Coffee from Papua New Guinea has a bad rap.
When I first started working in specialty coffee I saw coffees from Papua New Guinea replacing the better known Sumatran that had been the standard for years. An entire generation of coffee roasteries and cafes had relied on Sumatran beans, which famously provided earthy and tobacco-like flavors, as a component for their blends. But when the Sumatran supply started to shrink, and prices began to soar, roasters turned to nearby Papua New Guinea to provide a similar flavor profile. It made sense at face value that coffee from a region so close must taste similar, but of course, things are never that simple.
While they have some similar features, what was discovered were coffee varietals that are very much their own.
In my experience, coffees from Papua New Guinea have wildly unique flavor profiles that I haven’t found elsewhere. While there are many reasons for this, I think that the rare and mysterious Arusha variety, transplanted from Tanzania and commonly grown throughout the island, no doubt generates some of those distinct flavors. The cup experience is extremely interesting and honestly hard to compare to anything else. The body (or texture/mouthfeel) of these coffees tend to be relatively heavy, similar to a Colombian or Kenyan coffee. They “sit” on your palate long after you finish your sip. The acidity also tends to be “brighter” and more lively than other coffees from South East Asia, and again reminds me of the intense acidity found in East African coffees. The flavors are dense and complex, rather than simple and straightforward like many Latin American coffees. As far as the range of flavors goes, you can’t get much more diverse than Papua New Guinea. Typically, I find these coffees have intense aromas of sandalwood, cedar, and red fruits with flavors that range from “browning” notes, such as chocolate, brown sugar, and caramel, to more exotic fruity tones like grapefruit and cantaloupe.
All this being said, my general past experience with Papua New Guinea coffees could be described as unremarkable.
I know you must be thinking “how can this guy describe all these crazy flavors and call these coffees unremarkable?” The honest truth is that while these coffees do have some amazing flavors, and they deserve their credit, they’re almost all plagued with the same problems. I capture glimpses of greatness with each different brewing experience and each different coffee, but ultimately, they lacked “Clarity.” Clarity is a flavor-feature found in coffees processed with extraordinary attention paid to the particular details of post-harvest processing. More often than not, the two areas affecting Papua New Guinea coffees are fermentation and fade.
There is a very small window for “freshness” once a coffee producer picks the ripe coffee cherries. If the cherries sit for too long before reaching a washing station, they begin to ferment. While a little bit of fermentation can add fruitiness and complexity to the final cup quality, too much can lead to weird flavors we call “defects.” Once over fermentation occurs there’s no way to go back or remove those defective flavors. Now, let’s say there’s no over fermentation, and the ripe coffee cherries are delivered within the window of freshness. Fade occurs after coffees go through the washing station and reach the drying phase. Immediately after processing, raw coffee seeds need to be dried to a moisture level below 12% and ideally closer to 10.5% in order to create a product that is shelf-stable and flavorful. If coffees are not dried quickly enough, or dried too quickly, fade occurs. Without going into unnecessary detail, fade is really bad. It causes coffees to taste really woody, papery, and flat prematurely.
The only way to avoid defects like fade and over fermentation is to ensure every step of coffee processing is overseen with diligence and care. The truth is coffee producers in remote villages across Papua New Guinea likely do not have access to the resources needed to ensure their cherries or beans are properly cared for. The result is coffees with a ton of potential but held back by defects. Producers never purposely over ferment their cherries, but this defect inevitably occurs when producers have to walk countless miles to a washing station or deliver them to a neighbor who will drive several hours to the station to deliver them. Fade occurs because most washing stations lack enough drying beds to slowly and evenly dry the coffees, and even if they do, the final seeds may be exposed to high heat and sunlight that would cause them to fade anyway. Long story short, high-quality specialty coffee is extremely difficult to produce, and in Papua New Guinea, a country where most coffee producers have no access to transportation and roads are few and far between, the output of high-quality coffee is lacking…
Honestly, I almost gave up on Papua New Guinea. I wasn’t sure if there would ever be a coffee that would make me reconsider the potential for quality.
This was until last fall, when I finally tasted that coffee. It was the coffee I had been waiting for all along.
That coffee completely changed my attitude toward Papua New Guinea, made me believe there was something to be truly excited about, and now I want to shout it from the rooftops.
Enter, The Baroida Estate
Papua New Guinea’s coffee production follows a similar path to that of many other coffee-producing nations, namely it follows the story of colonization. Coffee seeds were brought to the island by a mixture of missionaries and traders hoping to cultivate the coveted plant. For a long time, only wealthy colonizers were able to cultivate coffee. They established large estates and grew coffee with hopes of securing a lucrative corner on the growing international coffee market. It wasn’t until many decades later that coffee seeds reached the local population. Quickly, coffee became a viable agricultural product for the island. By the 1950s there was a huge boom in Papua New Guinea’s coffee production, growing over 3000% in total cultivated land. In order to help continue the growth of the new agricultural sector being fueled by coffee, Papua New Guinea’s government began to invite agriculturalists from neighboring countries such as New Zealand and Australia to establish large-scale farms with the hopes of becoming a major contender in the coffee market.
One of the families who responded to this call was the Colbran family. Leaving their home in New Zealand, Ben Colbran and his wife Norma, along with their three children, moved to the Kainantu District of the Eastern Highlands. There they purchased an estate along with 600 acres of viable land with several novel features that create an unparalleled growing environment. The estate just so happens to sit at the apex of the Lamari River Valley, as well as the Mount Jarraba range, two extremely distinctive geographical features for the region. With an elevation of around 1700 meters, the estate is perfectly situated for the slow ripening of coffee cherries, a key factor that aids the development of sweetness and complexity in coffee. Pair this with dense rainfall and consistently warm days and cool evenings and what you have is the perfect context for growing specialty coffee.
Though Ben dreamed of growing coffee, and he knew the estate was in the perfect location, he was unable to immediately pursue his dream. The cost of beginning coffee production on a large estate was and is still very high. There’s a great deal of tools and resources you either have to source or build yourself to have a successful coffee farm, and after purchasing the estate Ben’s finances were completely drained. Knowing this, the family initially grew fruits and vegetables, and then began a sawmill. This mill eventually generated enough money for the family to finally invest in cultivating coffee. In order to pay homage to the local beauty and mystery of the area, the Colbran family named the estate “Baroida” after a large rock in a river that flows through the estate. According to locals, the rock has been in the middle of the river for generations. Despite heavy rains which have caused damage to villages and the surrounding landscape, the rock has never moved. In response, the locals named the rock “Baroida,” and believe there is a spirit in the rock that keeps it from being moved. The more you learn about the Colbrans and their estate, the more the name “Baroida” makes sense.
For years the Colbran family successfully cultivated coffee on the estate, forever changing the landscape of the region. Many of the local people attest their own coffee seeds were given to them by the Colbrans, which led to a vibrant coffee-growing culture in the area. Despite the success of the estate, Ben and Norma decided to sell it in 1979 in order to retire and focus on their later years in life, leaving their son Nichol in charge of the operations. Not long after the departure of his parents, Nichol also left the estate to pursue work in the Western Highlands, far away from the estate. During this time, the estate’s management failed to uphold the strong standards the Colbran family had set. Eventually, the estate fell into disrepair and became nearly inoperable. What was once considered one of the foremost coffee operations in the Eastern Highlands was forgotten and becoming a relic of a much better past. In 1997, Nichol Colbran returned to the Eastern Highlands and back to the estate. Upon arrival, he was horrified to see the disrepair it had fallen into. So moved by what he saw, he purchased it back and began to fix all of the problems. Within a few years the estate was once again producing outstanding coffee.
For Nichol, this was only the first step of a much larger plan. Nichol and his team began to collaborate with neighboring coffee producers to create long term sustainability and partnerships that would flourish into an even richer coffee culture. Nichol began training neighboring producers, as well as purchasing their coffees and processing them using the best practices in the industry. By doing this, Nichol created a highly traceable supply chain where all actors shared responsibilities and profits as well. Going even a step further, Nichol built an entire dry-mill on the estate. Most coffee producers and even large estates send their coffees to huge dry-mills to be prepared for export. Often, traceability is near completely lost at the dry mill level, and depending on the standards of the mill, quality can be lost as well due to improper practices. The Baroida Estate, however, has the capability to completely oversee the cultivation of amazing coffee from seeds to export, a feat very few in the entire world have accomplished.
Because of Nichol’s unwavering dedication to quality, both in coffee and the quality of life for coffee producers in Papua New Guinea, the Baroida Estate has become the premier provider of high-quality coffee in the country.
Impact Above and Beyond
As I mentioned earlier, coffees in Papua New Guinea generally suffer from some of the major setbacks I’ve encountered around the world. In most places, smallholder producers who cultivate “coffee gardens” (these gardens are usually a couple of acres where coffee trees are mixed with other agricultural plants) lack the necessary agricultural and technological resources to produce the flavor qualities we are seeking at Utopian. Of course, we do not want to discount purchasing from the vast majority of coffee producers because of these issues. One way we overcome this is by partnering with estates such as Baroida which cultivate coffee not only on their own land (which provides work for local people) but additionally purchases coffees from neighboring farms and process them to the highest degree possible. In doing this, the estate pays premiums to the neighboring producers for their ripe coffee cherries. They aren’t merely purchasing cherries from neighbor’s farms, they’re also providing much-needed agricultural and technological assistance which creates long-term sustainability for these smallholders.
If this isn’t enough, Nichol has begun a new series of projects in order to provide more farming families with opportunities to receive the premium payments that come from high-quality specialty coffee. One way they’re doing this is by funding the development of infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, in remote areas of the highlands where many coffee-producing families live. Without roads, it’s nearly impossible to get coffee from these areas before they begin to over ferment. Additionally, these roads do much more than help improve the quality of the coffee. Medical supplies and other basic necessities also go undelivered because of the remoteness. The development of infrastructure has a massive impact on these communities and their ability to thrive and grow holistically.
Ben is also improving infrastructure by building washing stations in small remote villages throughout the region. Traditionally, washing stations play an important intermediary role between coffee producers and final export. Local producers will bring a “cut” or a day’s picking of coffee cherries to the washing station. The washing station will inspect the quality of the cut and pay the producer for their cherries. Without adequate access to washing stations, producers either have to walk countless miles to deliver cherries or have to sell their cherries to “middlemen” who often pay much lower than the market price and leave producers without a sustainable income. Nichol and his team are helping improve these issues by building washing stations directly in these remote villages. Instead of relying on nefarious means of travel or trade to receive payments, producers can daily visit the washing station to deliver cherries and directly receive premium payments. It is investments like this that create a more equitable and secure supply chain for everyone involved.
Building infrastructure, sharing knowledge, and providing secure access to payment are all extraordinarily important to improving the livelihoods of producers in Papua New Guinea, but for Nichol Colbran this was just the beginning of a much deeper and radical change. By partnering with roasters around the world, the Baroida Estate is funding the building of schools throughout the highlands. In these areas, children often have to walk for miles through undesirable terrain to reach their school. As we can all imagine, this sort of travel before a school day is not conducive to learning, so the Colbrans helped build a school in one of the remote villages near the estate. Now instead of walking for hours, the local children only have to walk a few minutes to get to school. It’s projects like this that genuinely help improve the livelihoods of countless people. Helping producers with agricultural and technological assistance is amazing, building roads and bridges is the next level of impact, but the Baroida Estate has gone even further and is now helping provide education to those most in need. These are the sorts of coffees we want to purchase at Utopian – coffees with impact going above and beyond.
Remember where the name “Baroida” came from? A resilient, unmovable rock in a treacherous and relentless river. In many ways, Nichol Colbran’s unrelenting persistence and pursuit of high-quality coffee, despite the challenges and setbacks, has created a more equitable and sustainable world.
Coffees from Papua New Guinea have always had the potential to become something really wonderful, but historically tended to suffer from defects. Having invested almost a lifetime in solving these old problems, Baroida Estate may be the truest expression of Papua New Guinea’s terroir. So, what does a truly outstanding coffee from Papua New Guinea taste like? We’re offering two different versions of the same coffee with one featuring the “fully washed” method of preparation, and the other featuring the “sundried natural” preparation. I have written a blog about fermentation methods in the past, so please check that out to learn more, but in brief, the washed process provides a clean and balanced cup with more delicate and complex flavors. By contrast, the sundried natural process, which involves fermentation inside of the ripe coffee cherry, creates a fruiter and juicier cup profile.
The aromas are densely sweet and compelling, akin to brown sugar, clover honey, and peach skins. The flavors are just as dense and complex! When hot, sugary sweet flavors of ripe cantaloupe and red pear make their way to the front of the cup. As it cools, deeper flavors of rooibos tea, red apple, and lemon all intermingle and dance creating a flurry of sensations. At near room temperature, lingering flavors of sticky-sweet raisins and honey appear. This coffee has so many flavors and layers of flavors that it creates an absolutely amazing experience!
The in-fruit-fermentation that occurs during the sundried natural preparation creates extremely exotic and fruit-like characteristics! The aromas alone are purely intoxicating, reminding me of strawberry sangria. When hot, the flavors in the cup are nothing less than a tropical fruit cocktail with tones of watermelon and dragonfruit, strawberries, and raspberries in step as well. As the cup cools, expect heady flavors of red wine, stewed berries, and papaya. This is definitely a one-of-a-kind fruit-bomb with intense fermented flavors!
Attention to detail at each and every step, from harvesting to milling, creates excellent cups of quality. Tremendous attention to fine details went into every step of the process to create the dense and complex flavors we desire so much. The only way we can achieve the most genuine and true flavors from the one-of-a-kind terroir of Papua New Guinea is through collaboration and cooperation. I believe the Baroida Estate, and more directly Nichol Colbran and his team, are paving the way for a brighter future for coffee in Papua New Guinea. The legacy of the Colbran family goes far beyond their own estate. I believe in the next several years we will see an increase in genuinely high-quality, defect-free coffee from Papua New Guinea because of the Colbrans sharing their knowledge and expertise. Additionally, providing agricultural inputs such as building washing stations in remote villages will help ensure the next generation of coffee producers are fairly compensated and fully educated in the entire coffee process. There is now a reality of excellent quality coffee and a higher quality of life where previously there was just potential and a dream.
I believe this story can teach us an important less about how we engage in our own communities. It’s easy to become knowledgeable and successful when you have all the right cards in your deck. What’s much more difficult is utilizing your blessings and achievements to truly improve the livelihood of your neighbors and community as a whole. I think all of us can read stories like this and take time to reflect on what areas of our own life hold the potential to act as a catalyst for change in our own communities.