Timor Leste is the independent nation occupying the eastern half of the island of Timor, with the western portion being a part of Indonesia. Before the independence was declared from Portugal in 1975, East Timor was producing coffee and sandalwood as its chief exports. But during the ensuing struggles and war with Indonesian occupiers, coffee farmers and coffee production suffered greatly.
Timor Leste coffees are generally wet-processed, and have moderate acidity, a balanced cup, and decent body. Mixed varieties of coffee, especially with the Timor Hybrid (a spontaneous cross of arabica and robusta), can introduce some herbal or wood notes in the cup. But increased attention to coffee cultivars and improvements in harvest and processing are raising the quality of Timor coffee in recent years.
Small scale coffee farming in Timor Leste was revitalized in the late 1990s by cooperative farming associations, with funding from USAID grants, to aid the minimal incomes of the rural population.
The independence of the cooperatives and the presence of some technical support from NGO groups emboldened the spirit of the Timorese toward independence. Development of the output of these coffee coops was geared toward producing full container loads of Fair Trade and Organic certified lots. Some regional names were developed in the Specialty market such as Maubisse (or Maubesse) and Aifu. But these were often used quite loosely as coffee types, not geographical indicators of the origin of the coffee.
Because the coffee of Timor Leste has been bulked from many small farms, it has been offered as a meta-regional “specialty” coffee in the most limited sense. There is quality potential because of the old variety of coffee planted here, but regional or farmer separations do not exist. And when regional lots do exist, they aren’t coming from groups of well-trained farmers growing, milling and drying coffee to high and uniform standards. There is much agricultural outreach work to do here in that respect, as well as combatting the complacency of growers who have not attained significant premiums for their coffee.
Arabica (and Robusta) are planted here at quite low altitudes (I marked arabica at 750 meters), with a bulk of arabica at a moderate 1100-1200 meters. I have seen coffee at 1600 meters and I am sure there is some higher up, but it represents a very small volume. Farms here suffer huge biennial swings in cherry production. It’s the nature of coffea arabica, but without great agricultural practice (some coffee simply plants itself here, as in Ethiopia “semi-forest coffee”) the ups and downs of the crop cycle are huge in volume.
The tradition here is wet-processing, unlike Indonesian regional origins like Sumatra and Sulawesi that historically wet-hulled. The difference between wet-hulled and wet-processed may seem very small. Both are picked, pulped of skin, fermented and washed. The difference is that wet-hulled coffees are removed from parchment when still at high moisture (25% or more) then dried on patios as exposed green bean. Wet-processed coffees are allowed to slowly dry in the parchment, then rested in warehouses to stabilize, then hulled at 10-11% moisture. The cup difference is huge. Wet-hulled are more earthy, funky, have lower acidity and larger body. Wet-processed can be brighter, more uniform, lighter body, cleaner cup taste.
But wet-processed Indonesian coffees, and near neighbors like Timor, still retain some of the unusual foresty flavors as well. Sometimes this is due to poor quality wet-processing, and Timor has many such washing stations in disrepair, and where the picking and processing are not ideal. But exotic notes can sometimes come from the variety of coffee, such as these giant, old Bourbon-like trees found in Timor, and other environmental factors, not from taints in processing.
Interestingly, Timor is where the coffee variety of the same name originates. But I discovered that you will not likely find Timor-type coffee planted anywhere in Timor! What is Timor variety? Timor variety is a natural mutation between Robusta and Arabica, which do not easily cross because of they are genetically incompatible: They don’t cross pollinate as Arabica coffee is self-pollinating. Coffea Canephora, aka Robusta, is not. The discovery of the natural cross between the two was a milestone in coffee variety research, because of the need for an arabica plant with the disease resistance of a robusta.
Timor variety is planted in its pure form in some origins. In Sumatra it is called TimTim. The cup is generally poor in quality though, with woody, herbaceous or astringent notes. Timor variety is more significant for all the progeny it created from further crosses. The most significant and widely planted is Catimor, a cross of Timor and Caturra. Catimor usually has poorer cup quality than other types such as Typica and Bourbon due to the Robusta genetic content. Other crosses with Timor genetic content are Costa Rica 95, IHcafe 90, Ruiru 11, Sarchimor, and Castillo.
I noticed that the older arabica trees have many physical characteristics associated with Bourbon variety coffee. But locally the old type is called Moka (or Mocha). Since coffee is documented to have been spread to Reunion Island (Bourbon) from Yemen, the Moka name could be fanciful or factual, it is hard to say. But the coffee is not the extremely small bean variety of Moka for sure.
Around the sea-level capital of Dili are the coffee dry mills of various exporters, in various states of repair. The market was dominated by 3 companies including the USAID-funded NCBI that did much work to organize small-holder farmers. Timor Corp was a large privately-held company that exported around 300 containers in a good year. I am told total exports could be 600 containers, all of these trans-frieghted through nearby ports as Dili is not a deepwater port for larger vessels.
The issue with Dili is heat and humidity. In fact much coffee from the interior comes to Dili not fully dry. Huge fields exist outside the major dry mills where farmers or middlemen re-dry coffee brought from the interior on tarps. When the coffee hits the required moisture level (usually 11%) it is milled out of the parchment skin and immediately bagged and loaded for export.
This presents quality problems on several levels. Coffee that is bulked up when not truly dry will never have great cup quality, or worse, it will have moldy taste. And coffee that is dried quickly, milled and exported without a resting period lacks physical stability and moisture equilibrium, and the cup quality will rapidly fade upon import.
Timor is well suited toward it’s current mode of production in some ways; bulk FTO containers, inconsistent quality, coffee that fades rather quickly when the roaster buys it. And seriously, 80-point FTO bulk coffee is an important product to many. But for me, there is great potential here to do much more with small volumes of coffee that can achieve much better price premiums, benefit small farmers in the higher reaches of Timor-Leste, and inspire greater efforts with greater rewards. I hope as you read this, it is accompanied by some of our new Timor offerings that fulfill this promise of quality and pushing things ahead for Timor coffee. In 2016 we are starting to receive these new regional lots, and we hope to move toward even more specificity in the coffee selection going forward! -T.O