My Experiences with New Guinea Coffee as a WA Importer and Roaster
Phone: +61 8-95286200
Unit 1, 8 Crompton Road
Rockingham WA 6168
…Well, with this kind of idea…up to now, all the New Guineas you have been drinking is coffee that is coming primarily from the plantations and estates. All the Arabicas from the western and eastern highland provinces. Amongst that coffee, maybe one bean in a hundred, has been brought in from a little villager who has a hut, a little village and maybe six trees. For all the reasons that John was talking about, there is no mechanical harvesting, the ground is really, really rich, it’s beautiful. It is beautiful territory, but it is very, very unfriendly territory. Everything is a hill. It is either river, cliff or hill or peak. It doesn’t lend itself to any form of growth other than someone tending six, twelve, maybe fifteen plants. Which will equate to a bag, or two bags a season. Which is more cash than they really need, but they love it. They can buy their coke, their sugary buns, and they can buy their betel nut and their tinned fish now.
Up to now, all the coffee in the Chimbu province, which is wedged between these two eastern and western highland provinces, has been going to Goroka or Mt Hagen for sale. For those who haven't had much experience with coffee: coffee is traded on the futures market. Internationally, there is no uniform classification of coffee. Every country seems to have their own way of determining grades and quality of coffee. In PNG, the coffee is 'Estate' on the bags, or it is 'PSC,' and then it is graded A, AA, X and Y. PSC is premium smallholder coffee, not plantation coffee. PSC coffee is generally not certified and is hand picked, in other words, only the ripe cherries were picked. The cherries aren't bruised, it is grown without chemicals. And if it is PSC in PNG, it is generally grown at a high altitude, because the eastern and western highland provinces are lower than Chimbu. The coffee in Chimbu is grown between about 5000 and 8000 feet. It is quite slow growing. The earth is still very active there, quite volcanic, and the soil is relatively young and rich.
Quite recently, there has been a lot of political instability, and it is a grass roots political instability. The people are trying to reclaim what they used to have. They see the wealth there that has been generated by a few people on their traditional lands. PNG is still very, very traditional. Land is passed down. You can't get a mortgage on land, you can't use it as a guarantee, because no bank, in their right mind, would ever reclaim your plot if you don't pay your bill, because there is no such thing. So, the politics, at the grass root level is having a big impact, as we speak, on what will happen to coffee in PNG in the future.
Back to the grades: X is the first melting pot. When you take out all the Grade A beans from the X batch, you are left with Y. Y and X grades are what are sold predominantly from PNG. So when you go to New Guinea, you will probably buy X grade. You can buy A grades but it is much more expensive and some estates choose not to put it on the futures. Traders have to deal directly with the estates to get the A grade, because it is only a very small percentage of the overall volume. AA, even more rare in terms of the percentage of the total, the amount is very small.
Let's talk about coffee in Chimbu where I came from. It was evident that nobody in the world every had an opportunity to taste the coffee that was growing in Chimbu by itself. Because the only way for that coffee to leave the country was through the exporters in Hagen and Goroka who just blended it in with their overall range of coffees. So I thought, Right, this is distinctly different. The reason for that is the growing conditions and the fact PSC is kind of redefined in PNG. Premium Smallholder Coffee as applied to South America, might be a person with a couple of acres, I suppose. Whereas in PNG it is a person with between 2 to 8 trees, and that is their livelihood. They are not working for anybody else. That is their coffee and their cash and so they tend it with loving care.
Now, Jerry Kapka comes along and he is a very smart man. He thinks, well, we can't form a cooperative, so he will do virtually the same thing. He buys a little Suzuki Sierra and goes out on the tracks and bumps and offers to buy coffee. He does this enough times to create enough volume to make it worthwhile to get rid of the parchment. So his little system starts to grow. Now he has a factory where he is producing 3.5 million kilos a year of Chimbu coffee. Most of which is X, which just shoots off to Goroka and Hagen and he makes his little middleman cut. The villagers love it because they don't have to carry the bag on a bus or ute or walk it into Goroka or Hagen. That's how it all works. He scoops off the A grade and ships it directly to me in Perth. It is the only place in the world you can get A grade Chimbu coffee. It is great coffee.
Let's talk about PNG generally. The country has changed quite significantly and is changing more rapidly for the worse every year. When I say for the worse, I don't want to debate whether it is culturally worse or whatever, because I know a lot of people will say they will be far better off. What is worse about it is that the infrastructure they have relied on for the last 15, 20, 30 years, has now fallen apart. The road system is in disrepair and virtually not working. They have a telecommunication system which is off-air a lot of the time. Yonkey dam which generates a lot of their electricity is on its last legs. The water system is dying. Everything is falling over. People have kind of been joking about it for the last ten years, but, sadly, a lot of these things are actually occurring. Where I lived in Chimbu, the provincial centre, it wasn't uncommon for us to be without power for up to two weeks. The phones in the whole province were off the air for 8 months. I had to drive to Hagen or Goroka to do business, just to make a phone call. It is amazingly difficult to run a business like that.
Chimbu, or Simbu, is probably the window, looking in, as to what PNG will start to look like, probably in the next 15 to 20 years in the other bigger centres. Where the infrastructure will have collapsed to the point where a lot of places that traditionally did business won't be doing business there any longer. That will have a huge implication for coffee in PNG. Wagimek is one of the huge estates in PNG, probably was responsible for PNG gaining a great reputation for coffee, because they have been very active in promoting good quality coffee from PNG. Wagimek, sadly, now, is on its last legs. Sigri was one of their estates. It is Sigri effectively no longer, because the land owners have started to take it over.
So, how does that affect what I do here? People say, "That is terrible news for you." Well, no, it is not really terrible news because my coffee is in actual fact thriving as a result of the failing infrastructure, because that is what the plantations rely on. PSC in Chimbu is completely unreliant on the infrastructure. Those people operate anyway without power, without any infrastructure. They have villages and are completely self-supporting. They are properly 'green.'
We need the Highlands Highway to remain open, and we need the port to remain open. If those two things exist, then we are fine, because our processing factory exists in Chimbu. There are no phones, power is self-generated. We have generators and gas, and we actually burn the parchment as a fuel to create energy. I do feel very sorry for the country, sadly, and I think it probably does need to go further down to build itself up, with its own strength.
By the way, coffee is really easy to roast at home, provided that you keep the temperature quite low and the beans moving. If you do it at home, use a wok or a frying pan, I'm sure you will have a reasonable amount of success. Just don't over-roast it.
Q. Do you take the whole production from those small growers?
A. Those people still supply Goroka and Hagen. Goroka and Hagen have started to go and replicate what Jerry is doing, but that is because they now realise that without the inclusion of the Chimbu coffee in their coffee, their general quality has dropped off. They have started to realise the cordial quality of the Chimbu coffee and how it impacts, elevates the overall quality. Now that we have the processing plant up and running in Chimbu they then start to try to buy back and blend into their New Guineas.
Jerry now also works on a satellite phone system; he pays a horrendous bill to Telstra in Australia to communicate with the world.
Incidentally, we were talking about coffee prices. Coffee prices are so low now that some South American countries are using their low grade coffee for fuel.
That hand-picking stuff is really quite a big issue for a lot of coffee producers now. The biggest problem they are finding with mechanical picking is differentiating in the ripeness, which has a big impact on how it cups in the end. One of the biggest factors is getting a consistent amount of ripeness in the cherries for the end result.
Ten years ago I would have said all the middle management, senior management, on the big estates were expatriates. Now, they are very few and far between. The plantations are mostly managed now by New Guineans. However, all of the exporting companies are essentially owned over seas. Swiss, German, Italian companies, and they staff them with white people in Goroka.
PNG is ideally suited for coffee. It has a great overstory, it rains all the time. Labor costs are not factored in on the PSC side, and labor is very cheap on the plantation side. They don't consider their time as valuable because they wouldn't be doing anything if they weren't doing that.
Coffee gets wet-processed first, then sun dried, then dried to 14% moisture in big air tumblers. Then it goes through a series of sortings where they get rid of all the stones, because they can chuck in a lot of stones into the bags to increase the weight. The beans are graded by size, because you assume they all have the same moisture content. All the bad beans, the blacks, are mostly removed in the wet processing because they float. Parchment is removed in a kind of abrasion system. You are left with a silver skin and that is polished off.
If I am roasting coffee and it is really moist it starts to explode. The water blows it out and makes little volcanoes. If you don't have enough oil content, which has nothing to do with the processing, it is all to do with the coffee bean, where it grown, is how much creme it creates.
Cupping is when you coarse-grind coffee and float it into hot water, just off-boiling water. You taste it, much like a wine tasting. Just like wine, the coffee reflects the ground it is grown in, so it is purely a question of the region. The plantation soil is nowhere near as rich as the scattering of bushes high on a mountain side. The coffee beans I do reflect a far better growing environment.
I sell on the internet as well as in Australia. We have had a lot of interest from buyers from boutique roasters in America and Japan. It is a specialty coffee. There is not nearly enough volume to supply on a world scale. We can only do 150 A grade tonnes of my stuff. Remember that Jerry alone ships out 3.5 million kilos.