It’s a relief to leave the intense heat of Kingston and head up into the mountains behind. The climb goes on and on, winding up precipitous, heavily wooded slopes – perilous falls below, the sharpest hairpin bends, the grind of high revving, low gear engines. Up over the southern slopes, glimpses of the city and the blue sea far behind us, the high watershed ahead, fine rags of cloud streaming from the peaks. All is up and down, little shanty farmsteads scattered across the slopes, patches of grass and vegetable plots among the high trees. The air is cooler here but the sunlight persists, light and shade in vivid motion as the breeze sets the foliage dancing. And then, as we crest the ridge, the light… goes out. We seem to have suddenly arrived in an entirely other world, a grey-green one. We’re in thick, swirling, wind-driven mist so water-laden as to be barely distinguishable from rain. And it’s cold!
We’re in Blue Mountain coffee country. We feel our way tentatively through the cloud along the narrow lanes, stopping now and then to ask a machete-carrying farm worker for directions, until we arrive at the estate house. Outside, standing between two Land Rovers – one working and one quietly becoming a part of the landscape – is Percy, the friendly, intelligent and highly capable foreman who invites us in and offers us, of course, coffee.
The house is not grand but rather a small and appealing cottage. It’s built sturdily – sufficiently so to withstand the regular hurricanes as they accelerate up over the ridge – of hardwood boards washed white on the outside, left natural dark brown within. We enter the back of the cottage into a comfortable living room, a small kitchen to the left and, spanning the front of the two rooms, what is effectively an enclosed balcony, a long span of windows giving onto high views of the coffee plantation folded onto the valleys and faces of the slopes below. It’s a breathtaking sight – only occasionally and dramatically glimpsed as the mists deign to part.
At the back of the kitchen is a small, larder-like room containing two coffee roasters – small, beautifully kept machines, the two of them about the size of an Aga turned on its end, in which the estate’s entire production is roasted. These, along with two similarly sized husking machines – and the Land Rover – are the only machines on the estate. Everything else is done by hand, the slopes too steep to permit mechanical ingress, the work too precise and necessary of continuous, individual consideration. This is the Old Tavern Coffee Estate, familiarly known as Twyman’s (after the owners). To take a wine analogy – this is the Chateau Petrus or the Chateau Lafite of coffee. Though, of course, the huge abundance of dollars to be found in Bordeaux are not in evidence here. This is more a garagiste operation, run on passion, determination, obstinacy when necessary – and sheer, hands-on hard work.
We’re introduced to David Twyman – son of Alex and Dorothy, the founders – who now, with his widowed mother, runs the seventy-odd acres of the estate. He’s a calm, down-to-earth man with a wry sense of humour and a pair of strikingly blue eyes. His father arrived in Jamaica from London’s East End in 1958 and founded the estate ten years later. However, Alex wanted to sell Twyman’s produce as his own single estate coffee while the Jamaica Coffee Industry Board wanted to sell all Blue Mountain coffee as a single, generic product. A legal battle ensued during which Twyman’s were only able to sell their coffee to locals calling at the estate. After 29 long, hard years, in 1997, the estate won their battle – at considerable cost – and the family were able to sell the produce as their own, premium single estate coffee.
We drank quite a lot of coffee that morning, crowded into the small kitchen full of genial chat. And, yes, the coffee is the best we’ve ever tasted. We drank it black with a spoonful of honey. It has nothing of the blockbuster, milk-masked hit one might be more used to from coffee. It’s very subtle, fruity, almost delicate but – as we discovered, buzzing after three or four irresistibly delicious cups each – not in any way short of caffeine. It’s wonderfully delicious.
Photos by Nick Seaton, including David Twyman (in colour).