Coffee companies make great margins by blending expensive coffee with cheaper ones which equates to hundreds of millions of dollars for the local retail trade, but the minimum allowable blend or mix concerns the Bureau of Standards Jamaica (BSJ), which will update a number of coffee standards this year.
Jamaican coffee offers a premium price, especially Jamaica Blue Mountain (JBM), which can sell locally for upwards of J$5,000 a pound, but the JBM coffee blend can retail for under $2,500 a pound, depending on the blend mixture.
The BSJ proposes to implement a "minimum of 20 per cent subject to revision, pending Cabinet's approval for a minimum of 30 per cent" according to the draft document, titled 'The Jamaican Standard Specification for Coffee', developed by the BSJ in collaboration with stakeholders, including the Coffee Industry Board (CIB).
The BSJ update aims to implement standards for the retail trade to protect consumers while the CIB regulates the coffee sector, with a focus on the production side of things. Eventually, the CIB will be merged with other commodity boards to form a new commodity regulatory agency called Agricultural Commodities Regulatory Authority.
BSJ adds that the other 80 per cent of the blend should be of acceptable cup quality, with no taste faults or taste defects, and should possess "mild characteristics" which will not overpower or detract from the taste of the Jamaican coffees.
But Wallenford Coffee Company chief executive officer Mark McIntosh argues that even 30 per cent remains insufficient, quipping that a car dealer doesn't sell 30 per cent of a Mercedes as a 'Mercedes Blend'.
"So it should be at least 51 per cent at a minimum to be marketed as a JBM blend. It's unfair to the people of Jamaica who are the owners of the brand," argued McIntosh, whose company sells most of its JBM coffee overseas, including to the global chain Starbucks in its Asian markets, but also sells locally.
McIntosh says he feels so strongly about the issue that Wallenford stopped selling JBM blends. Checks on its online page up to Thursday backed up that claim.
"Every bag of roasted coffee we market using the words 'Jamaica Blue Mountain' is 100 per cent JBM," he told the Financial Gleaner.
McIntosh acknowledged that low percentage blends offer good margins to the coffee companies but that it affects the brand in the long run.
"A ban on blends like Champagne would be ideal. Until we get there, I would make the sacrifice and use a minimum of 51 per cent in any product that uses the JBM trademark," he said. "Not only does that reduce brand dilution, it also reduces literal dilution because the coffee will taste better."
President of the Jamaica Coffee Exporters Association, Jason Sharp, indicated that in an ideal situation the authorities should disallow blends. However, Jamaica and its trading partners rely heavily on blends.
"Different processors have different opinions as to what percentage should constitute a blend," said Sharp, who is also a director in a family-led business, Coffee Traders Limited. He suggests that Jamaica follow the lead of its largest coffee importer, Japan, which offers a 30 per cent blend in that Asian market with plans to raise it to 50 per cent.
"In my opinion, 20 per cent is low and I would like to see it go to 30 per cent, but I wouldn't be against 50 per cent either," said Sharp, whose company sells a number of brands locally in supermarkets as well as its Cafe Blue chain. It is also a top seller of coffee to Japan annually.
Sharp declined to officially estimate the size of the local market for blends but indicated that its worth millions of US dollars.
The 29-page Jamaican Standard Specification for Coffee allowed stakeholder and public comment up to mid-December. The document is an update to rules, originally established less than a decade after Independence.
The BSJ will collate the comments from sector interests and the public over the next two months. The draft will then go to the technical committee for deliberation; then to the BSJ board; and on to the requisite minister for approval; and then gazetted into law. The process could be completed by midyear.