Early one Sunday morning in July, my fellow CSM, Melissa Clement, and I boarded a plane that would take us to where the life of some our coffee begins: the highlands of Papua New Guinea.
Like most of us in the industry, I began my coffee career as a barista — at the very end of a coffee bean’s journey, from having started its life inside a small red cherry to the final roasted product that I would grind and brew each day. As my career continued, so did my understanding of each in-between step in the coffee industry — from how the espresso equipment we use works to the science of roasting, but I’d never had the privilege of visiting a high altitude coffee farming community first-hand. Despite my 15 or so years of experience, I’m not afraid to admit that the agricultural side of coffee has been a big gap in my knowledge that I’ve been eager to fill.
So how does coffee come to be a morning staple all the way from, in this case, Papua New Guinea?
We flew into Port Moresby, and then we took a small plane (Fokker 70) one hour north-west to Mt. Hagen in the heart of the hinterland range that runs along the midline of the country. Here, we met with Jon Edwards and his colleague, Jeff, from PNG Coffee Exports/ED&F Man who would be our guides on this trip and where our base would be for the next two days while we visited the surrounding coffee plantations.
Mount Hagen: Coffee Cherries and Machetes
We drove higher into the region to over 6,000 ft to a scenic vantage point of the plains beneath Mt. Hagen. The land surrounding Mt. Hagen is beautiful and fertile, but the terrain is quite rugged and even the best roads are riddled with potholes. Passing countless small villages and communities, coffee trees were everywhere. Jon showed us how, if you squeeze the beans from a ripe red cherry, the mucilage of the coffee beans is quite sugary and can be sucked like a lolly.
I also discovered that in each cherry there are not one, but two beans (pretty embarrassing, I know!). And we learnt that if there’s only one bean that’s formed, then that bean is called a ‘Peaberry’. I thought I’d share that little cherry of information for you…
Not all the farms process their own coffee, some smaller farmers pick their red coffee cherries and sell them in sacks from the side of the road or take them to factories for processing. We saw an example of a village that has a wet processing facility where the water required to remove the pulp is sourced from a nearby stream. Utilising the stream is not only a clever idea, but also economic and efficient. Long tarps of 10 metres or more are used to dry the pulped coffee. Then at night, the tarps are rolled up to prevent any moisture from affecting the drying coffee.
Jeff had great farming knowledge when it came to growing and maintaining healthy trees. He showed us an example of coffee rust and a blight that had hit some trees, as well as taking us through how many uprights (branches) are optimal for the best development of the coffee cherries.
Mt. Hagen wasn’t only surprising in terms of my new-found coffee knowledge — it was a very raw and real cultural eye-opener too. At one point, we were even stopped and surrounded by machete-wielding locals who were on the hunt because of a transgression that had occurred the previous night. It was a bit frightening, to say the least!
Goroka: Co-Operatives and Local Traditions
From Mt. Hagen, we made the journey down to Goroka, PNG’s green coffee bean export centre. Most of PNG’s coffee ends up here for processing before it’s exported. Jon and his team cup coffee that’s being sorted into grades each day and Melissa and I were lucky enough to participate in cupping some great coffee.
We were taken on a tour of a serious-looking processing factory with a guide, JL, who was also known as ‘Weeper’ (ironic for such a rugged man). In the factory, large heated tumble driers are used to bring the moisture content down from around 30% to 11%. Running at around 60℃, they are fuelled by the dry parchment fallen from previous coffee. On the tour, JL shared with us how much of the cherry is repurposed. For example, the pulp is used as fertiliser and sometimes taken away and broken down for its sugar content to be used in soft drinks.
JL also touched on the subject of ethical coffee and procedures, explaining how a western approach to conditions in the industry can sometimes be more damaging than helpful and that a holistic approach would be better. Talking with JL opened my eyes to the fact that we, the western consumers, may benefit from things like fair trade more than coffee-growing communities, through the ‘feel good’ factor we receive.
I particularly enjoyed getting to know some of the members of AAP (Apo Angra Kange Co-Operative Societies) — a local cooperative that’s run wholly by and for the coffee community, without the intervention of an international corporation. In fact, you can only join if you are a farmer, which you have to evidence with the callouses on your hands! Some of the Co-Op members have gone on to do uni degrees in the UK, and have come back to their community to provide education to the other farmers. They teach each other financial and business basics, which we probably take as a given, like how to bank, save money, and understand yields and outputs.
Bruce, who works with the AAP, shared with us that this practical education — from optimal farming practices through to bookkeeping — not only helps individual farm’s outputs and subsequent financial positions, they can help the entire Co-Op.
Bruce then took us to a coffee-growing village about 30 minutes out of Goroka, where he had a special treat waiting for us: mud men. This is a local tradition where the men paint themselves in white clay and wear large, impressive masks made from mud. These masks were hard and quite heavy and take over a day to make.
As guests, Melissa and I were given sugar cane sticks to suck on while we walked through the village. There, we enjoyed a traditional meal cooked in a fire pit with hot stones; cooking with no oil left the meat with a really clean flavour. Melissa and I also got to spend some time with the youth of the village, most of whom were studying at the University of Goroka… and also had smartphones. I guess, some things are the same wherever you go!
If you’re interested in learning more about traceable coffee or want to try some of our PNG-grown beans, you can stop by one of our Roastery Doors or join us at our next monthly cupping or another of our coffee industry events.