Undervalued Beauty: The Coffees of Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea, the country that occupies half of the enormous island of New Guinea just north of Australia, is certainly one of the least known and least acknowledged of major coffee producers.
Many major specialty roasting companies do not offer a Papua New Guinea coffee, and those that do tend not to feature it. But the fact that five of the thirteen Papua New Guinea coffees we turned up for this month's cupping came out rated 90 or better suggests that roasters and aficionados ought to start paying attention.
And Get Out the Atlas
After I returned from a recent trip to the Papua New Guinea highlands I discovered that most people I talked to had no idea how to even find Papua New Guinea on a map (many guessed it was a country in Africa). And even fewer had an inkling of the extraordinary history of the New Guinea highlands, a region of hugely rugged mountains and steep valleys densely populated by ancient peoples who for thousands of years tended richly productive garden plots in their isolated valleys, along the way developing a complex matrix of subtly differing cultures and distinct languages (over 800 at latest count).
Outsiders only made contact with these peoples starting in the 1930s, and most valleys continue quite isolated, accessible only by foot or helicopter. Although villagers now tend to wear the type of recycled Western clothing that seems to have swamped villages all over the world, they continue to throw themselves with tremendous passion and creativity into their dance performances and the constantly morphing, staggeringly colorful costumes they produce for those performances.
Gently High Grown
Most Papua New Guinea coffee today is grown by these villagers in their neat garden plots, although some coffee continues to be grown on larger farms.
Regardless of who grows Papua New Guinea coffees, all are very high grown, at altitudes usually exceeding 5,000 feet. Nevertheless, they tend to be more delicate in profile and softer in acidity than similarly high-grown coffees from Central America.
Their fruit notes are complex and various. The most distinctive note that many (though certainly not all) Papua New Guinea coffees display is a subtle, sweetly acidy fruit note that often resembles grapefruit, sometimes a chocolaty grapefruit, if that is possible to imagine, or a grapefruit with a whiff of fresh-cut cedar.
Earth and Fruit
There is a subtle difference in the typical Papua New Guinea profile, however, depending on where and how the fruit has been removed and the coffee dried. True village coffees have the skin and pulp removed by hand in the village, and are dried there. Owing to irregularities in fruit removal and processing, these coffees often add a softly musty or mildewy note to the basic Papua New Guinea profile, a flavor overlay that reads as earth (think moist fallen leaves) or perhaps smoke or spice. When inserted into the gently fruity matrix of the Papua New Guinea profile, this overlay promotes a sweet, earth-muted fruit, a variation on the often more aggressively earthy character of traditionally processed Sumatra and Sulawesi coffees. In this month's review, the 91-rated Caffe Artigiano, 90-rated samples from Paradise Roasters and Surf City, the 88-rated Supreme Bean, and the 86-rated Atomic Cafe all displayed variants of the gently earth-and-fruit character that I associate with such village-processed coffees.
On the other hand are coffees that have been either grown on large farms or processed from fresh fruit using large-scale, technically advanced wet-processing facilities. I suspect that the 93-rated Roasterie Kimel Estate is such a coffee, with its cleanly and sweetly delicate complexity.
Potential for Beauty
Papua New Guinea, with its high altitudes and lush growing conditions, has tremendous potential as a source of refined and beautiful coffee. It is also a coffee origin in transition, from domination by Australian and European operated farms and mills to domination by village growers organized into cooperatives and other collective entities. The latest development is the emergence of the powerful 100,000-member Papua New Guinea Coffee Growers Federation and its U.S. export-import arm, Coffee Pacifica, which aims at vertical integration, from cooperative farmer through export and import to roasting and retailing.
With the right help from the outside and the right leadership on the inside, the collectives that are coming to dominate Papua New Guinea coffee production could end up producing a Pacific equivalent of Kenya coffee, less acidy but just as fruity and elegant, along with other less orthodox coffee styles that incorporate some of the serendipitous, earthy beauty of the best traditional coffees of Sumatra.