For years the Colbran family have been sourcing coffee around the village of Kobuta in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. It is in this village that some of the most floral, delicate, and complex coffees they buy come from. So when, in 2015, they had a chance to buy a larger estate in the village of Kobuta, they went for it and never looked back. Coffee from the Kobuta estate is combined with coffee from small holders in the village and brought to the Colbrans washing station in the village of Urara. Once processed, the lots from Kobuta are kept separate for quality control and lot selection.
In late 1950's early 1960's, Ben and Norma Colbran were living in Invercargill New Zealand, one of the southernmost cities in the world. Yearning to move to a tropical climate, Ben and Norma applied to live in Uganda and Papua New Guinea. The government of Papua New Guinea was the first to approve their application, and the family relocated to the area of Aiyura in the Eastern Highlands.
In Aiyura, Ben bought land from a Papua New Guinea native named Taro. On the land they purchased, the Colbrans originally planted traditional food crops that would often be sold in the port city of Lae. In 1965, the Papua New Guinea government was highly promoting the growing of coffee, and they decided to plant coffee. The Estate they established, named Baroida, was considered to be one of the first coffee farms in this area of the Eastern Highlands. Their estate is also how many small-holder farmers in the area originally were able to get seed for their own small coffee farms.
While growing coffee was successful for the Colbrans, in 1979 Ben and Norma decided to sell the estate. However, their son Nichol Colbran, was left in charge to manage the operation. Nichol Colbran managed the estate from 1979 to 1991, when he left to work in the Western Highlands. Only six years later, in 1997, Nichol bought back the estate after it had fallen into heavy disrepair. It took years to get the estate and infrastructure back to good running order, but getting it back to "normal" was not the only plan. Nichol, now with his son Chris Colbran, expanded the operation. In the early 2000's they worked closer with small-holder farmers around the estate and set up a highly organized and traceable purchasing system for coffee cherries and parchment coffee. At times Chris Colbran went as far as to fly into remote villages to buy coffee from growers that normally would not have access to a good market.
While doing these improvements the Colbran family also set out to market their coffee differently. The Colbrans historically had always sold their coffee to exporters, that would either blend it into other coffees or often brand it as something else. Wanting to showcase the quality of their coffee buy itself, the Colbrans built their own dry milled on the estate, and set up their own export operations. This gigantic step took years of work to set up, but gave them full control over their coffee and quality.
The work and expansion the last two decades didn't stop with the family being able to export themselves. After those varied and monumental accomplishments, they continued to distinguish themselves by building out a cupping lab to go through every small lot they processed, often keeping lots separated out by the individual farmer or small section of their farm. They continued to improve their quality by building raised beds to dry their coffee better, which is a rarity in Papua New Guinea. The family also built a school for the community on the estate, and every year puts in tons of labor and money to maintain roads that are vital to them and other communities around them.
In 2015, the Colbrans decide to do a repeat of 1997, and bought another large estate in the village of Kobuta that had also fallen into heavy disrepair. Within a short time though, the estate and the growers around Kobuta, were producing coffee on par with the rest of their operation. Since 2015, the Cobran family have not just been sitting on their hands. From the cupping lab to the farm, every year there is a focus on refining the systems and quality to continue outputting unmatched coffee from the country.
When many people think of coffee from Papua New Guinea, they often think of coffee with earthy, musty, wild / inconsistent fruit, that often can show harsh woody notes. This is not that type of PNG.
The coffee cherries are picked extremely well and sorted extensively before being de-pulped. Once sorted, the coffee is de-pulped on disc pulpers and ferments for about 36 hours. After fermentation the parchment is washed clean of mucilage, and then the coffee is dried on raised beds or tarps. In case of poor climate the estate does have a mechanical dryer that can be used when the climate is not good for drying coffee.
Aiyura, Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea is located between Australia and Japan in the Pacific Ocean, and is renowned for its cultural diversity and how remote some of the communities found in the Highlands of the country can be. This word "remote" is often the most used word to describe Papua New Guinea, and likely is best exemplified by the fact the capital city, Port Moresby, has no roads that connect it to any other major city. For centuries, and even through today, the steep terrain and fierce independence of many of the communities can keep one community isolated from another community, even if it is just a few kilometers away. (For coffee production, this has led some exporters going to the extremes of flying planes into grassy airstrips in communities to buy parchment or even to buy coffee cherries.) This isolation of one community to the next, over centuries of time, has led to one of the most well known facts of Papua New Guinea; which is that the country has the most linguistic diversity of any place on earth, with over 800 languages spoken.
The Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, are dominated by vast rolling grasslands with dramatic valleys and peaks with small pockets of forested area. Aiyura, and the area around the Colbran CoffeeLands estates, has impressive elevations ranging from 1,600 meters to over 2,000 meters. Aiyura is home to the main agricultural research center for the country and the world renown SIL linguistic center. The Agricultural Research Center in Ayiura was where the Arusha coffee variety was selected and released in the early mid 1960's.
While there are many tribes around the Eastern Highlands, the Tairora tribe is one of the larger ones, and is most prevalent tribe around the Colbran family estate. The Tairora people, along with many of the other tribes in the Eastern Highlands, generally grow food crops like; sweet potatoes, taro, yams, legumes, and a few other crops. In addition many raise pigs, which are generally only given as special gifts or for special events. Coffee is the largest cash crop in the Eastern Highlands. Farmers generally have just a few hectares, but also many times a larger farm is shared by a family, or one plot is directly next to a plot from another family member. Estates originally were often set up at 20+ hectares when the land was originally granted to growers, but the land has often been split up over time reducing the average farm size. It is rare but some farmers in the Eastern Highlands maintain these larger 20 + hectare plots today.
New in 2019
Nichol Colbran took on the overall management of the farm and small-holder purchasing, but also brought on Kipp Rouse as Operation Manager. Kipp works for MTC, a company that has been a longtime partner of Colbran CoffeeLands and has helped provide quality control, financing, and links the farm to importers and roasters around the world. MTC and Colbran CoffeeLands head of QC, Esther Vialeahy, are vital in our lot selection and quality control at export..
All photos courtesy of MTC