Review: Caffe Vita YUS (PNG)

by JulieCraves on April 1, 2012

When you think of endangered species, I’ll bet you don’t think about Matschie’s Tree Kangaroos. Tree kangaroos and coffee also make an unlikely pairing. But I’m here to tell you that Seattle-based Caffe Vita has brought them together. We’ll start with the ‘roo.

A kangaroo…

Matschie’s Tree Kangaroo (Dendrolagus matschiei) is one of about 10 species of tree kangaroo, most of which are found in Papua New Guinea. The Matschie’s Tree Kangaroo is only found on PNG’s Huon Peninsula, located in Morobe Province in the northeastern part of the island. Matschie’s Tree Kangaroos live in cloud forests, and look nothing like the upright, savannah-bounding Australian animals with which they share a name. These arboreal animals more resemble red pandas, although like more conventional kangaroos they do raise young in pouches and have impressive leaping abilities. They weigh about 10 kg and eat mostly leaves.

A conservation area…

In 1996, Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo started a tree kangaroo conservation program focusing on the Matschie’s Tree Kangaroo. From the start, they took a community-based approach to the preservation of the tree kangaroo habitat. A major accomplishment was the establishment of the 76,000 ha YUS Conservation Area — named for the three primary rivers in the Huon Peninsula: the Yopno, Uruwa and Som. In addition to Matschie’s Tree Kangaroos, this area, of course, preserves many other species including several incredible endemic birds-of-paradise: the Huon Astrapia (Astrapia rothschildi), Wahnes’s Parotia (Parotia wahnesi), and the Emperor Bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea guilielmi) — some of the most truly spectacular birds in the entire world.

In an arrangement similar to that of biosphere reserves, the  conservation area has a core protected area and buffer zones that allow for mixed, environmentally-friendly uses. One of these sustainable management strategies for local communities (there are nearly three dozen villages in the area) was coffee growing. Only about 6% of PNG’s coffee comes from Morobe Province. The YUS area is remote and very rugged, with no road access, and getting coffee to market is an enormous challenge. And it’s not like these farmers are in a place where the some equivalent of a local county extension agent can drop by and give some agricultural assistance. Thus, in 2010, the Zoo’s conservation program worked to provide technical training for over 300 YUS coffee farmers.

A coffee roaster…

Zoo program personnel knew a direct relationship with a stateside roaster would be a strong step in the right direction, so they approached Caffe Vita, a roaster with six locations in the Seattle area. In early 2011, Caffe Vita introduced a Zoo Special Reserve coffee to support the Woodland Park Zoo. Although currently sourced from Guatemala, it is organic and Rainforest Alliance certified, and $1 a bag goes to Zoo conservation efforts.

Green coffee samples from YUS farmers were brought to Caffe Vita to roast and evaluate. Green coffee buyer Daniel Shewmaker could tell there was potential. In the summer of 2011, encouraged by improvements to new samples he tasted, Shewmaker visited YUS. Abandoned coffee plots have been renewed and tended. He worked with farmers on improving drying methods and separating lots by elevation. He agreed to buy 22 bags. The coffee arrived in the U.S. in December, 2011, and in February, the coffee was made available to the public.

And the coffee

The YUS farmers are growing bourbon, typica, Mundo Novo, and Arusha varietals at 1200 to 1500 m.  While not certified organic, no chemicals are used; as you might imagine, if coffee is so difficult to get out of the area, any synthetic or commercially-produced inputs are just as hard to get in. The photo taken during a Caffe Vita visit shows the shade trees over the coffee shrubs.

Caffe Vita describes this coffee as “mellow and honey-like, with flavors of toasted hazelnut, orange zest, guava, and sugarcane.” We found the coffee to start out with a very slightly wild flavor, reminiscent of a Sumatran; one person described it as a spicy note. Brown sugar and caramel was mentioned several times from our panel, and nutty also came up more than once. One taster remarked upon enjoying a savory undertone as the coffee cooled. Nearly unanimous was the opinion that the YUS was very clean and smooth.  The panel gave it an average of 3.5 motmots, with many giving it 3.75.

PNG is one of my favorite origins, in part because I never know exactly what to expect. Those of us that drink PNG coffees fairly regularly were very impressed with this coffee, especially given its history. We didn’t find it extremely unique or mind-blowing, but it absolutely was as good as any other specialty PNG we had tasted in the past, and better than a hell of a lot of them. These farmers, in the short time they have had to work with Caffe Vita on upgrading and improving their growing and processing methods, came up with a perfectly clean coffee. We detected no baggy notes, a concern Shewmaker had given elevated moisture levels in earlier samples. A coffee this good so early in the game has no place to go but up, and I’m really looking forward to future crops. It’s available at Caffe Vita locations and online.

This coffee and conservation story is remarkable in many ways. In my line of work I see plenty of preservation efforts and cross-disciplinary partnerships. Many aren’t very long-lived or successful, and few are as encouraging, inclusive, and transparent as the work undertaken by the Woodland Park Zoo. Please take a look at the conservation program’s web site; in particular I encourage you to download some of their excellent, informative annual reports. Caffe Vita’s commitment to helping these efforts in so many meaningful ways is a model for what other coffee roasters can achieve by taking sustainability to heart. The only thing missing is you.

More info:

  • Short video about the coffee and project from the Woodland Park Zoo – 2.5 minutes and very cool.
  • Journey to a Papuan Paradise – great article from National Wildlife magazine about the Huon Peninsula, the tree kangaroo projects, and stunning photos of birds-of-paradise.
  • Capacity Building, Coffee, & Conservation Through the Woodland Park Zoo – National Geographic News Watch.

Matschie’s Tree Kangaroo photo by Tim Laman and map from the Woodland Park Zoo Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program media kit. Shade coffee photo by Caffe Vita on Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Revised on July 8, 2021

Posted in Coffee regions,Coffee reviews,Indo-Pacific

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