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Destination Jamaica

The afternoon rains in Kingston have begun. For weeks there’s been a dry spell, but now, on the day of my arrival, the skies have opened and the streets are overflowing with water. Not a good sign, since I’m set to head into the Blue Mountains to visit a coffee farm. If the rain keeps up, I won’t be able to see a thing, not to mention make it up the narrow road into the mountains. Luckily, the downpour subsides and mellows into mist. Winding into the hills above Jamaica’s capital, city life quickly gives way to a rural pace. Goats graze above the road, and houses are few and far between. As the road curves, the view reveals itself, an impressive sweep of verdant hills and the arc of Kingston Harbor.

Jamaica’s Blue Mountains produce some of the world’s most expensive coffee, retailing for as much as $50 a pound. Here, atop the highest points in the Caribbean, about 6.5 million pounds of coffee are harvested each year. The landscape is tropically lush, with foliage so rich I don’t even realize when the coffee plants come into view, shaded by banana palms and ginger plants. I pull into Craighton House Estate, one of a half-dozen primary Blue Mountain coffee producers, including notables like Wallenford Estate, Moy Hall, Mavis Bank and Jablum, and I’m greeted by Alton “Junior” Bedward, who oversees the estate.

The French brought coffee to Jamaica in 1728. It quickly flourished in the mild climate, and farmers began planting it farther into the hills of the Blue Mountains. According to Bedward, beans from these farms were immediately recognized as superior, and wealthy Jamaicans and foreign landowners sent them as gifts to friends in Britain, where demand grew. In 1747, production was a mere 83,000 pounds, but over the next century, it increased exponentially to 33 million pounds annually before almost collapsing due to labor shortages and mismanagement. Since that rise and fall, Jamaican coffee production has stabilized at its current figure of about 6.5 million pounds per year. Due to broad Japanese ownership of the coffee farms, about 80 percent is exported to Japan, with the remainder making its way to the United States and the United Kingdom.

While this famous coffee has become intrinsically linked with Jamaica outside the country, local attention to it is still minimal outside of the tourist market. Like many coffeeproducing countries, Jamaica exports most of its high-quality beans, so while coffee is widely enjoyed by locals, it is usually made from lower-quality beans, typically grown in the Blue Mountain foothills or elsewhere on the island. The lack of a significant café culture means that locals primarily drink coffee at home as part of the celebrated Jamaican breakfast, a serious meal of some of the nation’s most beloved foods, including ackee, a tree fruit that’s cooked into a mashed potato-like dish; salted codfish; callalo, a leafy green similar to collard greens; fried plantains; and bammy, a fried cake made from cassava root.

Bedward leads me up the steep slopes to get a look at the plants and the impressive view of mountains behind and Kingston below, sprawling along the naturally protected harbor. Because of the steep terrain, individual coffee fields are moderate in size, but plentiful, and spread over the mountains. The coffee cherries have begun to ripen, and the air holds the sweet scent of the blossoms. Soon the pickers will begin their rounds through the bushes, a laborious process of selecting only the ripest beans. Blue Mountain coffee is noted for its mild, mellow flavor and low acidity, all of which are noticeable when we brew a batch of French press after our walk.

Despite the quality of my cup, Blue Mountain coffee’s reputation has suffered in recent years. Perhaps chief among the contributing factors is the marked increase in the quality of coffee being grown in other parts of the world, but some growers, who have sold inferior beans under the Blue Mountain name, have done their share of damage as well. “No one would ever question the Jamaican Blue Mountain quality and the passion Jamaican farmers put into their product,” says Norman Killmon, master roaster at The Roasterie in Kansas City, Mo. “Unfortunately, for decades there has been a lot of coffee sold as Jamaican Blue that is not. These fraudulent dealings hurt everyone from the farmer to the end customer—it’s a lot easier to spot a fake designer watch than to determine if the coffee you are drinking is or is not the real Jamaican Blue.”

Killmon adds that the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica has addressed the issue and said they will pursue legal action against those falsely selling coffee as Blue Mountain. There are precise definitions of the region’s geographical boundaries, and the Board has implemented a strict certification program to identify authentic Blue Mountain coffee.

Growers here have the challenge of producing beans that live up to Blue Mountain’s reputation, delivering the clean, pleasing characteristics that have brought the region fame. However, with stiff competition from other coffee-growing countries, the bar for bean quality is consistently rising. If Bedward’s passion is indicative of the norm, Blue Mountain beans have a fighting chance.

Oak-Aged Rum, a Labor of Love
Coffee may be king in the Blue Mountains, but the drink that truly pervades Jamaican culture is rum. With endless acres of sugar cane fields blanketing the island’s valleys and Jamaica’s proud history as one of the birthplaces of the liquor, rum is woven into the island’s past and present. Columbus brought sugar cane to the region, but locals discovered that the thick, sticky molasses that was a by-product of sugar production could be fermented into a stimulating, flavorful alcoholic drink, and that distillation increased its strength and appeal.

Early on, the drink had many names, such as kill devil, rumbullion and eau de vie de molasses. How it came to be called rum is not a settled fact. One theory holds that the name comes from saccharum, the botanical genus name for sugar cane. Another is that it is a derivative of rumbullion, a word meaning “a great tumult or uproar.” Regardless, the earliest records of the drink being mentioned by name come from Barbados, circa 1651, with Jamaican records following a few years behind.

Originally, rum was the drink of the lower class and sailors. Then foreign sugar estate owners developed special rums that they shipped back to England in wooden barrels. The estate owners noticed how much smoother, mellower and more complex the rums were after spending time in wood, and thus the concept of aged rum was born.

These days, rum is the drink of choice on the island. Jamaicans take pride in the quality of their national drink, using it in most cocktails. Stronger white rums are mixed with fruit juices to create rum punch, a favorite at parties and gatherings, though not as popular in bars or restaurants. Dark, aged rums are often enjoyed neat, with the same reverence given to premium scotch in other parts of the world. Jamaica’s most popular rum is not the dark, mellow version most of us know, but the powerful Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum. White Overproof, so named because of its high strength, at 63 percent alcohol, is a popular base for punches but also has numerous traditional uses. Builders sprinkle it over foundations of new houses to ward off evil spirits, or duppies. A touch of it rubbed on one’s head is said to keep away the chills. Expectant mothers bring it to the hospital. And when a person dies, friends and relatives hold a nine-night vigil, and toast the deceased.

Where once Jamaica was home to almost 150 sugar estates, each with its own distillery, now there are just six active distilleries: Appleton Estate, New Yarmouth Estate, Long Pond Estate, Monymusk Estate, Hampden Estate and Worthy Park. Appleton crafts Jamaica’s most famous rums. Dating back to 1749, it’s the oldest rum producer in Jamaica,
and one of the oldest in the Caribbean. Appleton’s cane fields and distillery sit tucked in the Nassau Mountains in what is called Cockpit Country, for create the distillery’s signature rums. Though Appleton does produce light rum, it’s best known for dark rums, such as Appleton Estate V/X and the Appleton Estate 21-Year-Old, of which only 1,000 cases are made each year. While all these rums are a product of blending marks that range in age, darker rums contain a higher percentage of older marks, accounting for their more complex, concentrated flavors and deep amber hue.

If the silent heat of the barrel warehouse is where the rums take on their individual flavors, then the cool comfort of the blending room is where they’re transformed into a complex, finished product. Joy Spence, Appleton Estate’s master blender, has a rich laugh and an easy manner, but she’s a scientist at heart, and her ability to pick out the nuances of the rum marks and blend them consistently to create the Appleton line is fascinating to watch. Spence has been at Appleton for 25 years and has crafted many of the distillery’s blends. She also has the unique distinction of being the first woman in the industry to hold the title of master blender. “Creating a rum blend is a combination of art and science,” she says. “You look at the stocks of rum available to you, bearing in mind the compatibility of the different marks, the effects of aging and the chemistry profiles. Then you decide on the best combination of the marks.”

In the Island Heat, Refreshments Abound
Rum may have the most colorful history, but Jamaicans enjoy numerous other refreshments as well. One widely available staple is ginger ale, or ginger beer. In the past, ginger beer was alcoholic, made by fermenting ginger with lime and cream of tartar, but this concoction is now nearly gone, relegated to homebrew status. True Jamaican ginger ale, unlike most of its milder, sweeter American counterparts, has a distinctive bite and a spicy flavor. It’s intense, delicious and popular as a soft drink and a mixer for rum or other liquors.

Beer is also widely available, the most popular being Red Stripe. Perhaps as well known as any rum brand, Red Stripe is a classic lager. Light-bodied and refreshing, it’s a good accompaniment to spicy dishes, like jerk chicken, which are the heart of Jamaican cuisine. Still, despite its ubiquity, Red Stripe doesn’t have the same cultural connection as rum, rarely evoking passion or desire to share a story the way rum does.

Jamaica’s tropical fruits are showcased in a variety of fresh juices, available in the island’s many small restaurants. In the spring you’ll find yellow cherry juice, which is much sweeter than North American varieties and marked by its pale yellow color and subtle cherry flavor. Tamarind grows throughout Jamaica, and the juice of this tropical tree’s fruit is intense— slightly tart and bitter, with enough sweetness to make it deeply alluring. My favorite discovery, though, is June plum juice. Yellow-green in color, with a light, tart flavor and mild sweetness, it’s perfectly suited to combat Jamaica’s humid midday heat.

Typically, fruit juices are fresh-squeezed and sweetened slightly with sugar or cane syrup. Combinations like passion fruit and guava or mango and lime are also available. Grapefruit juice makes its way into the popular soda Ting, a product of PepsiAmericas. In the winter, sorrel is a favorite drink. A member of the hibiscus family, sorrel flowers are dried and then boiled with ginger, yielding a tart, bright red juice usually sweetened with sugar. Whether it’s served alone or spiked with White Overproof rum, locals look forward to sorrel all year.

It’s impossible to visit Jamaica without feeling the influence of Bob Marley, whose global popularity put a face on Jamaican culture and helped introduce the Rastafarian religion to the mainstream. Through a visit to the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, a key stop for any fan of the reggae star, I learn that one of Marley’s favorite Jamaican drinks was Irish moss, a concoction of seaweed, honey and roots like sarsaparilla, dandelion and strongback (a local herb). Intrigued by the description, and curious why Marley preferred it, I go looking for a sample. But finding it proves challenging, as the most readily available versions are canned, processed varieties.

Finally, after moving from Kingston up into the Blue Mountains, through the cane country and down onto the North Coast, I get my chance. In the popular tourist town of Ocho Rios I discover a health food store that makes fresh Irish moss and serves it in a pint glass for about $3. At first I’m put off by its slightly gelatinous texture, but it’s faintly sweet, slightly earthy and pleasingly unusual, like a peanut butter and herb tea smoothie might taste. I’m told that fishermen, perhaps for their access to the right seaweed, make the best version and sell it on the beach at sunset. Sadly, I’ll be on my way to the airport by then, so I make a point to find them on my next visit.

From the Blue Mountains’ epic views of Kingston to the Nassau Valley’s wild forests and the North Coast’s inspiring beaches, Jamaica’s landscape is a stunning blend of tropical beauty. Infused throughout this backdrop are stories of welcome and playfulness, hard work and discovery, but most of all about the idea of being irie. Irie is the cool, relaxed, joyful mood shared by most Jamaicans—a mood that’s more than a little contagious. Slipping into it is easy, especially when sipping one of the island’s laidback elixirs.

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