Here in Papua New Guinea, the lush tropical climate combined with high mountain ranges encourage an enormous diversity of “micro-climates” and create a land with unparalleled cultural and biological diversity. The Highlands region is perfectly placed to provide the ideal conditions for growing coffee. But the complex and peculiar sociopolitical situation in PNG makes effective, profitable coffee farming very challenging. Life is so very different than what we know in the West that it requires a lot of explaining to really accurately paint a picture of it.
Papua New Guinea was, until 1975, a neglected colony controlled by Australia. The entire island (which is now half PNG, half Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua) was a battleground for European colonial powers in the 19th century, until 1905 when the Brits kicked out other European settlers and turned over control of the territory to the Commonwealth of Australia. It was also the site of intense conflict between Japanese and Australian troops during World War II. But preceding and outlasting these colonial histories are the indigenous peoples who have inhabited the island for millennia – their ancestors were some of the first humans to journey out of Africa, and their cultures are some of the most ancient in the whole world.
With the backing of the UN, Papuans appealed for and gained independence in 1975, but it remains a part of the British Commonwealth system and is heavily dependent on Australian aid money for industrial development and public services. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s uprisings and civil war plagued Papuans as they struggled to find their place in the world.
Today, although traditional practices of head-hunting and ritual cannibalism have virtually disappeared, other forms of violence remain – PNG ranks very low on indexes of human rights and violence against women, and vigilante murders of “sorcerers” are not uncommon. Public education is woefully inadequate and illiteracy rates are extremely high.
On the other hand, PNG is unequaled in beautiful dense diversity, with over 1000 distinct cultures speaking over 800 languages. Many of these communities still practice traditional ways that are rarely seen anywhere else on earth. It is considered a “megadiverse” region because of the incredible numbers of unique endemic species. Wild food grows everywhere; banana trees sprout up like weeds.
It is also abundant in many natural resources, and exports of raw materials (gold, copper, petroleum, palm oil, tuna, etc) make up the majority of the economy. This fact in itself has led to many of the difficulties that Papuans face, as almost all of the corporations engaged in extraction are of foreign origin and do not seem to care much about their impacts; scientists predict that well over half of PNG’s rainforests will be destroyed by 2025.
One way in which Papuans have attempted to alter the legacy of colonization is to establish a system of “customary land title.” Only a tiny fraction of the land is held by private property owners; about 97% of the country is considered to belong to the indigenous inhabitants, and passed on to future generations by their traditional methods. This interesting concept can lead to big challenges; there are constant and unending arguments over who has the primary rights to any given piece of land. And as you might imagine, denying the right to private property makes it pretty tricky to run a coffee estate!
Most of the premium coffee coming from PNG originates in the Highlands region, a mountainous spine stretching the length of the island. The Highlands are astoundingly abundant, covered in tropical cloud forests and relatively dense human populations.
A foreign visitor may be surprised and disturbed to see that nearly all of the trucks (no cars can handle the Highlands “roads”) are customized with thick steel bars welded across every window, sometimes even the windshield. But locals will reassure them that it is really not that bad – petty crimes and opportunistic thefts are just an accepted part of daily life in impoverished places, and relatively minor security precautions will discourage most anyone with devious intents.
Traditional village life is easy to witness in the Highlands; the main highway out of the city of Mount Hagen is dotted with clusters of humble houses and tiny local restaurants and pubs. Areas with more dense populations may have ramshackle flea markets, but stores as we think of them are non-existent. Most of the vendors have tiny rustic fruit and vegetable stands, plus a few racks of cheap clothes made in China hanging out in the sun. There are very few other industrial products beyond the most essential tools. Often, locals gather along the roadside and get great entertainment from watching traffic puttering by. For some, the one road snaking through their village may be their only exposure to the outside world. In fact, PNG is known to have numerous “uncontacted peoples” and there are still many settlements that have no roads whatsoever.
The climate in the Highlands is enviable, about 70-80° F every day, all year round. Proximity to the equator ensures consistent warmth, while the altitude keeps it from getting too hot. Seasonal concepts like spring, summer, autumn, and winter have no place in PNG; it is just Dry or Rainy. For those unfamiliar with tropical weather patterns, this can be hard to imagine. Basically, between November-March it rains every day, and the rest of the year it is sunny every day.
The combination of perfect temperatures and perfect altitudes create conditions in which coffee trees have an unbroken endless growing season, and they yield flowers, fruits and beans 365 days a year!
Almost all PNG coffees undergo standard washed processing, making them significantly different than neighboring Indonesian coffees, which use a special local processing method. PNG fans rave about their coffees’ sweetness, often describing them as bright, syrupy or “full-bodied,” with notes of honey, melon, or cocoa.
On the other hand, many PNG coffees may be unpredictable or a little rough. This is because almost all of them are processed and bagged in aggregate mills, which do not engage in cultivation at all. At one point, there were a number of coffee estates in the Highlands, but most lost their property rights when Papuans gained independence and insisted on reducing foreign control of their lands. When the “customary land title” policy was implemented, many European settlers just gave up and returned to their motherlands – but the coffee trees remained.
So now, most coffee harvesting is done by enterprising individuals who wander the Highlands rainforests and pick any ripe coffee cherries that they may find. Estate owners complain that they must constantly defend their crops from thieves who sneak in late at night and cart off as much as they can carry.
Due to lack of expertise, many of these “coffee foragers” pick far too many under- or over-ripe beans, just grabbing whatever they come across until their pick-up truck is overflowing. Truckloads of freshly picked cherries line up outside of aggregate mills every single day, and foragers are paid pennies per pound. This is justified by saying that the quality is low and that the mill workers are forced to spend countless hours screening out under- or over-ripe cherries
Regardless, at the end of the day, coffees coming out of these aggregate mills are very mixed up – many different varieties coming from many different locations – and they can be inconsistent and sometimes intense, edgy. For some, this is part of what makes PNG coffees exciting, but for others it is unappealing.
The good news for coffee connoisseurs is that there are a handful of estates which have managed to hold onto control of their lands, and these professional operations are practicing stringent quality-control measures and producing reliably outstanding beans.
Supervised by expert coffee producers, the mills on the professional estates have a very effective streamlined process, beginning with the “wet milling” stage that sorts out the obviously bad beans and any sticks or debris. Then the fruit is stripped off and clean beans soak in spring water for 12-36 hours to loosen any remaining fruit. Fancy pressure washers are used to fully wash the beans more quickly and efficiently than the channel systems that are used by most processors. After this, beans dry on patios until they reach the ideal 12% moisture, then go through “dry milling” to remove parchment and to be sorted by size. A final step that is uncommon in other countries is to employ a large staff of real people (not automated machines) to closely inspect everything and pick out any remaining defected beans. This very precisely-controlled process leads to coffees that are clean, consistent, and far superior to many other coffees coming out of PNG.
One of the farms which we buy from is called Kimel Estate. In the heart of the Wahgi Valley (one of only three locations where the sensitive Blue Mountain cultivar can grow), this smaller estate is noteworthy for its indigenous ownership – it was purchased from the Australian founders by a coalition of local tribes in 1979 – and its pursuit of sustainability through recycling of wash water and composting fruit/pulp into fertilizer.
From megadiverse rainforest origins to sweet and sparkly cup profile, PNG coffees are unique and exciting, and maybe the next frontier for intriguing and delicious boutique beans.