An assortment of intrigues and questions animate this month’s panel cupping of coffees from the eastern islands of the Malay Archipelago: Papua New Guinea, Timor, and Java. Among those questions and intrigues:
Papua New Guinea estate-grown coffees are among the up-and-coming challengers in the world of fine coffee. How good are the best estate-grown Papua New Guineas? Can they match the drama and complexity of more celebrated insider origins like Kenyas and Guatemalas?
East Timor is a dramatic story of coffee as economic savior. In some ways, it is a familiar story: A once-famous coffee origin, in this case Timor, is lost in the shuffle of 20th century coffee commerce. International development agencies see the possibility of helping impoverished Timorese subsistence farmers by reviving this once-famous origin, making use of the niche-marketing possibilities created by the contemporary specialty coffee industry. Since many of the subsistence farmers in Timor never have had sufficient money to buy chemicals in the first place, their coffees are easily certified as organically grown, giving them another leg up in the specialty market.
In the case of East Timor, the coffee-as-economic-savior story is even more dramatic than usual. East Timor is a country ravaged by two decades of guerilla struggle against Indonesian occupiers, topped off by the headline-grabbing, climactic spasm of violence that accompanied Indonesia’s finally granting of independence in 1999.How well did Timor coffees survive last year’s violence? Is their quality in the cup this year as impressive as the important, moving story they bring with them?
Java, unlike Papua New Guinea, is one of the world’s oldest coffee origins. The Dutch planted the first Arabica trees in Java in the late 17th century. Java apparently has had a hard year also, and importers and exporters invited to submit coffees for this month’s cupping chose to deliver only a single, lonely Java. How does this lone estate-grown Java hold up against its natural competitors, the estate-grown Papua New Guineas?
Small-Holder Coffees vs. Estate Coffees. Finally, this month’s cupping invites a comparison between new-on-the-market, small-holder coffees sponsored by development agencies in both Timor and Papua New Guinea and coffees grown on large, well-established estates in Papua New Guinea and Java. Are the new small-holder coffees beginning to catch up in quality to the longer-established estate coffees?
Any answers to these questions obviously are provisional in the extreme, given the small number of sample coffees and the unusual crop years in both Java and Timor. Nevertheless, here are very tentative responses to the questions that opened this article.
Papua New Guinea estate coffees. As a group the four estate-grown Papua New Guineas (two Sigris, one Arona, one Purosa) were impressive, with an average rating of 84, compared to an identical 84 for the Kenyas reviewed in March of 1999 and an 85 for the Ethiopia Yirgacheffes reviewed in December of 1999. Nevertheless, only the two estate coffees from the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, Arona and Purosa, attracted the very highest level of enthusiasm and ratings from the panel, equal to the response provoked by the best coffees from Kenya, Guatemala and Ethiopia.
East Timor. Given the vicissitudes suffered by East Timor this past year, I find it amazing that the farmers of that country produced any coffee whatsoever, much less coffees strong enough to be considered in a cupping like this one. All three of the East Timor samples revealed very similar virtues and problems. All were low-keyed and pungent-sweet with attractive fruity or spicy intrigue, but all also suffered from taste defects that come from a variety of delays and problems during fruit-removal and drying.
The lonely Java. The one Java in the cupping came from Jampit, one of four large government-operated estates in the spectacular mountains of east Java. This particular Jampit was a bit light and underpowered in the cup, but panelists admired its typical Java low-toned, floral sweetness.
Estate coffees vs. new-on-the-market coffees from small-holding peasant farmers. Sadly, the small-holder coffees from East Timor and Papua New Guinea did not hold up well in the cup when compared to the better-established estate-grown coffees of Papua New Guinea and the estate Java. All of the small-holder coffees were marred by shadow flavor defects caused by problems during fruit-removal and drying. When hundreds or thousands of small-holding farmers pool their coffees together, all it takes is a few of those farmers handling their coffee carelessly to create problems for the many farmers who do things right.
Marginal quality for small-holder peasant coffees is not inevitable, however. The coffees of Kenya, largely grown by small to medium-small holders and processed by cooperative mills, are arguably the finest coffees in the world. The challenge for the technicians and exporters supervising the birth of these new specialty coffees is to continue to improve them through farmer education and quality control. The well-being of many hard-working and deserving families at the ends of obscure roads and trails depends on the success of this admirable collective enterprise.
Just as in wine, coffee quality and character varies by crop year as well as by region. Last year apparently was not a good year for either Timors or Javas. For Papua New Guineas it appears that the rarer Eastern Highlands coffees fared better than the more widely available Western Highlands origins.
The two 1999 Western Highlands Papua New Guineas from the Arona and Purosa estates are splendid coffees. Both are fruity, complex and fragrant. The Arona is lighter and brighter, perhaps more attractive to those who drink their coffee black and enjoy a classic dry American breakfast cup. The Purosa is deeper, rounder, sweeter, but still glowing with fruit and flowers, making it a fine choice to fill French presses on gloomy winter afternoons.