Where does your daily coffee fix come from?
Ryou Nagai, Director of Cafe Brisa Serena in their well known coffee shop, Cafe Letefoho, in Timor-Leste's capital, Dili.

Ryou Nagai, Director of Cafe Brisa Serena in their well known coffee shop, Cafe Letefoho, in Timor-Leste’s capital, Dili.

High-end Timor-Leste coffee has great potential for export ­– if it can be graded properly

A master coffee taster and quality assurance specialist was in Dili last week to train local staff from boutique coffee exporter Café Brisa Serena in assessing the quality of the coffee it sources from the mountainous region of Letefoho. In a small back room of their office, people gathered about dozens of cups of coffee noisily slurping hundreds of samples from spoons.

By understanding the differences in the quality of coffee sourced from farmers and separating the higher quality batches, Café Brisa Serena can fetch a higher price on the international market.

“To farmers it is just coffee” said Amy Wong, the master taster, trainer and Quality Assurance Supervisor for the MTC Group, an international specialty coffee trader. “They treat it all as the same quality and don’t have an understanding about separating the lots or batching. They pack everything together to get a bigger volume and sell it. But based on the quality we can actually offer them more than the price they used to get,” she said.

This is good news for Café Brisa Serena – a business offshoot of a Japanese humanitarian NGO, Peace Winds Japan – whose goal is to ultimately help poor farmers in the Letefoho region.

“If we can find a bigger market, more clients, we can export more coffee, which means we can buy more coffee from more farmers,” said Ryou Nagai, Director of Café Brisa Serena.

Establishing a better quality management system is the main focus of the partnership with MDF, which is supporting Café Brisa Serena with the infrastructure and training required to set up a international standard quality management system and quality assurance lab.

Buyers of speciality coffee provide many specifications about the quality of the coffee they want. The Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) provides a standards system that gives speciality coffees a score out of 100.

“For high-end speciality coffee buyers we are looking at a score of 85 or higher for people to deal with us,” said Ryou. “There was a strong need for us to asses the coffee internally as we couldn’t assess the quality here – we didn’t have that knowledge and our local staff didn’t have that experience.”

Amy Wong, trainer from the MTC group discusses cupping techniques with a Cafe Brisa Serena staff member

Amy Wong, trainer from the MTC Group discusses cupping techniques with a Cafe Brisa Serena staff member

Amy Wong believes the investment in raising the quality assurance of Timor coffee will pay off – and some of the coffee is worth paying a premium because it is very good quality.

“The main purpose is to provide Café Brisa Serena staff a better understanding of the whole coffee process from the farm back to the quality management lab and the importance of having batching numbers for the coffee, and what the quality really means to the company and to the farmers,” she said. “Staff here are learning about roasting levels and then cupping protocols to really taste the coffee and to set up this Quality Assurance Lab.”

What makes a premium cup of coffee?

In the world of speciality coffee there are many factors that make a good coffee including sweetness, aroma, balance, and acidity, among others. “We were just looking at coffee as good coffee and bad coffee,” said Ryou. “But if you talk with or want to deal with the speciality coffee industry, that is not the language people speak.”

‘Cupping’ is the process of tasting the flavour of the coffee – distinguishing the true flavour of the coffee and all the flavour notes to understand what makes a premium, better quality coffee.

Coffee traders in Timor-Leste need to calibrate the coffee to the rest of world, according to Amy Wong, and the SCAA is the system applied by the rest of the world for speciality coffee. “So by understanding the quality of the coffee under this system – people from the farm, the Dili office, and other countries – we can all speak the same language,” she said.

Cafe Brisa Serena cuppingWong believes Timor-Leste coffee can be different from other South East Asian coffees. “It actually gives us a cleaner, smoother mouthful and sometimes I am tasting a really good note, like strong fruit, tea-like floral notes in the some of the coffee,” she said. “So I think it has really good potential. Some of the US clients love this coffee.”

Knowledge can pay dividends for the farmers

Typically Timorese coffee farmers separate their coffee by harvest during the three harvests in June, July and August. Café Brisa Serena is currently working with 500 farmers, which makes 1500 samples to test and grade through the new quality management system. “Based on the quality of the coffee we found through the cuppings, we determine the purchase price,” said Ryou. “Farmers are always very keen to get feedback from us and from our clients.”

There are several factors that influence the quality of the coffee at the farm. One could be elevation; another could be the climate of the farm; another the environment or upkeep of the farm. But Ryou believes the biggest factor is in processing during harvest.

“Let’s say the coffee cherries are picked – you have to process the coffee cherries within eight hours at the farm otherwise the coffee cherries start to naturally ferment and rot. When you cup the coffee you can smell the fermented flavour and you don’t want of find that when you are tasting coffee,” he said. “So that is very crucial for coffee farmers to process the coffee cherries as soon as they pick the cherries out of the coffee trees.”

With their new improved knowledge and quality assurance methods, Café Brisa Serena staff can provide feedback and information to the farmers to help them improve their farming techniques to grow and harvest the best quality coffee – ready for export to speciality buyers.

Letefoho as a region has the potential to produce more than 1000 tonnes of coffee. But Café Brisa Serena is currently only trading about 200 tonnes – making the possibility to increase the export amount by five fold.