Mavis Bank - Jamaica's Blue Mountain Coffee Paradise
(Originally printed in Drink Magazine in 1997.)

Nearly a mile above the blue waters of the Caribbean, and a steep, winding, two-hour-plus drive from Kingston, Mavis Bank Central Factory sits in the middle of the the coffee farms of Jamaica's Blue Mountain. Welcome to coffee heaven.

There are no Starbucks in coffee heaven. Nobody offers you a "Half-caf, double-decaf latte grande with a twist of cinnamon and a splash of Colombian hazelnut." Coffee here comes in cups, not bowls.

"Originally, it was my grandfather that started (the company) in 1885," says Keble Munn, Mavis Bank's Managing Director, as he sits behind his cluttered desk and watches the clouds blow across his beloved Blue Mountain through his office window. A 77-year-old who could pass for 55, Munn delights in displaying a photograph of his three-year-old self spreading coffee beans out to dry, proof that he's spent a lifetime in the coffee business. "It was a farm called Strawberry Hill, much higher in the mountains. His son, Victor, my uncle and stepfather, carried on the business starting in about 1901. What they had discovered was that it was very difficult to get the coffee dried at that altitude. So, in about 1921, Victor found this place - Mavis Bank - that was about five acres of riverside in those days. The whole concept was that since this place faced east to west, since the sun hits it from in the morning until late in the afternoon, this was to be a drying depot, where the coffee would come down from Strawberry Hill to be dried. And this went on until after I returned from World War II, where I served with the Canadian Army."

From the beginning, there had been a mystique attached to Blue Mountain coffee, but as a result of several factors - over cultivation a main cause - the coffee had suffered a tremendous lowering of quality and quantity, so that by the 1940s there were only a small number of Blue Mountain producers - each independent, each dwindling. "After the war," Munn says, "having discovered that this was, for all practical purposes, bankrupt, I needed a job. So I was trained in New York in 1946 to be a coffee tester, and stayed with that for four years."

In 1951, a hurricane all but destroyed coffee heaven. Only three pulperies were operating - Mavis Bank, Moy Hall, and Silver Hill. A year earlier, Keble Munn had helped develop the Coffee Industry Board, which drew up guidelines for regulation and grading of the Blue Mountain coffee. Over the next 20 years, the quality and quantity of the Blue Mountain coffee regained its former mystique. In 1973, the Jamaican government decreed that only coffee processed by Mavis Bank, Moy Hall, Silver Hill, and the government station at Wallenford could be legally termed Blue Mountain coffee. (The pulpery at Langley is now certified as well.) The Board also instituted a seal of quality that certifies these coffees as 100% Blue Mountain - any coffee not displaying this seal is at best a blend, at worst... "We do get people who are giving us a problem with imitations," Munn admits. "The Board has been very busy trying to get after those people. There have been robberies of the coffee, counterfeits of the packaging. You have to be very careful buying your coffee. Right here I have a letter from a gentleman from Ohio who said he came to Jamaica and was very disappointed with a three-pound bag of our coffee that he bought. Only we don't put up our coffee in three-pound packages, so obviously something is wrong somewhere."

You can fake the packaging, but you can't fake the coffee that comes from coffee heaven. "The Coffee Industry Board is very strong on quality, and we are exceptionally strong on quality here," Munn insists. "The quality is due to a number of things. If you look out my office window, you're looking at the Blue Mountain, that's 7400 feet elevation. We happen to be lucky enough to be sitting right in the center of the best of the old-time Blue Mountain altitude areas.

"It has to do with altitude, and then it has to do with soil type. A lot of this area is all volcanic soil types. And it has to do with the mountain slopes. You can't have the sun on the crop all day. You have to be on a slope that is not getting all the full sun on it. We have about 4000 farmers we take from. We have our own personal farm, then we have about eight or ten big growers who cover a total of around 700 acres of coffee all together."

Coffee heaven - the Blue Mountain coffee area - is defined by law, and as Munn says, "if you're caught bringing anything in from outside, then you're really in heavy waters. So we have to be very strict from our point of view to make sure the coffee we take is from within the area."

The quality of the Blue Mountain coffee, and Mavis Bank in particular, is a result of more than locale. "It's a question of general processing," according to Munn. "We do the processing here still with the old-time methods. We pulp the berries, we put it in the tanks and ferment it, we then wash the coffee out and put it on the barbecues (actually large concrete patios) for drying in the sun. We dry the coffee on the barbecue, then take it and stack it in a beg shed and leave it in there to rest for six to eight weeks because that builds up the quality. Then we have to bring it back out because it will have taken up a certain amount of moisture again, so it must be dried again. We have very strict control of the coffee right through from the picking of the berry to the end processing of the bean - the roasting and grinding - and the packaging. We even have our delivery trucks controlled by radio from the central office, so we have a situation where we have quality control from beginning to end."

Considering that Mavis Bank coffee, when you can find it, goes for around $50 per pound in the U.S., it's a good thing that quality control is so important. Making sure that the people who are paying $50 per pound - and up to $10 per cup in Japan - are satisfied is important, too. That's why Mavis Bank investigates every letter and call that comes in with a complaint about the quality of their coffee. "Any complaint," Munn says, "we immediately replace the coffee. Our policy is that if somebody writes us and complains, we need to get back to them and send them some of the good stuff. What we do is ask the people to send us the tag from the coffee - all our packages have a production date on them - so we know when the coffee was done. That way, if somebody writes us and says our coffee is very stale, we can see that they maybe bought it two or three years after it was made, and we need to make sure that whoever is selling this coffee is selling only fresh coffee." (For reference, coffee in a sealed vacuum bag or can will keep for about 12 months, then the quality will begin to decline.)

In coffee heaven, of course, freshness is never a question. Mountains of coffee in all stages of production, from berry to bean to medium-grind, surround you. The aromas of coffee fermenting, roasting, and brewing are inescapable. And since this is coffee heaven, a cup of Mavis Bank Blue Mountain is never out of reach.

Unlike some super-premium coffees, Blue Mountain isn't oily, nor is it overpowering at first taste. It's smooth, somewhat sweet, with only the slightest hint of bitterness in the aftertaste. "We say that if you normally take sugar, you should have your first cup of Blue Mountain without," says Munn, and he's right. Only the most sugar and cream addicted will find themselves adding anything to a well-brewed cup of Mavis Bank.

"When you're buying Blue Mountain coffee," Munn says, "you're best to buy the roasted bean and then grind it at home yourself." You can buy "green" or unroasted bean coffee in the U.S., but unless you have a roaster in whom you have the utmost confidence, you run the risk of ruining the coffee. At $50 a pound, that's an expensive mistake.

"Yes, it is," Munn agrees. "But remember something. When you talk about the price of the Blue Mountain coffee, you're always talking about $50 a pound. But you should realize that you get 50 cups from a pound of coffee, so you're really only paying $1 a cup for the best coffee in the world.

"When you think of it that way," Keble Munn smiles, "it's not too expensive at all, is it?" Welcome to coffee heaven.


Bonus Section - Making the Pilgrimage

"The path to heaven," it has been said, "is as narrow and difficult to walk as a razor's edge." The path to coffee heaven is a bit easier. The Blue Mountain coffee area is located at the southeast end of the island of Jamaica, near the capital city of Kingston, far from the tourist areas of Negril and Montego Bay. American Airlines offers daily non-stop jet service from Miami to Kingston, with connections available from practically anywhere in the U.S. Air Jamaica also offers daily Miami/Kingston flights.

LODGING

Staying in Kingston proper is, in spite of what you may hear, no more dangerous than staying in Manhattan. The Wyndham Kingston (77 Knutsford Boulevard, 809.926.5430.9) is in the center of the city and is a favorite of U.S. business travelers. A beautiful outdoor bar serves ice cold Red Stripe beer, powerful rum concoctions, and both Cuban and Jamaican cigars in addition to a limited appetizer menu.

Outside the city, Strawberry Hill (Irishtown, 800.OUTPOST or 809.944.8400) is the resort of choice. Owned by Chris Blackwell - whose Island Records introduced the world to Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and others - Strawberry Hill has been called "the ultimate base camp" and may be the best hotel in the world for under $200 per night (low season). Nestled in the Blue Mountains, Strawberry Hill offers spectacular views of Kingston and Kingston Bay, with one-bedroom suites, studio suites, and villas available for single nights, two-week and monthly rentals. Each room features private verandas, four-poster mahogany beds (with goose-down bedding with heated mattress), and breathtaking views. Helicopter service to and from Kingston's Norman Manley airport is available for a fee.

DINING

Redbones - The Blues Cafe (21 Braemar Ave., 809.978.8262) is one of Kingston's newest restaurants, and on my visit it was Kingston's best. Decorated to echo New Orleans' French Quarter, and featuring live and recorded jazz, Redbones - The Blues Cafe is a must-visit. Owner/chef Norma Shirley calls her cooking "New World Cuisine," a blend of Jamaican, southern U.S., and Caribbean. The menu ranges from traditional Jamaican (jerked chicken kebab appetizers) to Cajun (sauteed shrimp in herbs and wine topped with fresh river crawfish entrees), but is uniformly brilliant.

SIDE TRIPS

The Bob Marley Museum in downtown Kingston is a tribute to Jamaica's favorite son and arguably most famous personality, housed in Marley's old estate. Reggae music's most powerful writer and performer, Marley transcended politics and class during his lifetime (he died of cancer in 1981), and continues to influence Jamaican life today. Go in early February for the annual Bob Marley Birthday Bash, where his surviving family and band members put on a marathon outdoor concert in his memory.

World' End (17 Holborn Rd., 809.926.8888) is the home of Sangster's Old Jamaican Spirits and only a few miles down the road from the Mavis Bank Central Factory. Founded by Dr. Ian Sangster in his home in 1974 (Dr. Sangster still lives in the upstairs quarters of World's End), Sangster's produces a full line of rums, rum-based liqueurs, and rum-based liqueur creams, including an outstanding Blue Mountain Coffee Cream made with 100% Blue Mountain coffee. Tours and tastings are available.


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