The year was 1797. The Bank of England issued the first One Pound note, Old Ironsides was launched in Boston, Albany replaced New York City as the capitol of New York, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born in England. In Kingston, Jamaica, Crown “Patents” were registered creating “Sherwood Forest & Eccleston Plantations.” That was just the beginning, in a country with few roads and only manpower and hand tools.
Native forest were cleared, coffee was planted, a stone building with two foot thick walls was built with hand adzed 12” x 12” hardwood beams carrying the upper floor. Inside the central portion of the 130’ long building an 18-foot diameter undershot iron waterwheel was installed as well as fermenting tanks. Power was carried via shafts, pulleys, and leather belts to the processing equipment inside the lower level. Nearly an acre of concrete patios remain on the hillside along with arched stone alcoves for parchment storage during drying.
It is lovely at the RSW estates, with the highest peaks of the Blue Mountains behind the farm and mist and rainbows drifting through the gaps in the hills. The temperature is moderate and the trees are shaded. All you can hear is the rustling of the breeze and the occasional barking of neighborhood dogs or early morning roosters.
In 1961 a group of 5 people bought the then neglected farm as a partnership and started renovations. It had been abandoned prior to WWII and the coffee plantings had disappeared as forest reclaimed the old fields. New areas were identified and planted with a mixture of Geisha and Typica varietals. Native trees were retained. It was a hard slog. All but one of the original partners soon dropped out, leaving Sherwood as a single-family owned and operated entity. It is now their only job and they are meticulous about the care of the small amount of coffee they produce and process, as well as the coffee that comes from a small handful of other nearby owners.
Their dedication and hard work has brought up to date equipment and methods but not to the detriment of quality. Cherries are processed the day they are picked, or, if delivered in the middle of the night, the morning of the next day. After the skins are removed the parchment is fermented for approximately 24 hours before being washed and rinsed. Due to the cool tanks and cover, 24 hours is the optimum time at this location.
The wet parchment is then spread on a stainless steel mesh above a squirrel cage fan where ambient temperature air at 3500 cubic feet per minute removes the surface moisture in about 24 hours. Only then is it spread on patios—locally called “barbecues”—for sun drying which takes from 5-10 additional days. The parchment is raked every half hour during the day. In the event of rain the parchment is covered with tarps. All drying parchment is bagged and covered nightly to avoid dew. It is then spread again in the morning, after the sun has warmed the barbecues.
Research in Kenya has suggested that three factors contribute to the gorgeous deep blue-green color of the beans. First, the ultra-violet radiation of sun drying is thought to enhance the color as the parchment drops from 30-20% moisture. Second the period of rest at 11.5% moisture allows the coffee to stabilize and maintain the perfect color. Third, it is important to stop drying and rest the coffee at 11.5% rather than over-drying which can bleach the beans. And of course no mechanical or heated drying is ever employed. Most mechanical drying takes 14 hours and bypasses the UV enhancement, as well as the benefits of slow drying.
The dry parchment coffee is “rested” for 8 weeks and regularly rotated in its climate controlled storage at its initial 11.5% moisture content before being hulled in 1000 kilo batches which are processed separately through the whole finishing process. Each batch takes about five days to complete the finishing. Meticulous turnout dates and data are kept for each lot.
Parchment is milled when ordered by the importer in a low temperature McKinnon “Smout” brand peeler-polisher. The advantage of this machine is that it peels and polishes the beans in two passes so the temperature never goes over 89-90 degrees (F). It is then graded for size on an actual screen grader (a rarity these days) before being sorted for density on a gravity table and run through an electronic color sorter to eject off color and damaged beans.
After all of this a crew of local women further hand sorts each green bean into 5-kilo batches. Since the color sorter does not adequately detect minor insect damage or chipped or mottled beans, these ladies are the final arbiters of quality in processing. Each batch is passed first by the senior sorter and then by the plant manager before it is ready for the barrels. Finished coffee remains in the controlled storeroom until shipment to The Coffee Industry Board for their meticulous Quality Control inspection.
This “ultra-niche” coffee has less than 1% undersize beans and practically zero defects. A previous Director General of the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica has stated that RSW Estates Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee is, “…a special niche coffee within an already recognized niche.”
RSW have no plans to expand their production. They said their primary aims are turning out the best product they can, support the district, and make a little money in the process. “As soon as you exceed your abilities to control what you’re doing, your stress level goes up, you take shortcuts, your stress level goes up again, and things start to fall apart. Then that’s the end.”
This is all very labor intensive and makes Sherwood Works the largest local employer. The total production of the 55-acre farm and associated local input is only about 60,000 pounds per year, and each batch of cherry is processed individually and segregated through the drying process before being stored or shipped.
All of the above is predicated on a more basic foundation. RSW emphasized that if you want great coffee you need “happy” coffee trees tended by happy farmers who are eager to ensure that the trees are properly shaded, pruned, fertilized, weeded and pampered. Between harvest and flowering you must carefully prune deadwood and fertilize the dormant trees if you want ongoing great results.
Insect control (coffee berry borer) has been done traditionally with spraying of copper based insecticides, but since this kills all insects it damages the habitat for birds. Here only biologic controls using traps employing pheromones are exploited. So although not an Organic coffee, it is grown in an environmentally friendly fashion.
Coffee processed at Sherwood Coffee Works all comes from within two miles of the Works with the single exception of one of the original contributors. The difference in RSW Estates Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee is that the whole community prospers because the whole community is involved in the quest for excellence. From the men raking the coffee on the patios to the ladies who are “head sorters” and the plant manager himself, each person on the team takes pride in doing the best job possible and making sure that this is truly the best coffee in the world!
When carefully roasted and brewed the results in the cup justify the high prices charged for Jamaica Blue Mountain RSW Estates coffee and make evident the attention to detail and judgment exercised at each step, growing, harvesting, processing and storing. The delicate slightly floral aroma develops into a clear, round, “bell like” sweetness in the cup with hints of nuts and light citrus acidity. A lingering almost buttery finish with hints of baking spices leaves your taste buds smiling.