YUNNAN – SPECIALTY COFFEE FRONTIER
“Coffee from China. Really?” is the usual response when the subject comes up.
Tea, yes. And rice, obviously.
But coffee. Specialty coffee. Really?
As soon as the Yunnan coffees that we’ve managed to get hold of are cupped by those who know their beans, attitudes begin to shift very quickly. Sometimes dismissive at first, those who try these coffees are often clearly surprised…then intrigued…and then converted, because specialty coffees from China – the region of Yunnan to be more precise – are already beginning to stand up to those from across the traditional growing regions of the Americas and Africa. And they’re getting better year after year.
Forward-thinking farmers and producers are making the most of the mature varieties already in place with better and more considered processing techniques. At the same time, they (and we) are waiting patiently for the newly planted Typica, Bourbon (Red and Yellow), Pacamara and even Geisha that they’ve planted and carefully nurtured over the past few years to join the crop.
Over the next few years, we predict a significant shift in attitude from the global coffee community to this beautiful and bountiful region of Southeast Asia.
History and Geography
To many in the West, China is associated with its massive manufacturing output, vast electrical exports and its mega-cities – where our coffee comes from, however, couldn’t be further from these preconceptions. Imagine a mountainous and fertile land inhabited by hill tribes, bordered by Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, Tibet and less than 80 miles from the borders of Thailand in the south and India in the north. This is the region of Yunnan – a genuinely stunning and unique part of the world. The people of Yunnan are a bewildering and endlessly fascinating mix of different cultures and languages, with most of China’s officially recognised 56 different ethnic groups residing here. It’s not just diverse in terms of the variety of its people either, the region also boasts a vast array of flora and fauna (including elephants and tigers), snow-capped mountains, deep valleys, vast plateaus, subtropical jungles, beautiful lakes, majestic rivers (including the mighty Mekong) and…great coffee!
The part of Yunnan where most of the coffee we’re offering originates is Menglian – or, to give it its proper name: “Menglian Dai, Lahu and Va Autonomous County”. Long renowned for the rice and tea grown locally, Menglian is fast becoming recognised for its outstanding coffee as well. We’re also finding some outstanding coffees from other areas such as Baoshan and Jiangcheng. We fully expect to discover more coffees from new farms in other areas over the forthcoming years.
As with some other parts of Southeast Asia, coffee was first introduced to Yunnan by missionaries in the late nineteenth century. Commercial grade coffee has been grown here at scale since the 1990s but, up until only a few years ago, the focus on specialty coffee has been fairly minimal. Farmers tend to concentrate more on the plant most associated with Yunnan (some tea trees here are rumoured to be in excess of a thousand years old) as well as cash crops such as sugar cane whenever the price is favourable.
Government initiatives in the late 1990s saw an upsurge in farmers growing coffee, only for many of them to give up and go back to their traditional crops when the devastating frost of 1999/2000 hit. A few farmers – including the remarkable Hu XiXiang – held on. Here at Indochina Coffee, we’re proud to be able to both showcase and make available the fruits of the labours of Mr Hu, Yunnan Coffee Traders and their increasing number of fellow farmers to roasters in the UK and Europe.
A sense of respect for the land runs deep with the farmers, in the main Hani and Wa hill tribe men and women who understand how to get the best from the fertile soil and near-perfect coffee growing conditions of Menglian. Some areas of the farms we work with will receive international organic accreditation over the next few years and the planting of trees (10 tree per moo / 330 square metres) is a prerequisite for anyone who wants to join this co-operative.The use of pesticides is very much kept to a minimum – all the farms we work with are 4C certified – meaning that, on the rare occasions that pesticides have to be used, they must be from a strictly approved list.
In our experience across Southeast Asia, we’ve encountered a great deal of variation in terms of the commitment and consistency of quality control that specialty grade coffee demands. However, despite the farms we work with being relatively new to the international specialty market, we were blown away by the attention to detail in the sorting procedures which ensure only the ripest cherry make it through to the lots which eventually reach us for export. We’re reassured that coffees from these farms are going to maintain their quality and continue improving for many years to come.
And they’re already fantastic!
It’s always easy to get swept away by the exoticism and strangeness of a new origin, so often the evidence in the cup fails to translate when back home in the grey and drizzle of a typically miserable London morning. But with the hard work of the farmers working this fertile land and Yunnan Coffee Traders’ attention to detail, this is consistently great tasting coffee wherever in the world you happen to drink it.
Over the past two years, these coffees have caused quite a stir in Australia and the US. At Indochina Coffee, we’re very privileged to be able to offer these coffees exclusively to roasters in the UK and Europe. If you’d like to find out for yourself, get in touch and we’ll be more than happy to share some samples.