Field Notes: Papua New Guinea Besser

Feb 24, 2020

In June of 2018, we spent four days traveling throughout the highlands of Papua New Guinea. As part of a larger sourcing trip to this origin, we had the chance to visit Bebes Sero, whose coffee stands out as our only single origin offering from Papua New Guinea. We are now in our fourth year purchasing Bebes Sero’s coffee and we’re proud to feature such a dedicated producer from this origin.

While it is tempting to group Papua New Guinea with Sumatra or other islands we source from in this part of the world, they are actually quite far apart. The trip from Papua New Guinea's capital city, Port Moresby, to Sumatra is roughly 2,700 miles, roughly analogous to crossing the whole United States. So although Papua New Guinea shares a landmass with the easternmost part of Indonesia, the country’s history, politics, and culture are completely distinct. There are over 800 known languages in Papua New Guinea, making it one of the most culturally diverse places in the world. Geographically, it is slightly larger than the state of California, but only 15-20% of the population resides in urban areas. The nation established independence in 1975 after nearly 60 years of Australian administration.

Papua New Guinea is a unique origin because of the social and cultural complexities of the country on the whole, and the relative youth of the coffee industry here in the highlands. When it comes to sourcing coffee here, it is important to work with partners who have on-the-ground expertise and also a clear understanding of our needs as a business. We made the trip with Ian Kluse of Olam, our importer partner, which has operations in the region and introduced us years ago to many of the coffees we buy from this origin.

After clearing customs in Port Moresby, we flew to Mount Hagen, the capital of the Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea’s most densely populated province. We drove eastward along the Highlands Highway, the country’s main roadway connecting people and goods between the highlands and the coast, through the fertile Wahgi Valley and breathtaking landscapes. We made our way to Goroka, the capital of the Eastern Highlands province, and finally towards the town of Kainantu to visit Bebes Sero’s farm and wet mill.

Meeting Bebes for the first time and spending the morning on his farm, we felt fortunate to be a part of this supply chain. We were first introduced to Bebes's coffee in 2016 and knew immediately we had encountered something special. Notes of baked apple, sweet vanilla, and a tart cranberry acidity complement the molasses-like body. Bebes's coffee is one of very few lots in Olam’s supply chain that gets kept separate for export and it’s clear why.

Before working in coffee, Bebes Sero was a store owner in the nearby village of Kainantu. He wanted a change of scenery - specifically to spend more of his life working outdoors, connecting with the land. When he bought this coffee farm 13 years ago, it had actually been abandoned for a number of years. Bebes's farm was originally planted with coffee trees in the early 60's, making his collection of mostly Typica plants nearly 60 years old.

Something unique to Bebes's farm are the gullies he has dug between rows to manage rain runoff. Walking through these low channels in the farm with the full, twisting branches of old Typica overhead, the height and size of these mature trees is even more dramatic.

In addition to coffee from his own plantation, Bebes also processes cherry from two other nearby farmers in this part of the highlands. These other partners have similar varieties at similar altitudes. The whole operation (his own farm, his cherry buying and wet milling operation) is named Besser, which is a combination of his first and last name.

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This will be the third year Bebes has experimented with raised bed drying, an idea that he and Ian developed together. Coffee in Papua New Guinea generally is dried on long tarps on the ground, called sails. Raised bed drying is not totally foreign to Bebes, as he recalled seeing his family dry coffee on raised woven mats made out of bamboo when he was a child. Not all of Bebes’ coffee is dried this way, but he is currently working on an additional covered greenhouse to expand this kind of drying space.

Bebes’s coffee is a prime example of a relatively new-to-Stumptown supply chain that was introduced to us through conscientious import partners. What started as a wonderful opportunity to expand our menu and partner with a new producer is now a relationship we continue evolving each year. As we parted ways with Bebes Sero, we were left with the imagery and feeling of slowly winding through this coffee forest with the trees towering and bending overhead.