Date: April 2009

Column/Title: Papua New Guinea: Promise Only Partly Fulfilled

Author: Kenneth Davids; reviews by Jennifer Stone and Kenneth Davids

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Three or four years ago I was looking out the window of a small airplane banking into a short (very short) grass airstrip serving a coffee-growing village of Papua New Guinea. Everything that makes the highlands of Papua New Guinea one of the most promising coffee growing regions in the world was spread out beneath me. Among all of the coffee terroirs of the world, the lush highland valleys of Papua New Guinea certainly must rank among the most Arabica-agreeable, with classically warm days and cool nights, ideal rainfall patterns, and deep, fertile soil. The people in the village, who that morning were assembled in a line along the edge of the airstrip in their splendidly original and morphing tribal regalia, are heirs to an unbroken 9,000-year agricultural tradition. On a deep, fundamental level they know how to grow things and take care of what they grow. They have little access to agricultural chemicals of any kind, and apparently not much interest in them, so most of their coffees are de facto organic. And, despite belonging to a group of cultures that first encountered the outside world only fifty or so years ago in the aftermath of World War II, the leaders I met from these little, isolated villages proved to be entrepreneuring, open-minded and competitive, quick to seize business opportunities for their people when those opportunities arise.

If this is the case, then why, upon putting out a call to the American specialty coffee industry for Papua New Guinea coffees, did we receive only twenty or so samples, most of them the result of determined Internet searches? Reviews of other coffee origins typically turn up forty or fifty samples with virtually no effort on our part.

The main problem Papua New Guinea faces is simple, and dramatized by the fact that I had to land on a very small airstrip in a very small airplane to get to the village I am describing. It was either that or walk in across mountain terrain that doubtless would make those of us who are not villagers crumple before we reached the first ridge top. Much of the coffee grown in Papua New Guinea has to be either literally hauled out on the backs of the villagers or flown out by the mostly missionary airlines that serve the villages. Although poor infrastructure and lack of roads are a problem in almost every coffee growing region of the world, it is a particularly acute problem in the massively rugged highlands of Papua New Guinea.

Forty or so years ago, when I wrote my first book on coffee, most Papua New Guinea that reached specialty sellers was produced on larger farms occupying the broad central valleys around the towns of Mt. Hagen (Western Highlands) and Goroka (Eastern Highlands), towns that straddle the only road that penetrates the center of the country. These farm and their wet mills resembled large farms elsewhere in the coffee world. Owned by expatriate companies, they produced a clean, brightly acidy, mildly citrus-toned wet-processed coffee, the best of which was graded "AA" (largest bean, fewest defects) or "A." These were fine, distinguished coffees, although sometimes difficult to differentiate from clean, brightly acidy, mildly citrus-toned coffees from other parts of the world.

Other Papua New Guinea coffees, with the end-of-the-alphabet grade designation "Y," were classified as "native" coffees, meaning villagers did the wet fruit removal themselves using tubs, buckets and whatever else they had at hand, and after drying the coffee often removed the crumbly parchment skins by expedients like rolling rocks over the beans. These end-of-the-alphabet "native" Papua New Guinea grades often resembled similar informally processed small-holder coffees from neighboring Indonesia: fruity, musty or "earthy," often exotic and interesting but hard to source with any consistency.

Today, the Papua New Guinea industry is going through a transition. The larger-scale, expat farms appear to be changing or disappearing, pressured, I am told, by indigenous villagers who want their land back. On the other hand, many of the small-holder or "native" coffees are improving and becoming more consistent, either because they are being wet-processed at more formal mills in the larger valleys close to the roads, or because work by development agencies, exporters, and others have managed to organize some small-holders into cooperatives and upgrade their production processes. Much of the "A" grade coffee exported today comes from small holders, although the milling may be performed centrally.

The results of this month's cupping reflect the current flux in Papua New Guinea coffee, and reflect it in a way that is both promising and impressive, despite the relative small number of samples. Many of this month's higher rated coffees seemed to sit on a pleasing line between earth and fruit character of, say, Sumatra coffees, and the clean, citrusy brightness of more typical high-grown, conventional washed coffees. My co-cupper for this article, Jennifer Stone of Chattanooga's Stone Cup Roasting, expressed this balance nicely: "When I think about the way this origin tastes, I think of [a] Sumatra going on a holiday to a secluded beach. Deeper, tropical rainforest detritus and slight pineapple/coconut notes."

Jennifer's "pineapple/coconut" descriptors need not be taken literally to be accurate. I used neither term in any of my descriptions and Jennifer used them only infrequently, but what these two terms point to are characteristic Papua New Guinea flavor complexes that I would describe as low-acid, buttery fruit notes (aka coconut) combined with sweetly pungent fruit tendencies (aka pineapple). Floral notes of the deep, sweet, night-blossom variety also subtly complicated many of this month's profiles.

The reasons for these sensory tendencies in Papua New Guinea coffees are not entirely clear. I usually assume fruity pungency is related to a sometimes serendipitously incomplete fruit removal (informal processing allowing small amounts of fruit flesh to remain on the bean, flesh that often lightly ferments and mildews during drying), but other characteristics that the best of this month's coffees share, like a subtle but lush floral character, may be owing to some interaction of terroir and botanical variety - as could the fruity pungency, for that matter. At least two distinguished botanical varieties of Arabica are widely planted in the Papua New Guinea Highlands (Blue Mountain and Arusha from East Africa), along with some less-respected, more disease-resistant varieties (particularly Catimor), but we have no clear record of which of these varieties ended up in the coffees we sampled.

In fact, it was difficult to come up with any information at all on the sourcing of some of the green coffees that filled the bags we eventually cupped. The California Coffee Roasters Papua New Guinea (89) was made up entirely of gigantic beans that suggested the huge-beaned Maragogipe variety or crosses with Maragogipe like El Salvador's Pacamara, but there is no record of Maragogipe or its offspring in Papua New Guinea. When we tried to find out something - anything - about this particular lot of green coffee we came up completely empty, aside from the fact that an abbreviation for the Eastern Highlands town of Goroka was stenciled on the bags.

These mysteries suggest still another impact of location and terrain on Papua New Guinea: It's a difficult place for North Americans and Europeans to visit. Green coffee buyers for the leading-edge American roasting companies, companies whose coffees often top our ratings, regularly travel to origin and set up relationships with the most promising local growers and exporters. There was much less evidence than usual of such relationships among this month's coffees. Only the top-rated Papua New Guinea Kuta from Counter Culture Coffee (93) displayed the sort of richly informative bag copy (maps, tasting notes, notes about origin, a delightful painting by a home-grown Papua New Guinea artist) typical of "direct trade" coffees from other parts of the world, especially Latin America. Many of the roasting companies that specialize in micro-lots and direct trade relationships did not even offer a Papua New Guinea when we were sourcing for this month's review.

Admittedly (and regrettably), the timing of that review could be one reason for the scarcity of special-lot Papua New Guineas. We tried to schedule our review to coincide with the entry of fresh Papua New Guinea coffees into North America, but it appears that we jumped the gun by a month or two. Many of the samples we cupped were probably last year's crop, and most likely a bit past their aromatic peak.

The fact remains, however, that Papua New Guinea is a tremendously promising coffee origin that appears to be overlooked by almost everyone, including development agencies. If anywhere close to the volume of money and depth of attention paid to developing Rwanda coffee over the last few years were to be lavished on Papua New Guinea, I am sure the results in terms of both fine coffee and impressive social and economic advances would be similarly impressive. No doubt development leaders might be justified in pointing out (honestly) that you can't do everything for everybody all at once, but the promise remains of a specialty coffee origin with extraordinary potential for success, a potential only hinted at by the handful of fine coffees reviewed this month.

Jennifer Stone, the co-reviewer for this month's article, is a lively and informed voice in the American specialty coffee industry. She founded Stone Cup Roasting Company in 1997 in the reviving and lively city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and brings a genuine passion for quality and distinction to her roasting business. She is a member of the Retailer Committee of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, on the editorial board for Specialty Coffee Retailer Magazine, a member of the Roasters Guild, a United States Barista Championship Judge and Women in Business Advocate for the state of Tennessee.

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