S tarbucks plans to introduce Jamaica high mountain coffee in local stores, a less pricey bean grown in a key region outside the famous Blue Mountains.
Experts say it will nudge coffee exports and raise the profile of high mountain coffee, but is unlikely to increase bean sales in any significant way. Starbucks roasts beans at its centralised locations, with most being processed in Seattle. It will import the high mountain beans sourced from local suppliers, process them and then re-export the roasted coffee to Jamaica.
“It will widen the net,” said Ian Dear, a director of Caribbean Coffee Traders Limited, CCTL, which holds the exclusive rights to own and operate Starbucks stores in Jamaica and select Caribbean countries.
“High mountain focuses on opening up a new category of coffee for consumption,” he said.
Jamaica’s coffee market has been underperforming both in export earnings and volume production in recent years. The latest industry data published in the Economic and Social Survey for 2018 reported volume production for non-Blue Mountain coffee at 750 tonnes, down 4.3 per cent from the year before and shy of the five-year high of 849 tonnes.
Total coffee output, inclusive of Blue Mountain cherry, was 7,085 tonnes in 2018, up nearly 14 per cent, but coffee exports fell by around 25 per cent to US$14.9 million – inflows that are less than half the US$30 million-plus that the beans once fetched in foreign markets.
There are nine Starbucks stores in Jamaica, with a tenth soon to open. Dear said CCTL operates six locations in Jamaica with a seventh location to open in Kingston, while Express Catering Limited, of which he is a shareholder, operates three locations at Sangster International Airport. The other CCTL locations are in Ocho Rios, Trelawny, Kingston, and Montego Bay.
The high mountain product is yet to be formally released for sale. However, one location brewed a cup for the Financial Gleaner, on request, using beans encased in white packaging with a psychedelic purple-blue-green hummingbird.
Dear said that Starbucks International, in conjunction with the local franchise, was testing, cupping and finalising packaging to meet sustainability and global standards. Starbucks International acknowledged a request for comment but had not done so up to press time.
Both the Blue Mountain and high mountain farms grow arabica beans, the variety favoured by Starbucks.
Most high mountain beans are processed by Jamaica Standard Products, JSP, which means they will be the chief, if not the only, supplier to Starbucks. Dear declined to name the suppliers when asked.
“This would be their first time buying high mountain,” JSP Director John Minott said of Starbucks. “Let’s see if it’s the beginning of a much bigger opportunity,” he said.
The coffee sector still trails by one-third the annual earnings which hit US$30 million in the late 1990s. The annual crop exports wasn’t immediately available when contacting a key member Jamaica Coffee Exports Association up to print. He did say, however, that it is down year-on-year.
The launch of the high mountain line should increase the quantity of coffee from Jamaica sold in local Starbucks and reduce the heavy reliance on coffees from other origins.
“At least that’s the idea,” said Dear.
The Financial Gleaner awaits a reply from Minott on overall high mountain volume exports as a proportion of total Jamaica coffee exports.
Starbucks cafés in Jamaica serve imported coffee from places like Colombia and Guatemala, and re-imported Jamaican coffee when available. There are other local cafés that serve imported coffees, but they also sell Jamaica coffee prominently and consistently.
“We are actively partnering with Starbucks to get it right. We want as much Jamaican coffee consumed as possible. We feel confident and proud of our coffee heritage and want to use the platform to try to improve exports and expand our coffee industry,” said Dear.
For several years, Starbucks International has purchased luxury Jamaica Blue Mountain beans from local processors for sale in select stores globally. The products usually sell out quickly.
Dear said that the heavy demand for the Blue Mountain product within the global chain led to local cafés being deprived of supplies. By switching to high mountain beans, the local stores will “hopefully” have a more consistent supply of a more affordable coffee, he said.
Local Starbucks stores sold Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee in 250g packages for about $4,500. Dear did not disclose a price range for the high mountain coffee.
Elsewhere, Jamaica high mountain sells for about $1,500 to $2,500 per 228g package.