At the invitation of David Levy, the US agent for Clifton Mount Coffee Estate, I recently took a trip to Jamaica. These are a few reflections of my trip.
As I travel through the center of the island, meandering through the serpentine limestone riverbed known as the Bog Walk Gorge, I am bombarded by the incredible beauty of this tiny island nation, the land of my birth and that which is so dear to me. Although today I make my home in Cumming, Georgia, Jamaica is never far from my thoughts especially since I am privileged to import and roast one of the Island’s most precious commodities, Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee. I am making my way to Kingston to meet up with local coffee producers Richard and Jason Sharp, brothers that operate Clifton Mount Coffee Estate. Although I have known the brothers for over ten years and have visited Jamaica on numerous occasions, this is my first visit to CMCE. I am excited as the feedback we have received since starting to roast this coffee back in the summer of 2012 has been outstanding. Thus I wanted to see for myself what these brothers have been doing that has been getting this coffee such fantastic results. Everyone in the coffee business knows that to achieve the perfect cup one must start with exceptional green coffee; I want to see first-hand what has been the reasons for the growing reputation of this Single Estate coffee.
I meet Jason in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city, and we make our way up the winding roads of the Blue Mountains. Kingston Harbor is the world’s seventh largest natural harbor and it was initially for this reason that Jamaica became such an important jewel in the crown of the British Empire. The view of the majestic Mountain range in hues of brilliant blue seen from the harbor is where the name developed. French planters, fleeing the Haitian revolution in the late 1700’s, established the Blue Mountains as an ideal micro climate for growing high quality coffee and so the legend began.
Jason is eager to point out interesting spots on our journey such as the Newcastle Military Camp, an old British army base now occupied by the Jamaica Defense force and the Cold Spring Gardens which is an old coffee factory dating back to 1750’s. It is however a particular place on the road to Clifton Mount that peaks my attention the most.
The spot on the road is covered in mist and the fauna is richly tropical with tree ferns darting through the forest. It is has an almost reverent and magical feeling about it. I ask Jason to stop so that I can inhale the experience. Remarkably, Jason tells me there is a painting of this exact location by a legendary British artist, Marianne North, that was done in 1871 and can be viewed today at a gallery in her honor at Kew Gardens in London. He goes on to tell me that the BBC visited CMCE a few years ago to re-step the journey of this remarkable woman who had travelled the world painting fauna. As a student of Charles Darwin, she was fascinated and obsessed with plants. Jason, explains, that the BBC remarked that CMCE is one of the few places that they have returned to that was almost identical to Marianne North’s paintings. I begin to get a feeling that my day is turning out to be a special one.
Painting by Marianne North of Clifton Mount in 1871
About a mile further down the road we reach to the entrance of Clifton Mount Coffee Estate and it is evident from the start that this estate is like no other I have visited. More like a wine vineyard than a coffee estate, the manicured entrance and orchards are spectacular.
Once we disembark from the vehicle, a light rain starts, so we make our way towards the property’s original great house, which reminds me of an old English cottage. I marvel that this exists at over 4,300 feet, and the herculean effort that it must have taken to build it, in a period with no proper roads or combustible engines. I know the history of Clifton Mount dates back to 1751, being one of the oldest coffee regions in the Blue Mountains, but to see it in all its glory is truly breathtaking. In a strange way I feel that I have gone back in time but that I am also experiencing something in the future!
Clifton Mount great house – est. 1751
As we sit to enjoy a cup of this magnificent brew, Richard joins us and we start to reminisce of our journeys in the coffee business. Richard started the resurgence of coffee growing at Clifton Mount in 1985 after what may have been a century of dormancy. His passion for coffee is and has always been evident. I am reminded of his early days transporting coffee in his worn pick- up truck late at night to another wet mill for processing. His and Jason’s story is one of perseverance, commitment to excellence, and passion for their trade. I feel an almost kindred bond with the brothers as I am reminded of my own family’s journey in the Jamaican coffee industry. My grandfather, Victor Munn started the Mavis Bank Coffee Factory in 1921. Richard and Jason, much like my family The Munn’s, come from several generations of farmers and we are connected by the soil. The brothers tell me a story of my late Uncle, Keble Munn, Managing Director and then owner of Mavis Bank Central Factory, visiting Clifton Mount in 1991. On a rainy day similar to the one we are experiencing now, Keble told the Sharp’s that he believed Clifton Mount was positioned for greatness!
The rain subsides and we make our way up the slopes to inspect the coffee. Jamaica is experiencing a severe leaf rust problem; however, Clifton Mount is showing no real signs of infestation. The plants are laden with fruit as we are at the start of the crop. The trees are healthy and immaculately pruned and I am beginning to really understand why this coffee is so special. Clifton Mount is Rainforest Alliance certified and is the only commercially available certified farm in Jamaica. The chorus of birds singing is evidence of the natural balance of commercial agriculture practiced in a sustainable environment…true harmony!
A Humming bird or “Doctor Bird”; Indigenous to Jamaica and the Blue Mountains.
The brothers then ask if I would participate in a traditional tree planting exercise offered to special visitors. I am honored and I accept gladly. The hole has been prepared for me and broken down pulp from the vermin-culture pit has been added as a superb soil conditioner. I am presented with a healthy coffee seedling, the Arabica Typica variety; the coffee varietal which has been the hallmark of the Blue Mountain cup. I dig a small hole and place the seedling in it and then I mold and water the seedling. A simple ceremony but one which I believe has bonded me to this farm and family and which can only grow stronger roots.
Edgar planting coffee seedling
We then make our way down to the wet mill or pulpery. This is where the coffee skin and fruit are removed from the seed so that it can be dried and processed into green coffee. The factory is immaculately clean and expertly designed. The white tiles that line the various tanks confirm the commitment to ensuring that the process is flawless and that contamination is reduced to minimum. It is easily one of the most impressive wet mills I have ever seen. Richard explains the versatility of the mill. It is not only extremely environmentally sound, as all the water is recycled; it has the capability of doing fully washed, semi-washed, honey or fermented coffee. He explains the need to be extremely gentle with the coffee and to treat it more like the living thing that it is than like a commercial seed….hence the name “Coffee Spa”.
As night begins to fall we start to make our descent of Clifton Mount back into Kingston. A trip to origin is always special but today has been exceptional. I can truly say I am extremely proud to be afforded the opportunity to roast and purvey this special coffee and I am confident that once you taste it you will know exactly what I mean.
- Edgar Munn