Coffee is not just your favourite morning beverage, it’s an economic pillar for many countries across the globe. In Timor-Leste, coffee holds such a special place amongst its people and economy that it’s a crucial part of the country’s national identity.
The country’s mountainous altitudes, tropical climate and fertile volcanic soils provide the perfect foundation to yield some of the world's finest coffee beans. Even better for us Aussies is that Timor-Leste’s close proximity to our borders results in a significantly reduced carbon footprint for coffee imports!
But quality and a reduced footprint are just the beginning of our love for Timorese coffee. Each cup tells a story of heritage and community, of lands abandoned and reclaimed, and of a remarkable connection between people and their environment. So join us as we dive deep into all the juicy details about the delicious Timor brew we know and love.
COFFEE WAS INTRODUCED BY THE PORTUGUESE IN THE 1800s
Timor-Leste’s past is marked by the influence of Indigenous communities, the Dutch, Indonesians and the Portuguese. In the mid-1800s when a Portuguese colony, Timor-Leste faced the challenge of dwindling forests due to extensive sandalwood harvesting for international trade. In response, the Portuguese turned to coffee, recognising the fertile volcanic soils and tropical climate as ideal for coffee production. This transition not only diversified the nation's agricultural landscape but also breathed life into its growth and development, which it continues to do to this day. Coffee, nurtured by Timor's unique circumstances, became a source of livelihood for many families and a cultural symbol, firmly embedding itself in the heart and history of Timor-Leste.
COFFEE IS THE COUNTRY’S SECOND BIGGEST EXPORT PRODUCT
Coffee holds a prominent position in the country's economic landscape, contributing significantly to employment opportunities for its population. For over 150 years, coffee has stood as the second-largest export product from Timor-Leste, trailing only behind petroleum products (oil and gas). It plays such a vital role in the country’s agricultural sector that some 20% of households get their income from the industry. In particular, coffee is a major source of income for rural communities, where the bulk of plants are grown.
HALF THE NATION’S COFFEE COMES FROM THE EMERA DISTRICT
The Ermera District serves as the epicentre of Timor coffee production, supplying half of the nation's coffee. This rugged region, characterised by mountainous terrain and sparse population, is the heart and soul of Timor coffee production. It’s also the region where we source our arabica coffee from. In fact, we name each of our coffee varieties after a different village in Ermera like Letefoho, Tasakina and Matanova. Throughout Ermera, the climate is ideal for coffee growing, with albizia trees forming vast natural canopies that create much-needed shade. The rest of Timor coffee comes from the districts of Manufahi, Ainaro, Liquica, Aileu, and Bobonaro, each contributing its unique touch to the diverse tapestry of coffee cultivation across the nation.
TIMOR-LESTE PRODUCES A VERY UNIQUE COFFEE
Timor coffee is widely celebrated as one of the world's finest and most unique brews. This can be attributed to the "Hibrido de Timor" - or "Timor Hybrid" - a coffee species born from a spontaneous crossbreeding between the sweet yet fragile arabica plant and the sturdy but harsh-tasting robusta plant. This union, nurtured by Timor-Leste's fertile soil, gave rise to a unique coffee species that boasts the best attributes of both parent plants. The result is a resilient and great-tasting coffee that can withstand pests, disease, and challenging growing conditions. It has particularly good resistance to leaf rust, the deadly coffee tree fungus which is known to decimate Arabica coffee plants across the world - more about that in our article, Will the world run out of coffee by 2050?.
TIMOR COFFEE IS WILD GROWN
Timor coffee embodies remarkable resilience. Although wild grown today, much of the land coffee is cultivated on once belonged to former estates containing plantations abandoned during the 24 years of Indonesian occupation. During this time of disuse, the coffee plants were left to their own devices and spread throughout the jungle. It was actually this spreading that caused the natural cross breeding between arabica and robusta that resulted in the aforementioned Hibrido de Timor! Besides offering unique flavours, there are many reasons to love wild grown coffee. On an environmental front, since it grows in its native environment, it contributes to biodiversity conservation and requires minimal human inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides. On a human front, wild coffee is often harvested by local communities, making it a source of income for Indigenous and marginalised populations.
TIMOR-LESTE IS THE WORLD’S LARGEST ORGANIC COFFEE PRODUCER
Although Timor coffee comprises a minuscule fraction of the global coffee trade, accounting for less than 0.2%, it claims an impressive distinction. Timor-Leste is in fact the largest single-source organic coffee producer worldwide! The secret to its organic nature lies in the way the industry processes its wild grown coffee. Unlike in many plantations, where meticulous attention is paid to weeding, pruning, pest control and disease management, Timorese coffee farmers tend to take a more natural approach to managing plants. The lack of pesticides and other human-made interventions gives rise to organic growing conditions, and while official certification can be prohibitively expensive, the limited intervention renders the coffee organic by nature.
THE HARVEST PROCESS IS A FAMILY AFFAIR, DONE BY HAND
During the coffee harvest season, it's all hands on deck within coffee farming communities. Families begin the labour-intensive process of hand-picking red cherries from their plants before hand-sorting the haul to distinguish the best from the rest. Coffee cherries are then wet-processed, right in the communities where they’re grown. This involves using a hand-turned wheel to depulp the fruit, before beans are fermented and then dried on tarps or raised beds. Once dried, the coffee is transported to Dili for dehulling, hand-sorting, and packaging for export. In Timor-Leste, coffee production is often a full family affair. For example, we buy our coffee from a total of 386 farming families. These families are part of 22 groups (a family or number of families farming together) within 12 sucos (villages).
COFFEE PRODUCTION IS AT THE MERCY OF OUR CHANGING CLIMATE
Climate change, marked by shifting weather patterns, adverse weather events, arid conditions and shortened rainy seasons, poses significant challenges for coffee farmers in Timor-Leste. Rising temperatures have spurred farmers to enact adaptive strategies to protect their coffee plants. For our farming partners, these measures have included vigilant natural pest control, planting more shade trees to better shield the coffee from the sun and the implementation of crisis management plans to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events. As climate change intensifies its grip, the Timor coffee community must continue to innovate and evolve to ensure the survival and quality of their beloved brew.
Timor-Leste’s organic coffee is not just a beverage; it's a cultural symbol, an economic pillar, and a source of pride for the people of Timor-Leste. From its roots in Portuguese colonisation to its place as a vital export, Timor coffee remains deeply intertwined with both the identity and the future of Timor-Leste. If you want to support the Timor coffee industry and the families within it, buy a bag of our specialty coffee today!