Urara is a small village in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea where Nichol Colbran and his company Colbran CoffeeLands, set up a washing station and dry mill. Urara is also where one of the largest sections of the Colbran family estate is located, and an area known for excellent selections of their coffee.
In the late 1950's and 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 Colbran family 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 the Colbran family 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 by itself, the Colbrans built their own dry mill on the estate, and set up their own export operation. This gigantic step took years of work to set up, but gave them full control over their coffee and quality.
The work and expansion of 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 more consistently, 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, as if all that wasn't enough, the Colbrans decided 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 the operation. Since 2015, the Colbran family has 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 producing unmatched coffee from the country.
Molasses, Gingerbread, Citrus
When many people think of coffee from Papua New Guinea, they conjure up earthy, musty, wild / inconsistent fruit flavors, that often can show harsh, woody notes. This is not that type of PNG. Urara is a pristine coffee with impeccable consistency and sweetness cup to cup. The flavor profile is lightly savory, but leans heavily on the sweet, dark molasses notes that couple with bright, red fruit notes. The cup finishes with notes of sweet spices and citrus.
The coffee cherries are picked ripe and sorted extensively before being de-pulped. 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. The estate also has 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 remoteness of some of the Highlands communities. This word "remote" is often used to describe Papua New Guinea, and likely is best exemplified by the fact that 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 isolated from another, even if it is just a few kilometers away. (For coffee production, this has led some exporters to go to the extremes of flying planes into grassy airstrips in communities to buy parchment or even 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; 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 the 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 such as 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 Operations Manager. Kipp works for MTC, a company that has been a longtime partner of Colbran CoffeeLands. For years, MTC has helped provide quality control, financing, and links the farm to importers and roasters around the world. MTC and Colbran CoffeeLands’ head of Quality Control, Esther Vialeahy, are vital in their lot selection and quality control at export.
All photos courtesy of MTC