentley. I'm the founder of caffeine magazine, X, X, X, X, X, X, insert whatever thing I'm going to be today.
Jools Walker: I'm Jools Walker. I'm a best-selling cycling author of the book “Back in the Frame.” I am from East London, and you know by now that I am your very everyday coffee lover.
Jools Walker: So Scott, the other day I took you on a very special experience.
Scott Bentley: You did indeed. It was lovely. We took the tube to Mayfair, walked past some fancy shops and some luxury cars, bespoke suits, and we popped into, I suppose, a little red brick building. Took a seat downstairs.
Jools Walker: Oh yes. And we busted out our microphones.
So, I am sat down in a coffee shop that I have never been to before: HR Higgins in Mayfair. And just looking around at the place, it's very grand and very beautiful, Scott.
Scott Bentley: So, we're at HR Higgins, London's finest coffee and tea merchants, as described on their website. And we're here to try a very, very expensive coffee. About £60 for a 250g bag.
Jools Walker: Oh, yes, it was very pricey. And we were served it by the very lovely Preethi.
Preethi: I've been a shop manager with HRH for more than a decade.
Jools Walker: So Scott, I organised this tasting with you and Preethi at HR Higgins because I wanted to try Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee.
Preethi: Jamaica Blue Mountain, for us, is one of the exotic coffees or one of the rare coffees that we have on the list.
Jools Walker: Now, Preethi went on to explain to us that Jamaica Blue Mountain is grown in the east of Jamaica, and it's over 3,000 feet high along a volcanic mountain range. Now, they produce very, and I mean, very small amounts of the coffee. I mean, they grow less than 10,000 tons of it per year.
Scott Bentley: If you look at this on a global scale, this isn't even a rounding error. I mean, this is minute.
Jools Walker: And there's this beautiful oldschoolness to it as well, Scott, because they actually ship the green coffee beans in actual wooden barrels. So, you know, the kind that you would have seen on pirate ships from hundreds of years ago,
Scott Bentley: Arrrr! But the reason it's so expensive is because it's supposed to have this really, very special flavour.
Jools Walker: And Scott, the tasting that I organised at HR Higgins was an extremely special moment for me. It was very, very personal, because as you know, my dad is from Jamaica, and I have visited family in Jamaica. It's been a while, but I have been out there, and I did tell you while we were in HR Higgins, that I'd actually seen the Blue Mountains in real life, myself.
It's the most incredible thing to see, where you see those clouds rolling in and just the mistiness and just the lushest green.
Scott Bentley: And not only that, Jools, you told me, if I remember rightly, a quite beautiful story about your family's connection to Jamaica Blue Mountain.
Jools Walker: This might sound a bit over the top, but it's a bit of an emotional moment knowing that my Auntie Pearlette, who passed away many, many moons ago, would have been involved in some aspects in the farming and the production of this. Because my memory that I have of it is the big tank that she used to have in her back garden. Now, when I say back garden, in Jamaica, back garden is essentially like a field that she had. And I just have this very vivid memory of seeing these red things bobbing up and down in a water tank out there. And that was my actual first introduction as to what coffee looked liked, so I didn't know anything about where it came from or what it looked like until I actually went to Jamaica and saw it.
But despite the huge and very well revered reputation that Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee has, and for all the years that I have been drinking coffee, I'd never had it before.
Scott Bentley: I'm sure our dear listener would love to know, how did you feel when you took those first sips?
Jools Walker: I know you can't see it, dear listener, but I'm smiling, because this is a moment. This genuinely is a moment.
My dear listener, it was absolutely delicious.
It's got a very sweet smell. Kind of fruity.
Scott Bentley: The sweetness here is really wonderful.
Preethi: This is more raisins, syrupy.
Scott Bentley: Yeah, I've got to say, I totally agreed. It really had that sort of stewed fruit, raisiny quality. Beautiful.
Jools Walker: Scott, I organised that tasting with you because I've been absolutely fascinated with the story of Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee. Because, you know, years ago this stuff was actually considered to be one of the finest coffees in the world. But you know, today you don't really see any references to it anywhere.
Scott Bentley: You really don't hear about this in speciality circles, really. Baristas aren't talking about this coffee. You don't find it in, you know, the east London kind of hipster cafes.
In fact, the only place we're actually able to find this now are these more luxury retailers, in the Westend, and places like Mayfair,
Jools Walker: Yeah. The thing is, Scott, that's absolutely wild to me. So I wanted to understand, why was Jamaican coffee so prized in the first place?
And why is it not as prized as it once was? I mean, why isn't everybody tasting these beautiful sweet notes of raisins in this incredible coffee?
Jools Walker: So, for the last few months, Scott, I have been on a bit of an intense journey where I've been speaking with historians and coffee producers, roasters, Jamaican coffee organisations, and even Japanese coffee importers.
[Music continues building]
Jools Walker: And Jamaica's coffee story is fascinating and disturbing. Now, I'm going to take you into its dark past…
Karla Gottlieb: It is awful. I mean, awful.
Jools Walker: How it built an amazing reputation…
Karla Gottlieb: So, it wasn't really a commodity. It was a speciality.
Jools Walker: And the very serious problems that it's facing today. And as much as it pains me to say this, Jamaica's coffee industry is in crisis.
Marshalee Valentine: Like, there's a root cause to this problem and we're not tackling the root cause. We're trying to put a bandaid on the situation constantly.
Scott Bentley: Well, Jools, I mean, look, I'm so ready to be taken on this journey. But just before we start, let's have a quick word from our sponsors.
[Ad music begins]
Scott Walker: It is time to take a coffee trip with Siemens Home Appliances.
Jools Walker: Now, Scott, where are you taking me today?
Scott Walker: Don't tell the wife, but we're travelling back to where I had my honeymoon, to the beautiful forests of Sri Lanka.
Jools Walker: Oh, this sounds kind of familiar.
Scott Walker: Yeah, we did a whole story about this in a previous episode.
Jools Walker: Oh, I remember this one. I remember the story of Sri Lanka's coffee industry, because it's absolutely wild. So, basically, the Europeans came along, did the whole monoculture thing, and then a little disease came along and it all blew up.
Scott Walker: But you know, the funny thing is the coffee didn't disappear entirely. It survived in these little home gardens where, you know, farmers would essentially live in what looked like tropical forest, but they would grow all the food they needed there around them.
Jools Walker: And the wonderful thing about that is that it's super ecological — there's no pesticides, there's no fertilisers, the birds eat the insects, and everything is thriving in a polyculture.
Scott Walker: Yeah, but the problem is, it’s really hard to get hold of this coffee. So we are so grateful to our friends at Hansa Coffee, a roaster on the island who sent across this bag of coffee from the home gardeners.
Jools Walker: So Scott, how are we going to bring this up on the Siemens EQ700?
Scott Walker: Jools, today I'm going to be brewing this cafe au oat. I'm going to bang in a few settings on the touchscreen, here. We're going to go for normal strength, but we're going to have 350 mil cup size.
The other thing I've done is I've actually changed the grind setting on the EQ700, so it's on a slightly coarser grind.
Would you like some chocolate powder sprinkled on the top there?
Jools Walker: Could you sprinkle it in the shape of a heart, a stencil? That'd be great. Thank you.
Scott Walker: I think I can do that. Just don't tell the wife!
And that was a coffee trip brought to you by Siemens Home Appliances.
[Ad music ends]
Jools Walker: So, Scott, I want to start the story by giving you an idea and showing you what Jamaica looked like a thousand years ago. Now, Jamaica itself is directly underneath Cuba, which itself is directly under Florida.
For the first part of this story, Scott, I spoke with the author of the book “The Mother of Us All: A History of Queen Nanny, Leader of the Windward Jamaican Maroons”.
Now, there's going to be more on Queen Nanny later.
Karla Gottlieb: Well, my name is Karla Gottlieb. I'm a writer and a non-profit professional.
[Peaceful music begins]
Jools Walker: So Karla told me a thousand years ago, if you'd sailed up to the island, this is what you would see.
Karla Gottlieb: Basically, it was a paradise really, you know, the Arawak or the Taíno, you know, they had everything they needed. Imagine the Caribbean ocean, you know, you can eat fish and shark and caiman and even manatee. Basically, I think it would just be incredibly green and, you know, a lot of fruit trees and just things that you could eat.
Jools Walker: So, we think the people who were living on the island were the Taíno, and we think they were part of the Arawak, and possibly a group of people known as the Kalinago were there as well.
Scott Bentley: What's this music that’s playing in the background?
Jools Walker: There's a song that I found on YouTube, and it suggested that it is being sung in Taíno.
Scott Bentley: So, Jools, how does coffee relate to this beautiful landscape and you know, these wonderful people?
Jools Walker: That's the point, Scott — there wasn't any. And more importantly, yeah, there were no Europeans either. And Karla painted a very idyllic picture of the people who lived there before either of them arrived.
Karla Gottlieb: So, everything I've read lends to the fact that it was a very peaceful, incredibly peaceful culture; very welcoming and warm and always plenty to give.
[Peaceful music ends]
Jools Walker: So we kind of know what comes next, but Columbus is on his ship and spots the island in 1492. And of course, as we know, Columbus is European and is on a money-making mission for the Spanish monarchy.
He then said about torturing and killing the Taíno people to get their land. Now, almost everybody else who survived were effectively enslaved, and they died through overwork and disease that was brought over to the island by the Europeans. Now, a small number of them did manage to escape and they hid in the mountainous forest in the middle of the island, including the Blue Mountains in the east. And Scott, this was the beginning of the community that became known as the Maroons.
Scott Bentley: Right, OK. So basically, beautiful place, everyone's happy, Europeans come along, smash everything up.
Jools Walker: Yup.
Scott Bentley: Great.
Jools Walker: To fill the island with people, the Spanish began buying enslaved Africans and shipping them over to Jamaica. It wasn't a big number though, I guess, perhaps in the hundreds, but probably not in the thousands. But Jamaica's coffee story doesn't actually begin until the British arrive 150 years later when they attacked the island and drove out the Spanish.
Karla Gottlieb: On May 10th of 1655, General Venables led an army and kicked the Spanish out really quick.
Jools Walker: And as the Spanish were leaving, a couple of hundred African enslaved people who were brought over by the Spanish grabbed the opportunity and ran for their freedom.
Karla Gottlieb: When the British came, all the Africans fled into the hills. So even the word Maroon, they say, is a declension of cimarrón, which means “wild” or “gone wild”.
Scott Bentley: So, is this the point that coffee comes into the story?
Jools Walker: Yes Scott, but coffee wasn't actually that important. The big cash crop was actually…
Karla Gottlieb: Sugar, sugar, sugar — that was the most profitable thing ever. The labour was free, you feed them like nothing, you know, pig food, and then you get it, you make it into molasses, and you ship it to England, and they make it into rum. And, I mean, it's just hugely profitable, which is so sad.
Jools Walker: But the British did also plant coffee in plantations on the island, but it was often higher up in the mountains because the sugar was on the lowlands. And of course enslaved people worked the coffee plantations. Now, I asked Karla about the conditions of the enslaved black people. And if you're listening to this, dear listener, you may want to skip ahead by a minute and a half if you do not want to hear these descriptions.
Karla Gottlieb: It was awful. I mean, awful. You know, very little food, you get on a ship, you come to Jamaica, you get off the ship, you're African, you go to a plantation. The life expectancy was, like, five years.
OK, so, from malnutrition to just basically sleeping in awful conditions, tons of mosquitoes, working from sunup to sundown. You know, you're not able to learn to read, you can't do any drumming, you can't practice. And then the next day, you're stripped away from your kids and wife and taken somewhere else. And so many women were raped by white men, all over. I mean, that was just a part of slavery, to include that humiliation, you know, that domination. It’s like warfare, you know, it's like rape as part of warfare.
Jools Walker: Rape as a weapon of war, yeah.
Karla Gottlieb: But guess what? This goes on for like 30 years, and you have five kids with this guy, you know. So just these Europeans, and mostly British, living these crazy lives of luxury while a hundred people are sweating and starving with no shoes, no clothes, you know, working all day long.
Scott Bentley: Wow. I mean, properly, properly brutal. I didn't know the extent of this, but, um, yeah, truly, truly disgusting and horrible.
Jools Walker: You cannot talk about coffee without talking about this, you know. And here's the thing, right? The enslaved people were not going to take this lying down.
Karla Gottlieb: There were tons of cases of the entire plantation, 200 people leaving, I mean… So, they would go up on the eastern side to the Blue Mountains, basically, where there were communities of runaway slaves called Maroons, or runaway enslaved people.
Jools Walker: The Maroon communities in places like the Blue Mountains got bigger and bigger. And they got so big that they actually started fighting the British. And one of my favourite heroes from this period was a female Ghanaian leader called Queen Nanny.
Karla Gottlieb: A woman who was born around 1680 in Gold Coast present day Ghana. So went on a boat, came over when she was 11 or 12, escaped the plantation. You know, there's a bunch of people in the hills, she runs off, and they're like, great, join us. And immediately she became a leader of the community, and the kind of leader you would want.
Like, they said, she was kind, and she was nurturing, and she was sharing of leadership, and impressive in just so many ways. And apparently it was not so unusual for women to be leaders.
Jools Walker: So Queen Nanny is in the Windward side, the east side where the wind comes from in Jamaica, hence the name, and it's nestled in the Blue Mountain region. And Queen Nanny led a guerrilla war against the British for decades.
Scott Bentley: So she was literally fighting for their freedom?
Jools Walker: Oh, absolutely. And she was absolutely brilliant.
Karla Gottlieb: The British even said this, 100%. They said that if it was 500 Maroons versus 5,000 British with all their mercenaries, the Maroons would win.
Jools Walker: The Maroons mastered long distance communication with the abeng, which is a type of horn. And they had different tones, which was basically like using an encrypted code that the British could never understand. The Maroons mastered camouflage to the extent that the British told tales of trees coming alive and cutting someone's head off, and Queen Nanny even used psychological warfare.
Karla Gottlieb: So, the British would come up to a cauldron of some sort in the path that they couldn't go around, and they would look into it and then they would fall in and die. And she would come forward and grab the last guy — because people would see people dying and they would have to go forward to see what's going on — so she grabbed the last person, she said, “Now go tell your boss, what you just saw. Go back — you tell them about Nanny’s cauldron, Nanny’s pot”.
Scott Bentley: Wow. I mean, fascinating stories. Amazing.
Jools Walker: Yeah, the hallucinogens inside of that pot were quite something. But eventually, the Maroons wore down the British army and they conceded 500 acres of land to Queen Nanny's Maroon community. And the village that was built on this land, Moore Town, is literally in the Blue Mountain range region.
Jools Walker: And it is one of the very few parishes that you're legally allowed to collect coffee from if you want to label it as Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee.
And such is the way with history, the windward Maroon community will still have spread across Jamaica and intermingled. So while it's not being grown in the Maroon community itself commercially, so many Jamaicans who do grow it can trace their ancestry to the Maroons.
Jools Walker: So over the years, sugar production became less important. But Scott, did you know that a vast majority of all Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee today is actually sold in Japan?
Scott Bentley: Oh, no, I didn't actually. I know I don't see a lot of it, but I'm also not looking for it.
Jools Walker: Well, Japan does get the bulk. So, I spoke with Colin Smith, who is the owner of Smith's Coffee.
Colin Smith: We roast about 10 tons of coffee a week. We have a huge range of speciality coffees, which obviously include Blue Mountain.
Jools Walker: Colin did a lot of reading for this interview and he came up with some theories for why the Japanese actually buy so much Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee. And it has to do with their involvement after the end of slave plantations in Jamaica.
Colin Smith: Slavery was the main issue for the fall of coffee production in the 1870s in Jamaica. So, because the slaves worked the fields. And the other thing they worked was sugarcane. So the two things were your main export from Jamaica. And once slavery finished, the fall in coffee dropped considerably. So what they tried to do was to turn these sugar plantations into coffee plantations, because they were going to bring in external income. So, having done that, they were short of money. A huge amount of money was needed to make this change, and Japan gave them money. And they gave them money on the issue that they would have first call on their coffee. And that's why Japan takes the large bulk of the Jamaican crop.
Scott Bentley: Well, I mean, I think that's an interesting theory, yeah.
Jools Walker: Now, I also spoke with Kosuke Nakamura of the Association of Japanese Importers of Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee. And he wrote that Jamaica Blue Mountain is the king of coffee on the Japanese market. And I quote: “The coffee that results from the work is a coffee where fragrance and tastes, astringency, acidity and sweetness and body mix together in a mild way and in perfect proportions to create a golden balance that the Japanese are fond of. I suppose that there is also the PR effect of the fact that Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee is a royal warrant-holding product”.
Scott Bentley: So Jools, I mean, obviously apart from the Queen drinking, is it just expensive because there's so little of it?
Jools Walker: Yes, Scott, its rarity would have played a part in this. But also, according to Colin, you have to imagine that about 50-odd years ago, Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee would have had really special flavours in the world of commodity coffees, which were, in comparison, quite boring.
Colin Smith: It was a separate coffee to commodity. So, it wasn't really a commodity. It was a speciality. Because of its price, because of the whole aura of it.
Jools Walker: In some ways, it was one of the first speciality coffees in a world of commodity coffee.
Colin Smith: Blue Mountain was purely sold in those specialty coffee shops where you could go and buy a Colombia, or a Brazil, or a Kenya or Costa Rica.
Scott Bentley: I suppose, in some ways, Jools, this speaks to those old days of commodity coffee, and it was really difficult to get a single origin that tasted good. We covered this in previous episodes, “The Dark Side of Coffee Roasting” and “Single Origin - Coffee’s Fairytale Debunked” — all links in the show notes. But basically, most coffee wasn't that good. And if you'd given someone a coffee that we tasted with those really delicious fruity flavours, like those dried raisins that we got when we were at HR Higgins, to someone back in the 1970s, that would have blown their minds.
Jools Walker: Absolutely. And Colin thinks that that's one of the reasons why Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee isn't so revered anymore as it once was. Basically, as the specialty coffee movement got more and more developed, the flavours got better and better.
Colin Smith: The other coffees from other countries have now become more special.
Jools Walker: So people began asking themselves…
Karla Gottlieb: So, who's going to fork out 120-30 quid per kilo when they can buy a very nice coffee, maybe for £25-30.
Scott Bentley: Yeah. I mean, it does make sense. And it's kind of one of the things that I've thought about. It’s like, well, it’s nice coffee, don't get me wrong, but it's not the kind of coffee that I'm going to spend five times the amount on.
[Intense, troubling music begins]
Jools Walker: You know what, Scott, the thing is, all of this is more like the tip of the iceberg. Because I realised while I was making this story, things were actually getting quite bad for the Jamaican coffee growing industry.
For example, there is a video that's been circulating on Facebook of a coffee farmer who wants to quit coffee and explaining why it's actually such a broken system out there.
Jamaican coffee grower: Baa, tears people cry, because this is the only crop. We don't have a factory. We don’t have nothing else.
Jools Walker: And also, Scott, there's a Jamaican parliamentarian who wrote an excellent piece that called out the fact that production from 2016 to 2019 fell from 7,580 tons to 5,587 tons. And he openly criticised the way that coffee is being managed.
Scott Bentley: From, like, 7,500 to 5,500 tons — I mean, that's, what, a drop of, like, 30%? I mean, that's huge!
Jools Walker: It is a big drop and, dear listener, we're going to put a link in the show notes to the parliamentarian article and the farmer video so that they can check this out. Everyone that I spoke to for this story had their own opinion on why things were going really wrong. Colin had his own opinion…
Colin Smith: The Coffee Board in Jamaica, they don't want changes.
Jools Walker: I also spoke with a gentleman called Dominic Wyndham-Gittens, who you may remember, because we actually met him at the London Coffee Festival, and he is a coffee roaster in the neighbouring Caribbean island of Barbados.
Dominic Wyndham-Gittens: I'm the co-founder and director of coffee for Wyndhams Bajan Coffee Roasters.
Jools Walker: And Dominic had his own reasons, as a fellow Caribbean islander, for why Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee wasn't doing well.
Dominic Wyndham-Gittens: And if they're the biggest producer of coffee, and they get paid a lot of money for their product, regardless of their innovation or not, it is very dangerous for their industry to not grow or change and develop.
Jools Walker: And, for the record, I did actually try to schedule an interview with JACRA, who are the Jamaican Agricultural Commodities Regulatory Authority, but I wasn't able to do so. So, right now I'm not able to share their perspectives. But, I did want to figure out what was really going on in the Jamaican coffee industry.
Jools Walker: I kind of feel like there's a big veil of secrecy that’s surrounding it. I spoke to some roasters who did try to put me in touch with their Jamaican coffee exporters, but none of them wanted to talk. And here’s another interesting thing, Scott. If you go onto the website of Cafe Imports, which is a speciality coffee, green bean supplier, who's built a reputation on trying to make personal connections with the farmers they work with, they write, and I quote: “For the 15 to 20 years that we have been buying Jamaican coffee, we have not been able to work or communicate with the producers or farmers”.
Scott Bentley: That’s quite odd really, isn't it. So Cafe Imports is essentially saying they're trying to speak to those producers and farmers and they’re just not getting anywhere.
Jools Walker: Exactly. But, I finally found someone who was actually willing to talk to me. And I didn't realise just how bad things actually were.
Scott Bentley: Tell me more, tell me more.
Jools Walker: My dear Scott, I will tell you more, but first, let's have a quick word from our sponsors.
[Ad music begins]
Scott Bentley: So, Jools, look, the big question: Can you, a self-proclaimed everyday coffee lover, roast coffee like an expert with Ikawa Home roasting system?
So Scott, a few weeks ago, I threw 100g of raw coffee beans from the Ndunzu Kateshi Estate in Zambia into the top of the Ikawa Home. I opened the app and followed Ikawa’s recommended recipe of a medium roast with low development and pressed roast.
And then the beans whizzed their way over to Bristol.
Dan O'Regan: So, I'm Dan O’Regan. Currently, I own a restaurant and coffee shop in Bristol. It's called Bank.
Scott Bentley: I know Dan! He writes for the magazine, quite often, actually. Very nice guy.
Jools Walker: Do you think you know how many roasters and different types of coffee you have tried since being in the industry?
Dan O'Regan: Different roasters, probably in the hundreds. Coffee, I mean, definitely in the thousands. I've done 50 different coffees in a day before, and stuff like that.
Scott Bentley: Yeah, I think he came to one of our cuppings where we did that much.
Jools Walker: Now, Dan brewed up my coffee using his favourite V60 recipe.
Dan O'Regan: Thirty grams, 500 mils of water, 94 degrees. Brewed it for about just under four minutes.
Jools Walker: Then, he put this anonymous coffee to his lips.
Dan O'Regan: So, yeah, it's roasted well. It's balanced. Really ripe, stewed fruit. Maybe, like, dates, figs, black prunes, raisins. I'd hazard a guess that it was a speciality coffee.
Jools Walker: OK, would you like to know who roasted the coffee?
Dan O'Regan: Yes, please.
Jools Walker: Dan, I am the person who roasted the coffee that was sent to you.
Dan O'Regan: Oh, it’s good! It’s delicious.
Scott Bentley: There you go, Jools, you’ve done it again.
Jools Walker: Now, we've linked Dan's Instagram and his Bristol cafe, Bank, in the show notes.
Scott Bentley: So, dear listener, you can roast coffee your way with the Ikawa Home roasting system.
[Ad music ends]
Scott Bentley: So, Jools, tell me, look, you got in touch with someone from Jamaica. There's obviously a story here…
Jools Walker: Mm.
Scott Bentley: …looking at your face. What did you learn?
Jools Walker: All right. So, Scott, I spoke to this incredible woman.
Marshalee Valentine: Well, hi Jools, I’m Marshalee Valentine. Well, in my daytime job, I am a quality and food safety and environmental management systems consultant. However, my true passion led to me now being the co-founder and president of the Jamaican Women in Coffee, where we are a charitable organisation, which seeks to empower and recognise women and their contributions in coffee.
Jools Walker: So, Marshalee used to work for the government's coffee department and also for one of the big coffee estates. And she always felt that women in particular were the ones who were the most short-changed in the coffee system.
So when Marshalee founded Jamaican Women in Coffee, which, by the way, is the local chapter of the International Women's Coffee Alliance, they went about doing a pilot survey, and they were speaking with female farmers in the Blue Mountain Coffee region. And what they learned was pretty grim.
Scott Bentley: Oh, God.
Jools Walker: So this is the way that it works.
The female farmers that were surveyed owned small pieces of land, an average of about two and a half acres. And most of them said that coffee was the source of most of their income. And every year, they collect their cherries and sell them on to one of the big local coffee estates. Now, there are only about a dozen of them in the country who then process the coffee and sell it abroad through about a dozen exporters.
Scott Bentley: I mean, this whole talk of estates, this to me has real echoes of colonial plantations.
Jools Walker: Exactly. Now, for many years, small-scale farmers earned enough to keep growing coffee, but more recently things have begun to take a nosedive. Now, here's the first big problem. Not only has production fallen down dramatically these last five years. So has the price.
Marshalee Valentine: So, it dropped in half!
Scott Bentley: Why? Why did it drop so low?
Jools Walker: Because the quality of the coffee was getting worse.
Marshalee Valentine: You know, the quality had reduced significantly. And they were like, this is not the Blue Mountain Coffee I'm used to. And I saw it first hand. I was the lab technician. I was an inspector. I worked in a processing facility. I saw that quality deteriorates over the years.
Scott Bentley: So, what does this halving in price mean for the women farmers then?
Jools Walker: So, let me do some quick maths for you. In Jamaica, they measure the weight of the harvest in boxes, and each box is around £60. And Marshalee suggested that these women farmers…
Marshalee Valentine: Some of them are doing as little as 10 boxes an acre per crop year.
Scott Bentley: Oh, wow! That's not a great deal at all really is it?
Jools Walker: Here's the thing, the prices for each box is about $25.
Scott Bentley: So, these farmers are earning, you know, as little as just over $600 a year then?
Jools Walker: At the low end, that's what it suggests.
Scott Bentley: Wow. That's tiny! I mean, that's nothing for a crop which is meant to be so prized and so expensive.
Jools Walker: And you know what? It gets worse, because obviously recently climate change has been making it more difficult to grow coffee out there.
Scott Bentley: Right, right, OK. And also to fight climate change, as a farmer, that obviously costs money too — you know, fertilisers, pest control.
Jools Walker: And not only have those prices been dropping, the amount of coffee that each farmer grows has been falling too.
It's now got to the stage where it can actually cost these farmers more to grow coffee than what they actually earn from it.
Scott Bentley: Wow. We're talking about one of the most prestigious coffees in the world is now… the production of it is more than they're getting for it. This isn't commodity stuff that they're producing here.
Jools Walker: No, the whole thing in that sense is grim. And it's a pretty vicious circle, and the farmers are understandably getting really unhappy about it.
Scott Bentley: Absolutely.
Marshalee Valentine: People can't bother. There are people who want to sell their farms because they're not getting value from it.
Jools Walker: Now, in that pilot report from Jamaican Women in Coffee — and there will be a link in the show notes for this — farmers were saying, and I quote: “I feel discouraged” and that “Coffee farming is a waste of time”.
Scott Bentley: So, Jools, if I'm reading this situation correctly, these coffee farmers, they used to have a business where it was relatively sustainable. And then as climate change has kind of really kicked in, we're seeing them having to spend more money to keep these plants in a healthy condition. But the problem is, the yields are just so much lower. And so therefore, there's just less money that they're able to get. This is not a sustainable livelihood anymore.
Jools Walker: Absolutely. I mean, as you saw with the video that I was telling you about, the farmers talking about that, that is the case.
Scott Bentley: So Jools, lots of bad news going on here. And I'm thinking that Jamaica wants this industry to be good. So, what's being done to fix this?
Jools Walker: Well, the government did write on its website that it's done some work to help farmers, like finding solutions to combat coffee diseases that are getting worse because of things like climate change, which we've mentioned. And there is also some genetic work that's taking place. But, overall, the impression that I got from speaking with Colin and Dominic and some of the other folks that I talked to as well was that the government doesn't really want to change the system too much because they're afraid of killing their golden goose, which is changing the prized flavours of Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee.
And the thing is, they just don't have enough money to make a big impact with their programmes.
Scott Bentley: So, who's going to stop this downward spiral?
Jools Walker: Well, Marshalee has been pushing for a lot of change herself, and she's been doing that through her association with Jamaican Women in Coffee, known as JWIC.
[Upbeat music begins]
And she put together an action plan. For one, they're tackling the issue by doing more surveys to understand the problems faced by women farmers even better…
Marshalee Valentine: So, we want to find out who they are, what they need from us and how we can help.
Jools Walker: Improving coffee quality and flavours…
Marshalee Valentine: Through training and mentorship.
Jools Walker: Helping these women sell their coffee for better prices…
Marshalee Valentine: Forming relationships that will help us to build a global network of potential buyers for these women.
Jools Walker: And focusing on sustainability…
Marshalee Valentine: To ensure that their farming practices don't deteriorate their natural environment.
Scott Bentley: Well, I mean, come on, Marshalee, let's do it! She sounds great.
Jools Walker: She is amazing!
Scott Bentley: She’s got good things going.
Jools Walker: Absolutely amazing. But they have a goal, and it's an amazing goal. One of which, speaking to her, has got me really excited and optimistic about the future of Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee.
Marshalee Valentine: I know it may be far-fetched, but my dream has always been to have a processing facility for women farmers. You know, a women-owned coffee processing facility. So we can tell that story behind the coffee. Where does it come from? Who grew this? What family do you come from? What's the family history? Like, what are the coffee notes? So, we need that space, so we're continuing to grow and encourage that kind of thing in Jamaica, through the Jamaican Women in Coffee.
Scott Bentley: I think that's a clarion call to people. It’s like, someone, come on, let's step up, let’s get some people out there to kind of work with Marshalee and really make this coffee as fantastic as we know it could be.
Jools Walker: Yeah, the potential — and it feels weird to say that, because obviously this is such a well revered coffee — but the potential for Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee to be incredible is right there. The work needs to be put into it to make that happen, and supporting organisations like Jamaican Women in Coffee is important as well, because they're forward facing with what's going on in the world of coffee and desperately want to move things forward, but they need that help. So, they may not have necessarily been getting it from within, like, you know, internal support, which is quite a worry, but they have been reaching out to other organisations out there who have been giving a helping hand and actually wanting to move forward with it.
And one of the things that we also did talk about was the experimentation in Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee, because there's that element of it being like, you know, quite rigid in the taste and what people expect of it to be.
And there are people at farm level who are interested in doing things with different types of fermentation and stuff like that. So, it's got all of this scope and I know that it kind of started off on a grim note when we talked about the history of coffee and Jamaica, but you can't not talk about that stuff to acknowledge what's going on with it right now.
I just want the future to be bright for it. I want to see Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee being something that's more accessible and readily available for everyday coffee lovers to drink. Because just thinking about what our reaction was like when we had it in HR Higgins. It was a delicious, balanced coffee. And, for me, a personal moment of joy would be to walk into a trendy third wave coffee shop in London and actually see it on the menu and see it available and knowing the stories behind it. Like, with some of the farmers that Marshalee works with at JWIC. These are stories that desperately need to be told, and the world needs to know more about Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee and how incredible this thing is.
Scott Bentley: Well, Jools, I think that's a perfect place to end it. So, would you like to start with the credits?
[Credits music begins]
Jools Walker: Go on then.
Scott Bentley: So, dear listener, this podcast was produced by dear producer-man James. He wrote and plays the piano music, and our editor is Amedeo Berta.
Jools Walker: Now, dear listener, every episode that I work on at Adventures in Coffee is special. This one obviously had a very special connection for me, and I spent untold hours working on it. And, I've got to say, it was quite the experience to dive in, spend that much time doing the interviews and helping to craft the story to bring it to you.
Scott Bentley: We really want to make more of these stories, and we would love, love, love, your support. And the best way to do that is to essentially buy us a coffee every month on Patreon, which is a platform where you can financially support the creators that you love.
Jools Walker: And we also do giveaways on that platform.
Scott Bentley: We do.
Jools Walker: We do indeed. And our most recent one was that we gave away three high-end air grinders from our friends at Made By Knock. So, thank you to Rachel, Craig and Sam for supporting us and for winning the grinders.
Scott Bentley: But, we're now going to be working on another giveaway. If you saw the latest cover of Caffeine magazine, you would have seen the beautiful Stagg kettle, and there's a lovely carafe on there and a brewer, which was all donated by our incredibly good friends at Coffee Hit.
Now, if you'd like to win these things, again, get on the Patreon and you will be in with a chance.
Jools Walker: If you cannot support us on Patreon, fear not. There is another very helpful thing you can do to share the love, which is to share our podcast with your friends.
So, create a screengrab of your podcast player while listening to Adventures in Coffee, post it on Instagram Stories and tag us in it. So that's me @ladyvelo; Scott, @caffeinemag; and James, @filterstoriespodcast, and we will repost it on our media channels.
Scott Bentley: In the next episode of Adventures in Coffee, we are bringing you to the cutting edge of coffee growing.
Jools Walker: Now, we are talking funky fermentations, genetic engineering and coffee from the land of clouds and tea.
Scott Bentley: But, until then, do check out Jamaican Women in Coffee in the show notes and support their incredible work. And let’s all go out and taste a little Jamaican coffee.
Jools Walker: Buh-bye, dear listener.