The specialty coffee scene of Timor-Leste is fast-emerging as a connoisseur favourite – driven by a local passion for drinking, experimenting, and producing transformative flavours. BeanScene talks with the Asosiasaun Café Timor about why Australians should get a taste at MICE2022.
Coffee is a part of the national identity in Timor-Leste. Not only do most Timorese drink coffee, but it is also one of the country’s most valuable agricultural exports. This confluence of factors has led to significant growth in the nation’s specialty coffee offering.
“We love our coffee in Timor-Leste. We love drinking it, producing it and sharing it,” says Evangelino Monteiro, president of the Asosiasaun Café Timor (ACT), Timor-Leste’s key coffee industry group. “It’s important to us culturally and economically, with almost a third of Timorese smallholder farmers dependent on coffee production.”
Indeed, the independent nation, situated on the eastern part of Timor island on the Malay archipelago, has been growing coffee for hundreds of years. Its highland altitudes, tropical climes and volcanic soils make for some of the most aromatic coffee in the world.
In recent years, Timor-Leste coffee producers have focussed on improving the quality of their harvesting and processing to shift from commodity grade to specialty grade coffee. Simultaneously, they’ve been experimenting with different processing techniques that have the potential to yield premium coffee.
“As a result, we see a wide range of flavour notes coming through – the most common notes are cacao, mixed citrus fruits like orange, lemon and lime, and strawberry,” says Daniel Leong, treasurer of the ACT. “But with more experimentation, we’re getting some very interesting profiles. For example, in one cup, you might get bubble gum, milk chocolate and Turkish delight, and in another, cantaloupe and wild honey.”
A storied history of coffee
Whilst most Timorese coffee plantations grow catimor, typica and sarchimor varieties today, the journey to specialty coffee is a long and storied one. The short version begins with coffee being introduced to the island-nation by the Portuguese in the 1850s and becoming a primary export for over a hundred years.
In fact, Timor-Leste became famous for its unique cross-species breed of coffee, the Hybrido de Timor, which was created by researchers and local growers in response to the leaf rust epidemic in the 1920s. This hybrid variety – which is a pairing of Arabic and Robusta trees – was cultivated around the world in the 1950s and played a crucial role in the survival of coffee-growing regions.
When Indonesia occupied East Timor in the mid-1970s, coffee production declined because it was not a focus for exports. However, since Timor-Leste gained independence in 2002, the sector has been rebuilt with the support of the government and international non-profit organisations, and coffee production has improved with a focus on quality.
The ACT is part of Timor-Leste’s coffee evolution. The association came into being in 2016, with support from organisations like the Australian Government-funded Market Development Facility (MDF), responding to a need for a representative industry body. In an emerging, high-potential industry with multiple stakeholders, the association plays a pivotal role in uniting the many facets of the coffee sector in Timor-Leste.
“We have a base of 40 members that encompasses over 20,000 smallholder families. We represent the interests of all coffee farmers and the government, working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Environment and Tourism divisions,” says Evangelino. “ACT engages with the whole coffee journey – from the high rocky mountains to the coastal cafés – promoting coffee with quality, community and learning.”
Quality is the calling card for any successful specialty coffee. Organisations like ACT and MDF work closely with smallholder farmers to maintain the quality of the coffee they grow, particularly through promoting the ‘rehabilitation’ of older trees by pruning them for greater productivity. With processors, there is work around more efficient milling and using optimal drying techniques.
While farmers have a wealth of traditional knowledge, these organisations have also been sharing vital information with farmers, on methods of selective red cherry picking and storage – all of which play a big role in the quality of the end-product cup of coffee.
Conscious consumers would also celebrate the fact that coffee is passively organic in Timor-Leste because all the coffee is shade-grown, and pesticides and fertilisers were never introduced.
“It is not certified organic, but smallholder farmers simply don’t use any chemicals to manage the coffee crops,” says Evangelino. “We are naturally producing exceptional coffees in our highlands. The large-shaded canopies in our coffee forests provide cover for over 50,000 hectares.”
Moreover, Evangelino points out that because of Timor-Leste’s close proximity to Australia, there is less of a carbon footprint in transporting coffee to Australia than from other destinations such as Africa or Central and South America.
Evangelino references the results of the coffee quality competition held at the annual Festival Kafe Timor, the country’s premier coffee festival, which draws a large domestic crowd and has been a stage for budding champion baristas. As the Festival Kafe Timor began in the same year the ACT was founded, it is an excellent marker of where Timor-Leste coffee is ranking on quality.
“Every year we have a coffee quality competition, and in 2021, the results showed that 90 samples out of 116 were of specialty grade, meaning they exceeded 80 points,” says Evangelino. The coffee is graded by international coffee experts. “This has been a pleasure to see and also the growth in this competition and our festival – it is attracting the attention of both coffee tourists and coffee buyers from abroad.”
Not just a journey but a destination
While the festival is a great drawing card for coffee enthusiasts, Timor-Leste is a worthwhile holiday destination in its own right. Just over an hour’s flight from Darwin, the island boasts beautiful tropical reefs and beaches, as well as rugged, misty mountains and friendly people renowned for their warm hospitality.
“Our tourism slogan ‘explore the undiscovered’ captures our young country perfectly because there is so much to discover, yet few people have experienced it,” says Daniel. “We have some of the most biodiverse marine reefs in the world which makes Timor-Leste a paradise for divers. And we have fantastic trekking in the mountains. In fact, you could go diving in the morning and then in the afternoon be up in the mountains visiting a coffee plantation.”
Both Evangelino and Daniel hope more Australians will visit the country now that there is a direct flight from Darwin to the capital, Dili. Meanwhile, they ask readers to support Timor-Leste by purchasing the island’s coffee.
“Australia must be the coffee-consuming capital of the world! If more Australian consumers buy or import our coffee, that will significantly and positively impact on our local coffee producers and farmers,” says Daniel.
Tastings at MICE
Timorese coffee will be on show at the Melbourne International Coffee Expo (MICE) 2022, at the Market Development Facility stall. ACT will be at the stall with MDF and invites all readers to come and visit the booth and taste the unique coffee of one of Australia’s closest neighbours.
For more information about Timor-Leste as a coffee destination, visit www.timorleste.tl