Papua New Guinea is often lumped in with Indonesian coffees. But it is distinct in nearly every way. Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern half of the island it shares with Irian Jaya, which produces only a small amount of coffee itself. It is a world away from Java or Sumatra, geographically, culturally, and in most aspects of coffee production. The many ethnic groups of PNG share nothing in common with the Bahasa-speaking peoples, or the many other Indonesian groups. And the coffee is not wet-hulled as many Indonesia coffees are; they are wet-processed, which might sound similar in name but is remarkably different in terms of the resulting cup flavors.
The coffee growing areas occupy one continuous mountain chain but are distinguished as “Eastern Highland” coffees and “Western Highland” coffees. The Eastern area would be centered around the town of Kainantu, and the trade of the Western area goes through the mills in Goroka, where coffee growing is centered around Mount Hagen town.
There are many smallholder farms in PNG that are best characterized as “coffee gardens.” A “farmer” might have 100 trees planted around their house. It also describes the casual nature of coffee farming. There isn’t much incentive on the part of a farmer, at small or large level, to take coffee very seriously. Why? First, in this extremely fertile, and nearly any stick you poke in the ground will grow. Growing crops for local sale or for home consumption is not difficult. There isn’t a food deficit in PNG and there is little need for a cash crop to buy food with.
Perhaps more importantly is the completely screwy economy of the area. PNG has been described as a “mountain of gold, floating on a sea of oil”. You might also add that it is bubbling with natural gas, since there is a 6 billion dollar pipeline project now completed. With an ultra-rugged terrain and a lack of roads connecting these mineral rich zones, everything is flown or helicopter-ed around the country. The companies investing here open their wallets to get these rich returns.
The culture in PNG, still very tribal in most ways, and seems to dictate the values of the people more than economic gain. There are still frequent inter-tribal skirmishes, and given that within a one hour drive, you might have passed through the lands of 2 or 3 ethnic groups who don’t even speak the same root language (and might have a history of conflict too), it is difficult to organize farmers here and to build trust or get cooperation.
With the big money from multinationals floating around, everything is lopsided. For example, a hotel room in the modest capital of Port Moresby might set you back $600 to $800. And in a small interior town, might cost $30 USD a night in Indonesia, could be $300 in PNG.
Aside from smallholder farmers who will often sell their coffee cherry to a wet-mill, there are large plantations in PNG. The Carpenter Family, who also had vast tea growing lands, dominated the coffee growing side of the businesses. They had the well-known Sigri farm as well as some smaller ones. Lately the operation seems to have been sold to a multi-national company. Other coffees known in the US are basically brands, not farms. Kimel is a large farm that also buys from surrounded growers and sells it under the same name.
Some of the seed stock on Papua New Guinea is from the Jamaican Blue Mountain variety of Typica, with the Arusha Typica varietal from Tanzania. Some are more modern hybrids or the Indian “Kent” varietal. There is also a lot of classic Bourbon coffee too. The main problems in PNG come with poor coffee processing and poor dry-milling. Sweet Maria’s visited one of the major dry mills in Goroka and they had cranked up their mechanical dryers to get coffee shipped as quickly as possible. This created quite a bit of smoke in the process, tainting their stock of green coffee in jute bags. Indeed everything they cupped tasted smoked.
In small mills, the mixing of unripe coffee cherry with ripe coffee cherry is common. Coffee is treated as it is in the commodity trade, without separating different qualities. Much of the processing equipment is old British type as found in Kenya; McKinnon and John Gordon, great old stuff that can still produce great coffee. They use disc pulpers and grade the coffee for size on the spot, and some farms even use the Kenya two stage fermentation method, but you might often see the coffee dried poorly, laid out on plastic sheets when the patios or drying beds are full, and then soaked when the rains come. This coffee has such great potential, and in the hands of those who know how to work with the environment, the results can be stellar when everything is done right.