is a prime source of income for many countries around the world, so it may not seem remarkable that the economy of East Timor relies on its coffee crop.
What sets East Timor (also called Timor Leste) apart is that it is one of the world’s newest nations, gaining independence from Indonesia in 1999. Over the past couple of years it has had to rebuild its economy from scratch, after 25 years of a brutal occupation that demolished farms, crops and factories and imprisoned or slaughtered hundreds of thousands of citizens.
The eastern part of the island of Timor was a Portuguese colony until Portugal withdrew in 1975. Meanwhile the Dutch, who withdrew in the 1950s, colonized the neighboring Dutch East Indies. The Republic of Indonesia was formed - a large and disparate archipelago predominantly inhabited by Muslims.
The Indonesians, who already claimed the western part of Timor, lost no time in annexing East Timor and subjugating its mostly Roman Catholic population.
After this occupation, coffee production, which under the Portuguese totaled 45,000 tons of Arabica beans each year, shrank to around 8,000 tons.
East Timor has the ideal climate, rich soil and high altitude for growing premium Arabica. The terrain is mostly mountainous, averaging more than 7,000 feet above sea level. Importantly, East Timor does not suffer from the pests common to coffee plants in other continents, which means the crop is grown organically without chemicals or pesticides.
Just 400 miles south, Australia has had patchy relationships with both Indonesia and East Timor in the past - however it was a leading player in East Timor’s bid for independence, Indonesia’s withdrawal, the subsequent UN administration and finally the first free elections in 2002.
Currently negotiations are underway for East Timor to earn royalties from the sale of gas and oil from beneath the sea to its south. The revenue is estimated at $110 million a year, however the dollars will not start to flow until at least 2006. Until then, East Timor must rely on foreign aid and coffee. And although the gas and oil revenue will bring much-needed funds, it is agriculture that will provide jobs for its people.
Australia is playing a leading role in re-establishing East Timor’s coffee industry, with many Australians helping farmers and processors to rebuild what the Indonesians destroyed. The coffee crop is up to 10,000 tons per annum but still has a long way to go.
The coffee industry in East Timor particularly lacks the infrastructure to hull, clean and roast the green beans to a quality in keeping with the raw product. Australia’s established espresso coffee culture, which sprang from mass Italian immigration in the 1950s and ’60s, means its roasters and processors are well placed to assist.
Melbourne-based coffee roaster The Bean Alliance has been buying East Timorese coffee for the past five years, impressed by the quality of the Arabica beans. Now it has entered an economic partnership with East Timor’s coffee growers and will roast and process their green beans in a complex roasting up-to-the-minute equipment and technology.
In April, East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao officially opened the complex in a historic visit that laid the foundation for a strong coffee collaboration. “Coffee is the main breadwinner for our people, and for some time yet it will be the backbone of our economy,” said President Gusmao.
The East Timorese organic coffee will be sold in Australia under two brands - “bean ground and drunk” available wholesale and at gourmet and organic food stores, and “Universal Brands Coffee” available in supermarkets.
Twenty cents (US 12˘) from each 250g packet of Universal Brands sold will be given back to non-profit organizations that are rebuilding East Timor.
President Gusmao is a legendary figure who fought for the freedom of his people for 25 years. As leader of the Revolutionary Front for the Independence of East Timor from 1978, he bravely led the East Timorese resistance movement and was jailed from 1992-1999. He was voted the country’s first President in April last year and is now focusing on reconstructing this shattered land.
“As we rebuild after independence, we value partnerships such as this, which help us to develop our country,” he said as he opened The Bean Alliance’s new complex. “I am proud today to open the first facility in Australia that will keep the organic purity of Timor-Leste beans intact, right from cleaning and roasting to the coffee cups in your kitchens and cafes.”
The Bean Alliance is the first roasting facility in Australia to achieve organic certification from the Biological Farmers Association.
Using organically-grown coffee beans is not enough to guarantee organic coffee, the plant itself must be chemical-free and use approved processes from cleaning through to roasting and packaging.
“We have imported the best Italian roasting equipment for our new complex and embraced the world’s best practice in processes and storage to make the most of an excellent raw commodity,” said The Bean Alliance’s managing director Angelo Augello. “We use the quality of these green beans to create a completely new concept - a coffee that’s proud of its origins and 100% organic from crop to cup.” Augello explained that The Bean Alliance has evolved from the original business Monte Coffee, which began roasting 21 years ago in Melbourne.
As well as Universal Brands and bean ground & drunk, The Bean Alliance also roasts Monte Coffee and Gravity Espresso brands, sourcing beans from Australia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, India, Mexico and Papua New Guinea, plus of course East Timor.
“We have invested $10 million (US$6 million) in this complex, which can roast five tons of coffee per year,” said Augello. “There is room for more roasters and room for more growth.” Augello and his team visited Italy, Switzerland and Belgium researching coffee roasting equipment, and came back with Italian Brambati roasters, along with specialty Italian packing and storage equipment. Later this year the company plans to open a barista school, training theater and showroom.
East Timorese Arabica, when it is processed and roasted well, may be compared to the premium Arabicas from nearby Java and Sumatra. The coffee has a rich, earthy flavor that is complex enough to stand on its own without blending.
Gusmao said the East Timorese themselves are avid coffee drinkers, and he drinks around 10 cups a day - because he’s trying to kick a cigarette habit as well as do his bit for the farmers! However in East Timor they don’t waste time frothing milk, “we like it very black and very strong,” he chuckled.
Life in East Timor, he said, remains very difficult and the new processing plant was an important sign of confidence in the country’s coffee industry. “And there’s the social aspect, because we have thousands of young men and women without jobs. This coffee gives my people hope.”