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Jamaica recovers from hurricane disaster.

After a visit from Hurricane Gilbert destroyed nearly 60% of Jamaica's coffee crop, growers there say 1992 will bring a complete recovery of their industry. With aid from local authorities and Japanese buyers, the 1991-92 crop is expected to yield some 2 million lbs. of Blue Mountain coffee beans (vs 1.5 million lbs. in 1990-91) as well as nearly 3 million lbs. of other Arabica Typica varieties. Output could grow by as much as 50% in 1992-93.

"We're now back at the same stage as we were in pre-Gilbert days," says Keble Munn, chairman of the Jamaica Coffee Industry Board in Kingston. Weather, however, posed some problems in 1991. While a cold spell during the end of the year has extended the harvest to March, the drought that preceded it will produce smaller beans, limiting the exportable amount of Blue Mountain beans, harvested in the Blue Mountains outside the Jamaican capital, to 1.5 million lbs. Approximately 60% of non-Blue Mountain beans are slated for export.

"Despite the smaller beans, we have maintained our same stringent growing and processing regulations," adds Munn, who also owns the Mavis Bank Central Factory Ltd., one of Jamaica's principal coffee processing plants.

To guarantee a steady supply of Blue Mountain coffee to their consumers, accredited purchasers in Japan have taken an active role in the recovery of the Jamaican crop, providing more than $15 million in new investments and loans, in addition to direct financing from Japan's Overseas Economic Fund.

As Munn points out, Japan has been actively involved in the development of Blue Mountain coffee, favored among Japanese coffee drinkers, since the 1950's.

"The Japanese came here in 1953 and bought their first Blue Mountain coffee from Mavis", he says, "and they not only paid twice what we could get in Europe but they also advanced money to growers".

Post-hurricane reconstruction efforts have served to introduce greater environmental controls and upgrade equipment, including larger pulpers and improved dryers. Improvements have particularly benefitted non-Blue Mountain varieties that, due to lower prices, have traditionally attracted more conservative investments. According to Jamaican authorities, the number of small-scale producers has also risen.

If the recovery continues, Japanese consumers will be savoring cups of Jamaican coffee for years to come. In fact, an estimated 85% of the island's total coffee output is exported to the Asian nation.

However, their preference is increasingly being shared with consumers elsewhere, particularly in the United States and Europe. "We have to be sure that we fill our long-term contracts with Japan before taking others", explains Munn, noting that inquiries from Europe, particularly England, are growing.

Exports of Jamaican coffee to the United States increased sharply from a meager 30,000 lbs. in 1987-88, before the hurricane, to more than 200,000 lbs. in 1991-92. According to Margueritte Jones, Jamaican Trade Commissioner in New York, her office has been handling a steady flow of inquiries on both beans and roasted coffee.

While growers were concerned that, at a price of $7.50 to $9.00 (FOB Jamaica) per pound for Jamaican beans, their product would not fare well in the economically depressed U.S. market, retailers say sales are brisk. Blue Mountain coffee currently retails at $18-$39 per pound in the U.S., depending on mark-ups and packaging.

"There are two coffees in the world that have a very special cachet," said Donald Schoenholt, president of New York-based Gillies Coffee Co. which imports nearly 20,000 lbs. of Jamaican coffee (via air freight) each year. "The first is Jamaican Blue Mountain and the second, Kona coffee of Hawaii, sells at half the price".

Schoenholt says that while overall sales are up 5% at Gillies, sales of Jamaican coffee rose by 46% in 1991 over 1990. The business executive feels much of the recent success is due to a growing mystique about Blue Mountain coffee among affluent American consumers.

Stephen Liff, marketing manager for the Jablum USA division of Specialty Coffee Holdings of Concord, New Hampshire, agrees. "We're experiencing a steady demand, recession or not," says Liff, whose firm imports directly from Jamaican plantations through a partnership with the Mavis Bank consortium.

At Chicago-based Gloria Jean's, the country's largest retail coffee chain with 134 outlets in 36 states, sales are also good. "The way I look at it," says Gloria Jean's president Ed Kvetko, "our average price is $34 a pound and, if you divide it by 60 cups per pound, the price is 56 [cents] per cup which is a cheap luxury."

Though Kvetko feels the Jamaican beans may be overpriced, he doesn't expect the economy to dampen the niche market. "Taste will win out," he says confidently, adding that plans to open 10 outlets in downtown Manhattan in 1992 could boost his company's sales of the high-priced bean.

Kvetko feels sales of Jamaican coffee, however, would benefit further from increased marketing efforts in the U.S. "They seem to be lacking at marketing and, once they get their act together, they could get more of the market", he explains.

"Colombians have gone from nothing to owning the market because they know about marketing, but I don't think Jamaican coffee authorities know what marketing is".

Schoenholt, on the other hand, contends that the money spent by Colombian producers to conquer the U.S. market has not gained them the recognition among upscale consumers that Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee enjoys.

Kvetko is presently negotiating the purchase of a small farm in Jamaica to produce High Mountain coffee. Plans call for the U.S. firm to participate directly from planting the beans to marketing them to consumers on an experimental basis. With the farm cleared by Hurricane Gilbert, Kvetko says, if the purchase is completed, planting would begin as early as first quarter-1992.

With the coffee industry forecast to produce revenues of nearly $20 million in 1992 for Jamaica, the sector will likely continue to receive support from the administration of Prime Minister Michael Manley.

The chief executive has abandoned his former hardline socialism to become one of the region's principal supporters of free market economics, including deregulation, privatization of state-owned firms and economic liberalization. Coffee, like bauxite and tourism, will undoubtedly serve to produce the hard currency needed to maintain economic stability and guarantee the success of his economic plan.

Already Jamaican growers are finding new ways to further boost revenues, especially now that deregulation of the island's foreign exchange system allows them to freely hold and negotiate their hard currency earnings. Blue Mountain seeds have been sold to several countries, particularly in Africa, successfully producing high-quality beans.

At the 1991 Fancy Food and Confection Show in New York City, Jamaicans introduced a line of flavored coffees, including chocolate, almond, hazelnut and rum varieties. Retailers say it's still too early to predict whether or not Jamaica's flavored coffees will have the allure of the fancier Blue Mountain product.

PHOTO : Coffee picker amidst the Blue Mountains.
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Title Annotation:coffee crop recovering after Hurricane Gilbert destruction
Author:Fittipaldi, Santiago
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:What depression when there's D'Espresso?
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