"Not For all the Coffee in China"
China is synonymous with the production and consumption of tea which has been enjoyed by people for millennia, irrespective of status or wealth. Many people are dismissive, at first, of coffee from China but, do you know that coffee is now making inroads, especially in the Speciality coffee industry, where it is one of the most up and coming origins in world coffee.
Coffee was first introduced into China during the late 19th Century by a French priest who brought a seedling to what is now Zhu Ku La Village in the Binchuan District of Yunnan. There were many unsuccessful attempts over the next 100 years to grow coffee for production but it wasn't until the 1980's when Nestle got involved that it was grown on a significant scale.
During this early phase the hardy Catimor varietal was planted, an arabica plant with a robusta heritage that was disease resistant and could be sun-grown on a mass scale to increase yields. This type of coffee production was primarily for the commodity market with no real concern for quality or the sustainable practices that are associated with the speciality coffee market.
Coffee today predominantly grows in three regions, Yunnan, Fujian and Hainan. Fujian and Hainan grow mainly robusta but Yunnan is the trailblazer, concentrating on arabica and the speciality market.
It's located in the far south-west of China and shares a border with Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. The high elevation, mild climate and fertile soil give this region the optimum conditions to grow quality coffee.
Farmers have been quick to realise that producing low-quality coffee is not very sustainable or profitable as the margins are very small and are very susceptible to making a loss. These coffee farmers are now starting to make a transition from commodity grade coffee to the more profitable speciality grade coffee. This, however, is a very slow process and for the time being, are working with the cheaper varietals that already in place and rethinking their approach to farming techniques and processing methods in order to improve the quality of their coffee. The higher quality varietals such as Typica, Bourbon, Pacamara and even Geisha are starting to be planted but these will take a few years to mature.
Although Yunnan has great potential it is also facing many problems as it tries to establish itself in the market. A general problem is the issue of inexperience and the fear of the unknown. Local farmers prefer to utilize their fields for the crop that is fetching the best price at the current time. If the price of sugarcane rises fields will be completely stripped and sugarcane planted in order to make a profit. Understandably, livelihood and education for the farmer's families are the most important. As coffee plants are slow to mature, the constant stripping of fields keeps on putting production further back.
There is almost no government support or a management system in place to help with funding of new infrastructure and education and improvement of practices. The lack of adequate infrastructure limits production capacity and the competitiveness and quality of the final product.
Some farmers have stopped harvesting and leave the coffee on the trees as it just wasn't worth picking due to a fall in market prices. A better understanding and acknowledgement of the market and adopting precautionary measures would help to avoid waste and financial losses. Many farmers view tea and coffee as direct rivals but both crops have different growing seasons, with a little help managing each crop, farmers could potentially succeed in both sectors.
As coffee production is a water-intensive process it sometimes struggles when the region faces water shortages.
The speciality coffee growth in China is also stunted as at the moment there is no system in place to ensure quality control and a lack of development and promotion of the industry worldwide or within China. Most of Yunnan is producing coffee that is either too expensive for the Chinese market or not of a high enough quality to be exported as "Speciality Coffee"
Our experience with roasting coffee from Yunnan has been very positive. We were lucky enough to meet Christian from Indochina Coffee at last year's Manchester Coffee Festival and after a chat on the emergence of coffee in Yunnan, we were very interested in trying some samples. As a result, we offered the Yunnan coffee to our customers at the start of the year.
The Fuyan was super clean and an invigorating Catimor with flavour notes of Golden Raisin, Plum, Toffee, Pear and Grape. The coffee was from matured seven-year-old trees that were shade-grown in parts of a co-operative farm, that produces only eight tons of speciality coffee per annum. It produced a very even roast although there was still a higher than usual amount of "quakers" in the roast which is evidence of under-ripe cherries being picked during the harvest.
The co-operative is genuinely dedicated to improving the quality of the coffee they grow spurred on by a handful of farmers who have long seen the potential of consistently well-processed and carefully sorted cherry, there is a real passion here to push the boundaries year after year. This is the perfect time to get involved with speciality coffee from these farms, it’s the first season where they’re regularly breaking through the 84 / 85 point mark and, with some of the innovations we’ve seen on the ground, it’s only going to get better. We are already looking forward to this year's harvest which should be landing this September.