Just five kilometres from Australia’s northern most point is Papua New Guinea. Since independence from Australia in 1975, PNG has emerged as a significant coffee producer close to two of the major coffee consuming countries in the world, Australia and New Zealand, but if you look around the cafes of Sydney, Melbourne or Auckland, you will rarely find a single origin hailing from PNG, unless you’re at Kwila, a tiny Surry Hills espresso bar whose chairs are made from Kwila wood from PNG.
Run by Vic Lynch and his partner Melissa Garcia, the aim was not only to source coffee from PNG, but support those in PNG who farmed the coffee.
“The initial idea was to create a space where we could use the funds to run a social enterprise that we were willing to start in Papua New Guinea,” recalled Lynch. After unsuccessfully searching for a space in Cairns, Lynch moved down to Sydney where commercial rents were cheaper and found Kwila’s current location in the bent arm of Foster St that the sun hits throughout the afternoon.
Surrounded by the biggest player in Sydney coffee, Lynch didn’t expect much from the humble café at the start.
“I was like, ‘We're not going to really make any waves here, we'll just open and just exist and maybe punch ten or fifteen kilos a week and hang out with some mates, and then work out how we can turn it into a little training facility.’”
A few months after opening, things started to pick up, thanks to a whole of office email from an impressed customer from the NSW government departments that occupy the tower blocks on the other side of the train line.
“We got this whole crew of people coming down and they were just like, 'So we heard you make good coffee.' The guy who sent them down came in a little later and he was like, ‘Did you get all my people? I sent them down to you, I told them you make good cups so you better not let me down Vic,’ and I was like ‘Oh man…’”
Soon, the café was running out of beans through the week and had to increase their milk order; the idea of the relaxed café and training site was no longer. Still, however, Lynch and Garcia were committed to using their business to help those who were sending over their coffee.
“We were like, ‘Let's try and see if we can use a bit of the money that we generate from our shop to start funding opportunities that we really want to get stuck in to.’”
Growing up in PNG himself, Lynch knew that coffee from the Pacific nation had potential, but it was not regarded highly in the tight knit coffee circles in Sydney, where trends travel fast, and taboos remain strong. After going to a cupping where a wildcard PNG coffee was offered and being blown away by the result, Lynch knew that PNG coffee had a place in Sydney’s specialty cafes.
Questioning how come he hadn’t seen it more widely, Lynch queried the importer: “’I didn't know you guys were bringing coffee in like that,’ and they were like, ‘Oh we're not, every now and then we get some of these unique cups and they're just absolutely beautiful and score really highly.’”
PNG’s lower profile in Australia is not only the result of ignorance. The difficult terrain and rivalries between ethnic groups competing for limited economic opportunities restrict the ease by which coffee can get to market. In addition, corruption and mismanagement stifle the initiatives of resilient farmers. This did not stop Lynch.
“I went up [to PNG] with the idea of finding someone to supply me with some sort of quality green coffee throughout the year that we could put into our blends, or single origins if they're any good.”
Although there are small holders growing the coffee crop in PNG, the actual processing and marketing of the bean is controlled by larger corporations run by an older generation, a legacy of the coffee boom there in the late eighties and early nineties. Many, according to Lynch, want to retain control over PNG’s coffee market, and limit what is possible for outsiders such as himself and the growers he spoke with.
“They'll do something to talk you out of what you're doing, like ‘Nah there's no money in trying to get research done here, people aren't interested in that,’ ‘Nah you can't teach the Papua New Guineans to pick the coffee cherries only, they'll strip pick no matter what,’ just the little bit of negative attitude towards it all.”
To top it off, droughts leading to low harvests and political conflict compounds PNG’s coffee issues. Still enthused by what he saw on the ground in PNG and working with friends from primary school who own a wet and dry mill, Lynch was determined to get the coffee he was tasting to market, despite describing getting a container of coffee from farm to market as “a miracle”.
“I helped them pack the first container and we sent it, but instead taking two and a half months, it took six months. Everything went straight down to port, down to Lae and then from Port Moresby it just wasn't released all of these little corruption things that popped up.”
Now, with a slightly more consistent stream of coffee coming from the mountains of PNG to the alleyways of Surry Hills, Lynch is attempting to set up a direct trade model which not only gets the coffee to market, but provides something more for farmers.