Timor Leste is the independent nation occupying the eastern half of the island, with the western portion being a part of former foe, Indonesia. Before the independence was declared from Portugal in 1975, East Timor was producing coffee and sandalwood as its chief exports. Small scale coffee farming was revitalized by cooperative farming associations, with funding from USAID grants, to aid the minimal incomes of the rural population.
The independence of the coops and the presence of NGO groups in the country emboldened the spirit of the Timorese toward independence. Development of the output of these coops was geared toward producing full container loads of Fair Trade and Organic certified lots. Some regional names were developed in the Specialty market such as Maubisse (or Maubesse) and Aifu. But these were often used quite loosely as coffee types, not geographical indicators of the origin of the coffee.
Because the coffee of Timor Leste has been bulked from many small farms, it has been offered as a meta-regional "specialty" coffee in the most limited sense. There is quality potential because of the old variety of coffee planted here, but regional or farmer separations do not exist, and when they do they aren't coming from groups of well-trained farmers growing, milling and drying coffee to high and uniform standards. There is much agricultural outreach work to do here in that respect, as well as combatting the complacency of growers who have not attained significant premiums for their coffee.
Arabica (and Robusta) are planted here at quite low altitudes (I marked arabica at 750 meters), with a bulk of arabica at a moderate 1100-1200 meters. I have seen coffee at 1600 meters and I am sure there is some higher up, but it represents a very small volume. Farms here suffer huge biennial swings in cherry production. It's the nature of coffea arabica, but without great agricultural practice (some coffee simply plants itself here, as in Ethiopia "semi-forest coffee") the ups and downs of the crop cycle are huge in volume.
Interestingly, Timor is where the coffee variety of the same name originates, but you will not likely find Timor-type coffee planted anywhere in Timor! Timor variety is a natural mutation between Robusta and Arabica, which not transmutate because of they are genetically incompatible. They don't cross pollinate as Arabica coffee is self-pollinating. (Coffea Canephora, aka Robusta, is not).
Timor was later crossed with Caturra to create the disease-resistant Catimor coffee, which has poorer cup quality than other types due to the Robusta genetic content.
Around the sea-level capital of Dili are the coffee dry mills of various exporters, in various states of repair. The market was dominated by 3 companies including the USAID-funded NCBI that did much work to organize small-holder farmers. Timor Corp was a large privately-held company that exported around 300 containers in a good year. I am told total exports could be 600 containers, all of these transfrieghted through nearby ports as Dili is not a deepwater port for larger vessels.
The issue with Dili is heat and humidity. In fact much coffee from the interior comes to Dili not fully dry. Huge fields exist outside the major dry mills where farmers or middlemen re-dry coffee brought from the interior on tarps. When the coffee hits the required moisture level (usually 11%) it is milled out of the parchment skin and immediately bagged and loaded for export.
This presents quality problems on several levels. Coffee that is bulked up when not truly dry will never have great cup quality, or worse, it will have moldy taste. And coffee that is dried quickly, milled and exported without a resting period lacks physical stability and moisture equilibrium, and the cup quality will rapidly fade upon import.
Timor is well suited toward it's current mode of production in some ways; bulk FTO containers, inconsistent quality, coffee that fades rather quickly when the roaster buys it. And seriously, 80-point FTO bulk coffee is an important product to many. But for me, there is great potential here to do much more with small volumes of coffee that can achieve much better price premiums, benefit small farmers in the higher reaches of Timor-Leste, and inspire greater efforts with greater rewards. I hope as you read this, it is accompanied by some of our new Timor offerings that fulfill this promise of quality and pushing things ahead for Timor coffee. -T.O.