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Coffee: how a bag of beans made St Helena a world-beater

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Some 280 years ago, on 10 February 1733, Captain Phillips of the ship Houghton dropped anchor in James Bay. He arrived with Arabica coffee seeds he had brought from the Red Sea port of Mocha, on the orders of Governor Pyke.

His Excellency surely could not have imagined in the 18th Century that in the 21st, the result of his initiative would be sending coffee drinkers into raptures.

For dealer Mark Galloway, selling to connoisseurs across America, the extremely rare and pure product that resulted from Houghton’s delivery is the most desirable on the planet.

He says he is ecstatic to have secured a small lot of the island’s Green Tipped Bourbon Arabica. But had a London dealer not worked with Solomon’s to revive the island estates in 2010, he might not have been able to buy any at all.

The island coffee was just about the only thing that Napoleon liked about St Helena during his exile at Longwood. His public praise did not harm to its reputation abroad.

In 1839, the London coffee merchants William Burnie & Co pronounced it to be of very superior quality, and by 1845 it had become the most expensive and exclusive in the world. It received an honourable mention at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, but from that point on, records are vague. It faded from view.

And then, in the 1990s, Saint businessman David Henry began sifting through the records of the East India Company, at The Castle in Jamestown.

“I came across records stating where coffee had been planted here 250 years ago,” he told the journalist Neil Rusch. “So we went off into the valleys. We discovered patches of wild coffee. It took us ages to secure the land and rejuvenate the wild trees.”

A 2001 article on the Coffee International website tells how David found the trees of the 19th Century Alexander estate still growing in a jungle of overgrowth, some of them more than 30 feet tall. In 1994, he planted established new trees, either from the same pure seedlings, unsullied by cross-pollination with other strains, or grown from cuttings of the wild trees.

He fought a long battle to have St Helena recognised as a coffee exporting nation, in order to be able to sell abroad. His efforts were backed by government departments in London and by the United Nations – and it still took two years.

In time, production rose to six tons a year – compared with the thousand tons a year of the equally revered Jamaican Blue Mountain beans.

Success lasted for a time, then came demise for David’s Napoleon Estate enterprise. But that led his former partner, St Helena Trading (UK) Ltd, to set up a joint venture with the local Solomon and Company to resuscitate production.

Its first crop was produced in March the following year.

Production remains small, and the industry is still hampered by the the longer-than-usual growing season, and the limited amount of harvestable land on high ground. But the expected completion of the island’s airport in 2016, bringing tourists with money, should create new commercial opportunities.

In fact, the island’s geographical disadvantages may also account for the supreme quality of its coffee. The boast is that its extreme remoteness, in the path of the Southeast Trade Winds, and its lack of pollution, make it one of the purest environments in the world. The purity of the trees themselves reflects their descent from a single batch of seeds, with isolation preventing them being genetically sullied by other strains.

Trees are fertilized with seabird guano that is as rich as the island’s volcanic soil, and the coffee is processed with spring water from The Peaks.

Coffee drinkers in Jamestown may not quite reach the lyrical heights of the cogniscenti when it comes to describing the delights of St Helena coffee.

Back in 2001, Neil Rusch said it had a “full and complex aroma with a balance of ripe fruit including blueberries and dark chocolate”.

And Mark Galloway’s Blacksmith Coffee Roastery in Kansas describes it thus:

With a delicate, muted aroma featuring cedar, molasses, orange, and pipe tobacco. The cup is sweet, with a lime-like citrusy quality. Wonderfully balanced with a bittersweet acidity and a mouthfeel that morphs from full-bodied to thin-bodied as it saturates the palate.  It finishes rich and sweet.

“The proof is in the cup,” says Galloway. “Of all the exotic coffees we import, the St Helena is the Crown Jewel of them all.

“Most of our customers who purchase a bag of St Helena coffee for the first time experience a kind of sensory enlightenment. Very few don’t order a second bag after that.”

Even at $64 for a half-pound bag.

For addicts, it might be cheaper to get on the ship and drink the stuff in Jamestown.

St Helena produces coffee once again – YouTube video
Rarest coffee in the world – promotional article featuring Sandy Bay Estate coffee
St Helena: the forgotten coffee – 2001 article by Neil Rusch

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