An island in Vanuatu is hosting the South Pacific’s first international barista competition

THE weather-beaten four-wheel-drive lurches and jolts along the rugged dirt road through lush, verdant vegetation; past dozens of grass-hut villages and an endless parade of smiling, waving children.

We’re on our way to the Tanna Coffee plantation, on Tanna Island in Vanuatu. It’s been touted as one of purest coffees in the world: organic, disease-resistant and grown in the dark, rich, volcanic soils of this untamed paradise.

The vehicle stops abruptly beside a group of children at the side of the road. They momentarily capture our attention with their shy grins and eagerness to be photographed and we haven’t yet spotted the shelter with its simple, hand-operated coffee pulping machine on the other side of the road. In his quiet, stilted English. Our driver announces: Coffee plantation is here.

It’s the middle of the bush, with no signage or identification. Beside the shelter is a modern, green plastic water tank. And that’s it.

It’s another few months until harvest and the first few ruby-red coffee cherries have begun to appear on the vigorously flowering bushes. They’ll be picked by every man, woman and child in the surrounding villages and put through the 35 pulping machines dotted around the island, then trucked to the coffee factory on the outskirts of Lenakel, the township of Tanna, for processing and finally shipped to Port Vila for roasting.

Between now and then, though, a swag of Australian and New Zealand coffee aficionados will arrive in the country for the South Pacific’s first international barista competition.

The contest, to be held on October 19 and 20 at Le Lagon resort in Port Vila, will be modelled on Australian barista competitions and follow international rules. The competitors will use Tanna Coffee.

The idea came out of a meeting of the Vanuatu Hotels and Resorts Association. Member Joanne Wade, of Poppy’s on the Lagoon resort, says Vanuatu doesn’t have the tourism budget of destinations such as Fiji.

And we thought, we grow our own coffee – how many tourist destinations in the world grow their own coffee? Not many of us even knew much about barista competitions but the support we have received from Australia and New Zealand has been incredible.

We’ve attracted sponsors for everything – cups, sugar, cocoa, syrups, espresso machines – and we will have two international barista judges, Rob Forsyth from the AustralAsian Specialty Coffee Association, and Michael Guy of New Zealand’s Cafe magazine, says Ms Wade.

It’s been timed to coincide with the annual Salon Culinaire, now in its third year, which will feature the former members of the Australian Culinary Olympics team and Fiji’s national culinary team.

Tanna Coffee is served widely in Vanuatu: in resorts, cafes and on the national airline, Air Vanuatu. But the results are mixed. Plungers are commonly used in resorts, but in some places the coffee has been preground and its freshness lost. In some of the venues with espresso machines, milk-frothing and heating techniques or poorly extracted espresso let the product down. When they get it right though, it’s mild, nutty and very good.

Local baristas will be encouraged to enter. For many it’s an opportunity to hone their skills. Australians and New Zealanders comprise Vanuatu’s main source of tourism and they are growing coffee critics.

Joy Sawyer, food and beverage manager at Chantilly’s on the Bay in Port Vila, says two of her staff members will compete. She sees the competition as an opportunity for them to increase their skills and confidence: There will be workshops to help get our staff up to speed and it will improve their understanding of coffee and coffee making.

Arabica coffee was first grown on Tanna Island in the early 1850s. The tropical climate is perfect for the dwarf Catimor variety: it’s 400 ?metres above sea level with a 2500-millimetre annual rainfall, a mean average temperature of 18-19 degrees and is grown in three metres of volcanic topsoil.

What the area lacks in altitude (most coffee plantations are at very high altitudes in equatorial zones) is compensated for by its latitude, says Tanna Coffee’s owner Terry Adlington. He and his partner Marylis Halasz, both expatriate Australians, took over Tanna Coffee nine years ago, when the business was facing financial ruin after a breakout of coffee leaf rust.

Slowly, by introducing disease-resistant stock and using a single Probat roaster in a large corrugated-iron shed on their property in Port Vila, they’ve built it up again, winning export markets in Australia, New Zealand, the US, Taiwan and Japan.

On Tanna, an off-beat tourism destination dominated by the active Mount Yasur volcano, there are 400 hundred farmers growing 350,000 coffee trees on about 400 hectares. It’s small-scale production. Adlington expects the company to produce 30 ?tonnes of coffee this year and says next year it might even be 40 tonnes.

We rely on small farmholders but really we need to develop a production level of 200-300 tonnes. We have captured the local market but international demand is growing, he says.

The Vanuatu Government has set us a target of 500,000 tonnes in the next 10 years, which is a bit unrealistic, but growth will be private-sector led, with the private sector providing machines, equipment and seed stock, and the locals performing maintenance and harvesting and processing. It will give locals access to a cash crop, whereas at the moment they trade on a barter system, and an opportunity to be involved in the development of agriculture.

So far there are baristas from Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia signed up for the competition, and many Vanuatu entrants. Applications close on October 14. International entrants will have the chance to win a trip to the coffee-growing plantations on Tanna Island, including a visit to Mount Yasur, while Ni-Vanuatu (indigenous) entrants will spend two nights in Sydney and visit coffee shops.