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Caffe Vita effort in Papua New Guinea highlights a unique coffee while helping a threatened species
By Dan Leif

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The story behind Caffe Vita’s soon-to-be-released Papua New Guinea coffee starts with a marsupial.

The animal in question, an endangered species called the tree kangaroo, resembles a bear shrunk to the size of a squirrel. It’s not a creature most coffee drinkers have likely heard of, but its habitat in the high-elevation jungles of Papua New Guinea’s Huon Peninsula happens to also be an area where Arabica thrives.

A recent initiative from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo and Vita’s buying and roasting team aims to stabilize—and increase—the tree-dweller’s numbers by helping indigenous villages in the area earn money through their distinct-tasting coffee rather than selling their land to timber and energy companies. “This gives us an opportunity,” says Danny Samandingke, a farmer and teacher from the area who was at last month’s Coffee Fest Seattle, standing beside Caffe Vita baristas as they brewed samples of the region’s product. “There are so many challenges in the country, but this gives us hope.”

Woodland Park Zoo researchers have had a presence in the area since the mid-’90s, and they have already helped preserve 180,000 acres for conservation. The group approached Vita last year, knowing a direct relationship with a quality-focused roasting company could help continue forest-saving efforts. “The end goal is to continue to improve [coffee] quality and therefore be able to buy more from the region,” says Caffe Vita green buyer Daniel Shewmaker. “Ultimately, we want to empower growers and strengthen the conservation.”

While the Vita aim is straightforward, making it a reality has been anything but simple. Small shareholders in the targeted region (technically three separate areas called Yopno, Uruwa and Som) haven’t successfully exported their coffee until now for a good reason: They live on steep, forested slopes in small villages with no electricity or road access. Small planes can take visitors to a single airstrip in the jungle, but flights are infrequent and often called off because of the heavy mist that blankets the area almost daily. When Shewmaker visited the area this summer, he had to wait an extra few days to get back out because his scheduled plane couldn’t land. A researcher from the zoo who also made the trip had his patience tested even further, ending up stranded for more than two weeks.

But Shewmaker says the product is worth the problems. When he received the initial coffee samples from zoo reps last year, he tasted a product that had high moisture levels but held promise in terms of flavor. “There were glimmers of some really exciting profiles,” Shewmaker says. “It had echoes of other PNG coffees, but there was something different. It’s a new origin almost.”

Farmers worked on drying, sent more samples and demonstrated so much improvement that Shewmaker made arrangements to travel to the rugged terrain and meet the people behind the beans.

That visit led to a contract where Vita agreed to buy 22 bags, 21 of which are scheduled to arrive in the US next month—the final bag fell off the plane as it lifted off the airstrip and, as far as Shewmaker and Samandingke know, never got recovered. “That’s the nature of travel in PNG,” Shewmaker says.

During the visit, Shewmaker and farmers in the area began working to separate lots by elevation and create more effective solar-drying systems (raised drying tables enclosed in plastic and open on each end to allow for airflow) to ideally bring moisture levels down even more.

Despite those efforts, the flavor quality of the initial shipment won’t be known until the coffee arrives and Vita starts sampling. Coffees with high moisture levels, Shewmaker explains, often suffer in their shelf life, developing a “baggy” taste in just a couple of months. But the plan is to develop better processing and growing procedures over time. “If the coffee gets here and something happened to it, it will just be working to improve that,” says Shewmaker. “This is not something we’re giving up on.”

Producers on the other side of the equation feel the same way—and are betting on the relationship’s future. Samandingke, who’s from the Teptep village in Uruwa, says he and other growers have become accustomed to disappointment when it comes to coffee—the companies that own the small planes necessary for transporting beans have traditionally taken a big chunk of sales, and the isolated location of their region has, until now, left them off the radar of small roasters willing to pay higher prices.

But he says area farmers’ reluctance to put resources into their product started to evaporate when Shewmaker actually made his way to the jungle. “Before then, the general idea of the program was never really communicated to the people,” he says. “We wondered, will it work or not? Having the opportunity of bringing Daniel over boosted the confidence.”

Last month, in heading to Coffee Fest and Seattle, Samandingke did Shewmaker’s trip in reverse. He says that coming to the place where his village’s coffee will end up was another confidence booster. “I couldn’t believe I was actually tasting my own coffee and having people in Seattle commenting that it tastes great,” he says. “Somebody said it tastes like honey. That’s a positive impression I can take back to the community. I can tell them we are doing something great.”

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