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The coffee denominator

How to talk coffee in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea (PNG) has over 800 languages. This fact is cited so often because it’s one simple phrase that speaks to the island’s incredible diversity of language and culture, in crops and climates.

To describe such a country risks oversimplification, but if you were looking for one word to describe modern-day PNG then ‘Kofi’ might not be a bad choice. It means ‘coffee’ in almost every local language (such as Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu), employs one out of every three people in PNG and is the sole source of income for up to 400,000 households. Coffee cuts through clans, languages and geography, connecting remote regions to one another and with the rest of the world.

Coffee is PNG’s national crop. The only other contenders for this title could be major exports such as gold, oil, copper, palm and timber.  As you could guess, these commodities are controlled by partnerships between the State and large multi-nationals, and thus do not directly impact most landowners. Coffee is different; 9 out of every 10 pounds comes from a smallholder farm making it the only cash crop to be locally owned and operated.

But more, coffee is the only crop consumed both at home and abroad. There is a certain pride to growing a cash crop that carries your name into cafes around the world. In other words coffee connects communities – but we all knew that.

What we might not understand, however, is the significance this has to growers in PNG. The Highlands region, home to 95% of the country’s coffee, thrived on a cashless economy until 1947. Before then trade was done in the currency of favors for the wealth of prestige. After coffee came, cash followed; and both provided new ways to gain prestige in front of one’s new countrymen from far-away Goroka, Hagen and Port Morseby.

PNG Coffee Industry. PNG’s harvest falls during the dry season, late May through early October. Each micro-region and elevation differs, leading to a 6-month harvest window and to a fly crop that often comes around January – March. Together both harvests produce about 1 million bags of coffee a year, a number that has remained constant for the past 20 years.

Ninety-five percent of PNG’s coffee comes from the highlands, and ninety percent is grown by smallholders. However, those purchasing larger lots often go through commercial washing stations or estates.

These washing stations are not the micro-mills you see in most of Africa and Latin America. They are factories that collect coffee from a region’s smallholders to the tune of 50-100 containers per year, through an impressive network of truckers and brokers that collect cherry up to an hour or two drive away.  Lot separation isn’t in the business plan, but if you are only looking at wide regional traceability then these washing stations are an effective way to find competitive coffees.

Estates are also a popular supplier for the foreign coffee market. In fact, estates were how coffee was first introduced in PNG, and estate coffee is what first introduced PNG to the rest of the world.

In the early days, and through to today, the term ‘airstrip coffee’ was used to refer to any non-estate coffee that finds its way to the coffee market in Goroka, for example. These days more and more coffee reaches Goroka by truck instead of plane, but no matter how the coffee is delivered the cost of transportation (read: cost of fuel) is burdened by the farmers. And so airstrip coffee is a term with continued utility – it is how smallholder coffees are aggregated up to export.

Why ask Y? In the 1970’s those in charge decided that they needed a new way to talk about smallholder coffees. Previously the system for grading coffees in PNG had been focused on estate coffees. They were commodity indicators based on liquoring, aroma, defects and screen-size; coffees fit for export were designated as Grade A or Grade B, and marked by screen size (see chart below). At the time there was also a Y-grade unique to PNG; this grade was used to describe all smallholder coffees whether they be from airstrip, cooperative or washing station. In short, 95% of PNG’s coffee was all considered to be the same ‘Y’ grade.

And so the thought was to expand upon the ‘Y’ grade to allow for a premium grade. Over a course of years the ‘Premium Smallholder Coffee’ (PSC) grade was developed, subdividing smallholder coffees into three grades – Y, Y2 and Y3. Now specialty buyers should note that this is still a commodity indicator; their primary measure remains a minimum acceptable standard of green bean defects, off flavors or odors. They also establish standards for bean color, which is an indicator of freshness, uniformity and processing. Unfortunately for specialty coffee buyers looking for high-end smallholder coffees, this isn’t so helpful. As you will read in the chart below the highest grade of smallholder coffee is still well below the specialty standards established by estate-grown A and B grades. The reasons for this are clear: to start, smallholder coffees are going to show more inconsistent aging, less thorough processing and some sign of fermentation (fruitiness/wineyness) by the time it gets to market. But while the bar is low when it comes to the minimum standard to qualify as ‘Y’ grade, it does not mean that you cannot get ‘Y’ grade processed up to a higher spec.


Cup Quality: Full, reasonably balanced, uniform, clean, cup; well pronounced body and acidity. Rich and distinct fragrance and aroma.
Max defects: 0/KG
Bean Color: Bluish green
Bean Odor: Fresh and clean, no off odors allowed

Cup Quality:       Regular, uniform clean cup; Medium to high acidy and pronounced body; Rich fragrance and aroma.
Max defects:       30/KG
Bean Color:        Even, green to bluish green
Bean Odor:         Fresh and clean, no off odors allowed

Cup Quality:       May lack some uniformity in the cup; Good acidity and body; Some Fruitiness/ wineyness; Good fragrance and aroma.
Max defects:       70/KG
Bean Color:        Pale green to green
Bean Odor:         Clean/fresh, some fruitiness

Cup Quality:       Irregular cup profile; Fair acidity and body; No foul or foreign flavor.
Max defects:       150/KG
Bean Color:        Mixed light green to green
Bean Odor:         No foul or foreign odors

Cup Quality:       No foul or foreign flavor.
Max defects:       Whole and nipped beans should constitute more than 50%. No foreign matter. Must be fit for human consumption.
Bean Color:        Mixed
Bean Odor:         No foul or foreign odors

To make matters more confusing you can order by grade, and also by screen size. This starts with terms found elsewhere in coffee; ‘AA’ and ‘A’ are still the biggest beans. But then PNG gets all unique all over again by introducing ‘X’ and ‘AX’ grades; ‘X’ replaces the conventional ‘AB’ grade whereas ‘AX’ takes out the largest and smallest, leaving you with beans that screen 14-17 (see below).

Grade                                 Screen Size

AA                                       18+

A                                         17

X                                         15-16

Ax                                       14-17

T                                         Triage – max 40% chipped and broken; no defect limit

Note that screen size is not only useful for sorting out defects and parsing through lots to get higher altitude / healthier beans. It also makes a difference in the drum; small beans roast faster than big ones, so variety in screen size can lead to inconsistent roasts (we’re looking at you AX grade).

It’s also important to note that, due to how smallholder coffee is collected in PNG, the term ‘lots’ takes on a slightly different meaning than elsewhere. For example, you can usually cup a lot from one supplier and get a feel for the type of coffee you can buy from them at a later time. This is normally called a ‘type’ or ‘representative’ sample. But these samples are useless in PNG where each ‘lot’ is totally unique. This is partly due to the inherent variety involved in sourcing smallholder coffees in PNG, but also due to the way business is run. Lots are bulked indiscriminately in markets like Goroka, or at massive washing stations, so that, by the time exporters get a look at the coffees they are buying, these lots are already irreplicable.


In short, there are many ways to buy coffee from PNG, the trick is knowing what you want. If traceability is important then you are looking for smallholder cooperatives you can link to exporters who will keep a specific lot/community separate from other collections, and keep that on record to recreate the following year. If you are looking for competitive prices and the consistency you get by blending 320 bag lots out of a region-wide catch-basin, then you should be looking at exporters who buy from local markets or washing stations. Estates give you the most control over coffee quality, but are fast becoming relics of PNG’s past and not the reality of its future. Once you select a supply-chain you can refine your search by grade (A,B,Y, Y2, Y3) or screen size (AA down to T).

The best time to start getting samples from PNG is in March/April (fly crop) or August/September (main crop). Earliest arrivals are often seen May/June (fly crop) and November/December (main crop).