On a trip to Jamaica a few years back I decided to detour just north of Kingston, near Hardwar Gap in the Blue Mountains, where an old Rastaman was reputed to grow the best coffee on Earth. Jamaican Blue Mountain is one of the world’s most sought-after specialty coffees, selling for as much as $54 a pound in New York City and $10 a cup in Tokyo. But it’s hard to find even in Jamaica, since the vast majority of the crop is commercially grown, machine roasted, and then exported. Only a few backwoods growers still roast the old-fashioned way, selling their harvest to locals and passersby.
Specialty beans like Jamaican Blue are all the buzz these days. They accounted for 30 percent of imports in 2007 and, to meet demand, the world’s top importers are on a constant hunt for the next great bean. Geoff Watts, head buyer for Intelligentsia, a Chicago-based coffee company, spends more than 250 days a year traveling backroads, trying exotic varieties. "To find the best, you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and go to the source," he says. I couldn’t agree more.
Walking slowly through the mountains in a late afternoon mist, I spied a jumble of half-completed cinder block structures. There was no sign out front, but a rich, sweet-roasted aroma confirmed that this was the place. I followed my nose to the back of the compound, where the smell of roasting coffee mingled with the spicy scent of a burning spliff. About a dozen people were hanging out under an open-sided shelter; their faces reflected the flickering wood fire. Several got up to welcome me. "Mister Dennis taking his sleep now," a dreadlocked teenager said. "But he get up for visitors."
When James Dennis came out, he was moving slowly, wheezing into a matted yellow beard that flowed down onto a striped polo shirt. I was sorry to have disturbed him, but he seemed happy to see me—though miffed that his grandson, Hampton, hadn’t offered me a coffee yet. Hampton beckoned me into the house and got a primitive dripper going while Dennis talked coffee.
"It’s de mist that let de bean take its own time," he said. In the high, humid environment, it takes up to ten months for his beans to mature, as opposed to five or six in lower, sunnier climes. According to Dennis, the cloud cover produces a denser, more flavorful arabica bean. He and his extended family still pick the ripe coffee by hand, lay the beans on bamboo racks to dry, and then roast them over a wood fire.
"All de days of me life, I’m farming it an’ preparing it de way my grandfather did, straight from de 17th century. No machinery, no chemicals; everyt’ing got to be by hand and natural." Even the grinding method is rudimentary; Hampton poured the beans into a hollowed-out log, then crushed them with a mortar. When he came over with a steaming cup, I lifted it and experienced a tremendous wave of round, mellow flavor. This was some amazing coffee.
I brought the cup outside, where Dennis’s family and friends were gathered. In the center of the action, a cousin named Herbert hunched over the fire with a spatula, stirring coffee beans in a cast-iron pot. "That man feed a lot of people," Herbert said, gesturing toward Dennis. "Him turn de mountain land into black gold, an’ he never specialize wit’ people, take care a everybody. Him got some kinda special blessing."
After a few minutes, Dennis got up and shook my hand. "Me hafta get a rest," he said, before going off to continue his nap. Soon after my visit, he would succumb to his wheeze—leaving his grandson with the coffee business and leaving me with an enduring image of the old roaster shuffling across the courtyard toward his kitchen door. There, he turned and offered a final goodbye. "Walk good," he said.World’s Best Coffee Beans