Papua New Guinea: You Confound Me

Rambir is the manager of the operation, who comes from an extensive tea background. His opinion is that tea processing is much more difficult and risky that coffee, which I believe is true. Rambir Singh means Running Bear, he says. Is he really American Indian, and not from India at all? Kimel Plantation, North Wahgi, Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea

I have been to a lot of places that grow coffee. Nothing could prepare me for Papua New Guinea. The more you stay, the more you observe, the less you seem to know.

Getting a grip on coffee and culture in PNG is like grabbing a greased pig; it’s slippery as all get-out, and just when you think you have some firm footing, and make lunge at it, you end up on your ass wondering what hit you. But let’s rewind … just getting to Papua New Guinea is an event in itself. It starts with a short hop to Los Angeles, then a 13 hour flight to Brisbane Australia that leaves 3 hours late. Somewhere in there, a day evaporates into the mists of time, which is 17 hours in the future of West Coast USA. Then there is a 4 hour layover and another 3 hour flight to the capital of PNG, Port Moresby. I am seriously out-of-sorts by this time. I am also sick from the last flight, economically speaking, because it cost the same for the relatively short Brisbane – Port Moresby leg as it did for the 13 hour flight from LAX to Brisbane. Something already seems wrong here. My wallet is in my camera bag, but I can hear it howling in pain already. Then I hear, or mis-hear, that a hotel room, any hotel room, in Moresby is $800-$1000 USD a night. I will find out later that it’s all true. The latest in a series of boom-times for PNG is a project called LNG, a $7 Billion dollar natural gas pipeline project. Gold mines and oil wells already have created vastly disparate economic scales here. LNG has just made the difference between high and low much more dramatic. Local packaged good store goods are priced as you might expect in a major metropolitan airport: 30 ounce tube of sunscreen = $18

At this point in the story, you might expect me to say that the local Papuan is suffering the brunt of the price squeeze, that they can’t afford food and services as the operators gouge them for prices. It’s not really true. This place is so rich, not only in minerals but in rich soils, that you can stick anything in the ground and it will grow. There appears to be no hunger here. In fact, garden food crops seem so easy to produce, and so cheap to trade in coal markets, that locals appear to have ample leisure time, as they prefer to congregate for any reason, or no reason, to loll about for hours a day. Of course, I am guessing, or relying on what I see in a very brief trip and what my contacts are telling me. I am sure things could be otherwise, as everything on this island tends to be.

While making gross generalizations, I will also state that the way the intensely tribal culture here has been filtered through the sieve of modern capitalistic life is most bizarre to an out-of-towner like me, and has a direct bearing on the success (or lack there-of) of my attempts to source the best quality coffee from PNG in the most direct way. As everywhere, coffee is a cash crop, and more than 80% of PNG coffee comes from small-holder farmers. Large plantations, often started or run my expats, used to represent a larger part of the crop. Now Estates account for less than 3% of the coffee. In between the Estates and the small-holders are the larger of the smaller farmers. They are called Blockholders, or Projects here. While a smallholder might have 30 trees or 300 trees, an amount you don’t even account for by hectares, a Blockholder might be 10 or 40 or even 80 hectares. That’s a decent-size farm in Central America, and the type of producer a coffee buyer like me might work with directly.

But several things about PNG culture and commerce make this unlikely. First, they are not “serious coffee farmers” as I would characterize such a thing, because the coffee field is a bank account to them, something they attend to when the crop is coming, and forget for a good part of the year. They might do a little fertilizing and weed control (a big issue here is weeds that compete for nutrients and choke out the coffee). They might prune a little right after the harvest. But they just don’t regard coffee as a year-round occupation. Secondly, they don’t trust anyone … and that is not good for a wet-mill buyer or a direct relation with a coffee traveler like me.

Don’t get me wrong; this is one of the friendliest places you will ramble around, in a way. Everyone waves, everyone smiles … well, except the ones who are focused too intently on nicking your GPS or camera. It’s a very unpredictable and unsafe place as well. Oddly, the more I talked to the expats who live there, the more I had this singular idea that living in a small town in rural PNG is like living in the Bronx. You don’t let your guard down. You don’t trust others. You are friendly, but don’t cut people a lot of slack. You don’t give people anything, you don’t do favors; no “senseless acts of kindness” here. It’s too straightforward for that. It boils down to money, and what people can get from you. If you tried to get farmers to come to your mill by offering something extra, like free compost, or coffee seedlings, or fertilizer, they would gladly take it and deliver coffee to your competitor the next week. There is no resentment attached to this, or most other malfeasance. If someone can take advantage of you, they will. That’s why it seems exhausting to me, and impossibly urban in mindset.

All of this seems like typecasting to me, or worse. Yet it is not really about “us and them,” but rather about “them and them”. As I am told, this is how the local PNG people treat each other, even within their own tribal group, and even within their own family. Consider that the PNG highlands were untouched tribal territories 80 years ago, and in many parts they still are. For god’s sake, it’s the only nation on earth where the capital (Port Moresby) is only reached by aircraft. It’s purely defensive – they could have roads to Lae and Goroka, they just don’t. There are still tribal wars. Some tribe is constantly holding siege on another, raiding for cattle and women, to address some previous wrong, no matter how trivial. Just a few months before my visit, a couple coffee buyers could not go to the area they had planned because a local war had flared up. There is still witchcraft in PNG. There is still witch burning! As an out-of-towner, all of this is hard to fathom, from $800 hotel rooms to livestock raiding and local wars. Every 10 minutes you hear someone say something that you can’t quite believe. I felt like my hearing needed to be checked, like they couldn’t have just said what I thought they said.

Bryan Leahey of Kuta Mill was a great example. He had odd timing too. He told us in detail how his coffee truck filled with cherry didn’t line up his tires with the treads across a small bridge, a plank gave way, the load shifted, the truck dropped 20 feet into the creek, and the driver drowned. How is that possible? Partly because all the locals descended on the wreck and scooped up all the coffee cherry from the creek, but didn’t think to help the driver. On the same route he drives to his mill and on his way back, just 20 minutes later, there are dead bodies on the road, because of a local tribal conflict. The police arrive and when he tries to pass the crossroads and get out of the conflict zone, they tell him he can’t pass. So he has to run the gauntlet back to the farm, between the roving tribal factions wielding firearms, many home-made (shotgun shell in a iron pipe with a nail and a spring). Ten days of travel only yielded 5 days on the ground in the coffee areas. So what do I know? It’s ways to pass through an area and either come away with a pollyanna-ish view of local struggles, or inherit all the suspicion, distrust (or worse) from the local players.

I know this; coffee here could regularly be 88 points plus. 90 Point coffees would not be hard to achieve without re-inventing the wheel; all you would need to do is pick ripe cherry and process it with care. In contrast, I start to wonder if any Brazil is really 87 points, when you stack it against other origins. One of the most famous origins is scraping it’s scalp against the ceiling at 87, and another, PNG, refuses to stand up straight, and still slouches in regularly at 86-87 points. But I do have some experience traveling to other places, enough to know that there is a tectonic rift between the sense of potential any coffee-producing origin might exhibit, what brilliant flashes might sparkle in little 120 gram samples here and there, and actually producing and exporting consistent quality coffee lots. We will press on for what we hope PNG coffee can be, and see if we can get any takers on a real quality project.

Two mills seem to be on the cusp of breaking new ground toward real, repeatable systems that can produce better quality coffee. Until then, it is a lot of cupping to separate the little gems from the bed of gravel. Back to the cupping table, but no discoveries yet. Back at the home base, I am going through samples I brought, and ones that came via DHL. A set from a particular dry mill that I had high hopes for are unilaterally smoked. Yes, smoked, as in the green coffee smells smoked, the roasted-ground coffee smells smoked, and the cups all have a barbecue overlay in the flavor. What a shame. It’s no mystery how this happened. It’s a huge crop this year, and all the coffee came at once. The mills couldn’t handle it. They needed to cram the mechanical driers full, and rush the coffee through. They burn parchment to power the dryers, a good re-use thing, right? It is supposed to be a heat-exchanger system so that smokey air doesn’t reach the coffee. Clearly, the system is blown. And worse of all, they are milling the coffee to green and storing it a space adjacent to the driers. So the unprotected coffee is just sucking up the smoke from the environment.

There was problems I could see with sun-drying as well. The weather was unpredictable, rains in the middle of the dry season. It’s not like the sun-dry coffee all that well anyway, the blue tarps they use are load on the ground, not raised beds, and their woven fabric isn’t truly impermeable. I noticed water wicking up from the wet soil under the tarps. It leads me to wonder, what the hell are they thinking here? Well, they are thinking about their customers, I suppose, and I guess that doesn’t include me. This is what I would call a “Specialty Coffee” system here, in the 1990s sense of the word. You can buy a coffee from a specific place, even a specific farm or coop or dry mill, and sell it as Specialty. But it’s a container-load approach, just a notch above commercial coffee that would be sold for blends, without origin designation. There doesn’t really seem to be a big difference between the two, when you look at how they are produced. But on the consumer end, you would think they were night and day. When I see some of these same PNG coffees that are getting smoked right in front of me offered on web sites and menus, you would think we were talking Cuvee, Grand Reserve, Mini-Micro-Lote, AAA Supreme, Day-Lot-Selection, and I-picked-it-out-from-thousands-of-samples. On that side of things, PNG makes all too much sense to me. Sadly.