How do you package coffee from one of the most remote places on Earth? 

Paul Clearfire
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April 29, 2024
Pitcairn Island Coffee, Sea Island Coffee, Pitcairn, Pitcairn coffee, coffee, rare coffee, coffee packaging, coffee tins

Why would someone start an export business from an island so remote that getting there takes at least two flights and a two-day boat ride? The answer is one word: coffee. Not just any coffee either, but an exceedingly rare varietal from a grove that has remained largely undisturbed for roughly 200 years.

Such is the nature of Pitcairn Island Coffee, the latest offering from Sea Island Coffee, a company that specialises in bringing hyper-rare coffees to discerning connoisseurs worldwide.

So, how has the brand packaged such a rare offering? I spoke with Sea Island Coffee CEO Britt Shaw, as well as Pitcairn Island residents Meralda Warren and Jayden Warren-Peu, about this beautiful island, the amazing coffee that grows there, and the incredible story of the extraordinary community that helped bring it to market.

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Exploring the rich history of Pitcairn

A tiny island sitting at 25°04′S 130°06′W and incredibly far from anything else, Pitcairn Island is the sole remaining British protectorate in the Pacific. Before Europeans found Pitcairn Island, Tahitians knew it as Hiti-Au-Revareva or the “Border of Passing Clouds” and the people of Mangareva called it Petania. 

Polynesians from Tahiti or Mangareva first settled on the island around the 11th century CE. They abandoned their settlements there during the 1500s, most likely because of a lack of sufficient resources. Some historians believe they may have resettled to Easter Island. 

However, the island was utterly deserted when the British captain Philip Carteret found it in 1767 and named it after Robert Pitcairn, the 15-year-old crewman who first spotted it. In an interesting quirk of history, Carteret incorrectly read his newly invented maritime chronometer and charted the island about 330 km west of its actual location. 

This inadvertent blunder thrust the island into the heart of one of the most dramatic sagas in maritime history, the Mutiny on the Bounty. Countless stories, books, and a few films recount the tale of the crew of the Bounty, the famous captain Bligh, and the infamous mutineer Fletcher Christian. A lesser-known aspect of the story took place during 1790, after the mutiny, and accounts for what became of the band of mutineers and the Polynesians who sailed with them. 

Having committed a crime against the Crown, the fugitive mutineers needed a place to disappear quickly. Fortunately for them, seafaring is a cornerstone of Polynesian culture. Those among the crew noticed that an island labelled as Pitcairn on British maps was drawn in very much the wrong place. 

They made for the true location without delay, disembarked, and set the Bounty aflame, whence it sank to the bottom of the bay, which now bears its name. The crew and the island vanished into history for the following 18 years.

Pitcairn Island Coffee, Sea Island Coffee, Pitcairn, Pitcairn coffee, coffee, rare coffee, coffee packaging, coffee tins,

An imperilled community looks to coffee

Descendants of the mutineers and their Polynesian consorts now make up the population of roughly 40-50 inhabitants who remain. They’ve had to endure manifold hardships and internal conflicts in the years following their settlement and at least two failed attempts at forced resettlement since then. 

That said, they’ve formed a stalwart and incredibly resilient community, whose ageing population now fight a new battle to save their island from the ravages of emigration. This is as younger members seek new opportunities off-island. 

Residents joke that the island’s population is so small that you could invite your friends over for dinner and have the whole country show up. In that event, yours would be the only party around for quite a long distance. The next nearest inhabited island is Mangareva (in French Polynesia), 688 km (427.5 mi) to the west. 

The economy of Pitcairn relies heavily on tourism and a few artisan handicrafts such as honey and wood carvings, mostly sold to tourists. Even with the help of subsidies from the British government, the threat of dissolution through emigration and death is a very real and present danger to the continued existence of the community.

And that’s where Sea Island Coffee comes into the story. 

“We first became aware of Pitcairn coffee when [Pitcairn resident] Jacqui Christian came to our office in London in 2010 with the entire annual production in her suitcase—around 15 kg,” Britt explains. 

“We were enchanted, both with Jacqui and her very rare and unusual Pitcairn coffee. [As a brand,] we’re now delighted to be in a position to assist the island of Pitcairn in restarting its coffee production.” 

With Sea Island’s experience in sourcing rare coffees from around the world and leveraging the revitalisation of local economies, Britt clearly saw the potential on Pitcairn. “Pitcairn has few proper manufactured exports, so we believe that the coffee industry could be developed to a degree that would support the repopulation of the island. This will make it a long-term sustainable home for the locals to continue living and raising their families.” 

Pitcairn Island Coffee, Sea Island Coffee, Pitcairn, Pitcairn coffee, coffee, rare coffee, coffee packaging, coffee tins

Pitcairn coffee: Packaging a delicious future

Since 2019, Pitcairn entrepreneurs Jayden Warden-Peu and his brother Kimiora, have been striving to improve coffee growing and processing in order to export green coffee from Pitcairn. 

“It grows wild and abundant here,” says Jayden. “There are little plants everywhere, littered across the valleys.” So, Jayden and Kimiora began potting up and replanting trees, creating a plantation that would support a more focused and efficient harvest. In year one, the pair produced a modest output of 24 kg. This year, with technological assistance from Sea Island, they hope to improve on that. Family members help with picking, but Jayden and Kimiora do all the rest, and all by hand. The duo explain that “it takes days… weeks” just to remove the parchment. 

The brothers will soon be joined for technical consultation with one of Sea Island’s partners, Gonzalo Hernandez, owner of Coffea Diversa in Costa Rica. Britt is excited about the potential for improving processes on Pitcairn. “Gonzalo is one of the world’s leading authorities on the identification, cultivation and processing of rare coffees.”

One mystery they hope to solve is Pitcairn Coffee’s pedigree. While they are certain it is C. Arabica, they don’t know what variety or by what route it made its way to the island. According to local elder Meralda Warren, who’s been picking and roasting Pitcairn coffee since the ‘80s, “where the Polynesians brought the coffee from way back pre-Bounty in the 1700s or maybe older, I cannot say. But our foremothers said it was here when the Bounty came in 1790. Talking to the ones in Mangareva, they have the same.”

And what about the flavour? 

As Britt puts it, “When we had this year’s crop professionally cupped, we were amazed at the splendid taste.” The tasting notes published on Sea Island’s website give the details: “A splendid coffee with a clean, sweet acidity, a cup redolent of hazelnuts and chocolate, and a juicy plum-like aftertaste.” 

What they found even more interesting was that “the processing was entirely bespoke and artisanal, meaning that the taste was entirely inherent in the beans themselves.” Britt says they have great confidence that they can produce an even finer cup over time.

Sea Island relies on its co-roaster for packaging choices. Since it ships worldwide to a highly demanding clientele, having an effective barrier is key. For this reason, its roaster has selected options that take advantage of the latest recyclable multi-layer bag materials as its standard and a highly resilient tin for specialised gift packaging.

The brand also offers its Pitcairn coffee in a silver metal tin. The design ensures its logo is front and centre, standing out boldly in black and white. The coffee packaging is simple, effective, and, most importantly, functional, as it can be resealed to maintain product freshness. 

Images courtesy of interviewees and Sea Island Coffee.

Create bespoke coffee packaging for your rare coffees. 

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Paul Clearfire
Paul Clearfire

Paul Clearfire is a coffee historian and author living in Portland, OR, and has spent the past 20 years perfecting the art of manual espresso extraction. He's been writing for Perfect Daily Grind Media since 2023.

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