Coffee from the Malay Archipelago is known for its exceptional qualities, a smooth cup with distinctive flavors and notes of herbs and spice. The first coffee plants arrived there with Dutch traders in the17th century. The early plantations thrived in the equatorial climate and rich volcanic soil. Coffee grown on the island of Java even lent the beverage a new nickname.
Starbucks had sourced coffee from the archipelago’s larger islands such as Sumatra and Sulawesi since the 1970s, but the company did not buy beans from Timor until decades later. That island’s eastern mountains produced only a small quantity of coffee that was grown wild and processed completely by hand; its lack of infrastructure was exacerbated by decades of conflict. In 1996, Starbucks helped put East Timor on the coffee map when coffee buyer Dave Olsen made the company’s first purchase from Cooperativa Café Timor, which had been working with the nation’s smallholder farmers to improve the quality and yield of their harvests.
“When I first went there, they had about half a container of coffee—that’s say 120 bags of green coffee—which is nothing, especially now,” says Olsen, who retired from the company in 2013. “But it was all they could muster. So, I bought it as a show of faith that it could be better.”
Starbucks continued to buy coffee from East Timor each harvest as its quality improved, and it became an important component of some of Starbucks most popular blends. In 2002 the region gained independence and officially became Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, ushering in an era of stability and growth for the new nation and its emerging specialty coffee industry.
Now customers can experience coffee from this singular region with Starbucks Single Origin East Timor Tatamailau whole-bean coffee, available for a limited time in Starbucks stores in the United States and Canada. The coffee takes its name from East Timor’s highest peak of Mount Ramelau, known as Tatamailau, “grandfather of all” in local language. The mountain has deep cultural significance—its silhouette is the shape of a crocodile that legend says gave birth to the island.
“This coffee has these nice dark chocolatey flavors and notes of wild cardamom,” says Mackenzie Karr from Starbucks Coffee team. “It is balanced and approachable, a very drinkable cup that shows up nicely in a variety of brewing methods both hot and iced.”
The offering continues the Starbucks Single Origin series, launched in March, which invites customers to discover whole-bean coffees to try at home from origins around the world.
“It’s an opportunity to showcase rare and unique coffees that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise,” Karr says.
Olsen looks back on the two decades since he tasted his first cup of East Timor coffee.
“It went from this meager beginning, buying a partial container of coffee that we couldn’t really use anyway, to then Timor coffee becoming an important coffee for blending,” he says. “Now the quality has risen to a level where it belongs on the marquee in bright lights, and its name is on the package and its story is being told.”