This week we released a single origin peaberry from Vanuatu, Tanna Island. Peaberry means there is only one seed (or bean) produced from the fruit of the coffee tree. Usually the fruit (or cherry) of the coffee plant contains two seeds that develop with flattened facing sides. Some claim that because the peaberry is alone within the coffee cherry, the result is a stronger bean and a better flavour from higher nutrient content. Arguably correct, but there are so many reasons that Tanna, the first coffee we've ever sourced from the Pacific Islands, is special…
Tanna Island has a rich history in coffee, the island's organic volcanic soil has been producing coffee for 160 years and is one of the main sources of livelihood for its people. Glorious Mt Yasur is one of the Pacific’s few active volcanoes which gives Tanna a soil rich with potash, combined with abundant sunshine and rainfall and excellent drainage, this is one of the best places in the Pacific to grow coffee.
In March of 2015, Cyclone Pam left a scene of destruction in Vanuatu. On Tanna Island itself, one of Vanuatu’s more southern isles, 330,000 coffee trees were destroyed leaving almost the entire coffee harvest and future capacity and income lost. It was in this context of devastation, relief effort and in particular replanting that Fraser, our head of sourcing in New Zealand, started what would turn into a four year journey to purchase coffee from Tanna Island.
Q & A with Fraser Lovell
Q: How and when were you first contacted about coffee from Tanna Island?
Fraser: Some time ago we had imported milling equipment that we used as an education piece about the process of turning coffee fruit into green beans that are ready to be roasted. There was so little knowledge about coffee at origin so this was a helpful tool for a while, but when we stopped using it I wanted to put it to good use and had the idea of donating it to the Talao cooperative on Tanna.
Unfortunately, this didn't work out but it did open up communication with Andrew Finley from Tearfund, the local charity that has a direct relationship with Nasi Tuan, the community development organisation based in Vanuatu. Nasi Tuan provided seedlings and tools to the farmers, allowing them to re-plant their coffee farms in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam. Andrew is a super smart and open-minded guy who was keen for us to purchase the coffee and started sending me samples in about 2016.
Q: I understand, you weren't keen to purchase the coffee immediately. Why was that?
Fraser: In short the quality wasn't quite there but it did show some promise. Each season I would sample, cup and score the coffee and provide them with feedback. I’d suggest areas they might like to focus on like drying and how the fermentation is controlled. And through this exchange with Andrew, I would find out, for example, that the green beans were being stored near sea level totally exposed to the elements except for some rudimentary tarpaulin drawn over it, so the moisture level was so high. It was New Zealand government funding that paid for watertight storage buildings to be constructed which is a pretty cool use of development funds.
Q: I understand the varietal they grow is Catimor, what can you tell us about that?
Fraser: Well, Catimor was developed in Portugal in 1959 by scientists searching for the magical formula of high yields, high disease resistance and small plant size - in short, high-density planting. The variety is a hybrid of the Timor Hybrid (resistant to coffee leaf rust due to its Robusta genetic roots) and Caturra. I have tried quite a few Catimors over the years and it can produce some great cups given the right conditions, it is well suited to the lower altitudes that they have on Tanna.
Q: And now you’ve imported the coffee, is it just because the quality met your threshold?
Fraser: Our sourcing isn’t solely about quality, yes it met a threshold but it’s also an interesting coffee, with a remarkable backstory. The progress they’ve made over three seasons is commendable and we’ve never offered a coffee from the Pacific Islands before. Nor anything grown at such low altitude. The coffee really presented itself as a good option for espresso particularly in the body of the coffee. We’re hoping that we’ll continue to see progress in cup quality in the coming harvests so that they can sell more and become more self-sufficient.
Q: Do the farmers rely solely on income from the coffee harvest?
Fraser: Luckily, Nasi Tuan had the foresight to distribute peanut seedlings at the same time. Peanuts grow much faster than coffee beans, so that crop helped fill the income-gap whilst farmers waited for the coffee trees to grow. An alternative crop also means income for the between-harvest period. We did try to import some peanuts to offer alongside our roast of the coffee, but MPI requirements made it too difficult. It would be nice to think there’s a market for the peanut crop in New Zealand as well. Single Origin Peanut Butter? Maybe there’s a future in that too!
Our Vanuatu, Tanna Island, Talao is roasted for espresso and has notes of dark chocolate, cedar and candied citrus peel with a smooth plush body. You, too, can take a dip into the Pacific here.