China may not be the first country that comes to mind when you think of coffee production, but the reality is that coffee growing in China went back over a century, albeit in small quantities and concentrated in a tiny part of the country. It started when a French missionary introduced the plant to the southern province of Yunnan in the late 1800’s, and Yunnan has remained the area in which to grow Arabica coffee, while you can find some robusta in Fujian province and on Hainan Island. The arabica in Yunnan is mainly of the Catimor variety – a hybrid of C. Arabica and C. Canephora that makes it more disease resistant and helped it establish itself in a new environment.
In Yunnan you can find coffee in several regions: Dehong, BaoShan, Simao, and Ruili, mostly in western Yunnan and along the borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. The farms are similar in elevation to what we see in Brazil, from 1000 to 1200 masl. Farms can be both run as smallholdings or large plantations and be privately or publicly held. Half of the Yunnan production is concentrated around Pu’er, which is otherwise more famous for its tea. As I see in many other countries like Kenya and Rwanda, tea and coffee thrive happily together and the crops can compliment each other in their differing seasonality and profitability potential. Some tea farmers in Pu’er are diversifying or changing to coffee, as the prices are better, but the crop also comes only once per year, so sound financial planning needs consideration before making significant changes.
China grows less coffee than it drinks, and the Chinese government have aggressive plans to expand the land for coffee production to keep up with demand and target the more lucrative export market, especially for higher grade coffee. Production has more than doubled in the last five years, and productivity per hectare is also on the rise. Up until a few years ago, Yunnan coffee suffered in the grey zone between being too expensive for local consumption, but too low quality for export to discerning roasters overseas, but this is changing as both local consumption rises, and foreign interests are growing. In the last ten years, the industry has expanded a lot, and cup scores are increasing, as farmers, millers and exporters start to gain traction. But it is still a young industry with lack of in-depth, long-term management skill and knowledge, facing a challenging infrastructure, and often a lack of adequate machinery and facilities. China faces a steep learning curve for understanding both quality and market needs, and thus far there is a sense of lack of a long-term plan, unified vision or objective of the market.
With the coffee price crisis that came off the back of Vietnam’s intense escalation of coffee production just a few decades ago, it is easy to fear the worst as China decides to ramp up their sector, and the environmental effects of large-scale agricultural changes also need to be monitored closely. Yunnan especially is already suffering from frequent droughts and shade trees are scarce leading to even more need for water and fertilisers. Sustainability needs to be at the forefront of any future growth and both the Chinese government, public or private coffee sector, and any foreign companies who are looking to Chinese coffee as an investment will have to tread with great care not to neglect their social and environmental responsibilities.
Not only is China growing more coffee, but they’re also drinking more of it too. While they are not yet the largest consumers of coffee per se, ranking around 15th in the world with only about 4-5 cups per capita per year (compared to some 450 cups per person per year in the US or over 1000 in some Nordic countries) but the sheer mass of 1.4 billion people in the country still make it a notable consuming country. They already can’t grow enough coffee to supply their own market and import a lot of cheap robusta from Vietnam, and nearly all the coffee sold in the supermarkets is instant coffee, often mixed with sweeteners, creamers or other flavourings to appeal to the Chinese palate. It is cheap and convenient and has helped the beverage spread and grow by 10-15% every year over the last ten years. But over time the market is evolving and the way people drink coffee, whether at home or out and about, is changing, especially among young people and in the big cities. Having seen how rapidly the Japanese market has grown into one of the biggest consuming countries in the world, I can see China following suit with magnified effects. If the average Chinese person starts to drink just a few more cups of coffee per year and continues to develop a demand for quality, it will have a significant effect on the worldwide coffee market as we know it.
I drank my first cups of Chinese grown coffee over 20 years ago, and I remember them being sweet and pleasant if a little nondescript. Over the years the coffees have appeared on my cupping table now and then but the time and quality to buy never seemed right, until this year when I finally tasted some samples that made me excited about what China was producing. And with that, I’m delighted to share with you the coffee from Ou Yang farm, named after the founder himself, located in the Jiangcheng Hani and Yi Autonomous County of Southern Yunnan.
Jiangcheng Hani and Yi is under the jurisdiction of Pu’er City, and borders Laos and Vietnam to the south, making it the only county in the province to border more than one country. This adds to the diversity, but also the challenges, of the area. Ou Yang sees coffee farming and the prices he can access by producing high-quality beans as a way for him to help lift the members of the local hill tribes he works with out of poverty. The farm just outside Zhongping village is relatively large and is spread out over 20 hectares, which means he has the scale to provide meaningful employment for his area. 20 people work full time, and there is seasonal work available throughout the year to help sustain extended families and networks.
With water being a valuable resource in Yunnan, as it is everywhere, Ou Yang has been especially successful and experimental in developing his natural processing. He has drawn on techniques that are reminiscent of processing we’ve seen from as far away as South America and Indonesia, playing with fermentation and drying stages and timings. Following the simple ferment-in-the-bag method that is common where tanks can’t be built or are not needed, he rinses any leaves, sticks and stones off the cherries and places them in poly bags for two or three days, creating a ‘reposado’ environment that generates a small amount of heat to accelerate the chemical reactions. After reaching the desired levels of mucilage breakdown, the cherries are spread out to dry in the sun. Once they reach about 40% moisture, about halfway shrivelled up, they are placed back in the poly bags for a further four to five days. To finish off the drying the coffee is then placed onto raised drying beds under cover until they are done, which can take up to a month. This double natural fermentation is highly unusual and needs to be monitored very closely in order not to go terribly wrong, but Ou Yang has perfected his method, and we’re very impressed with the quality he’s achieving.
By working on pruning techniques, fertiliser schedules and processing techniques at an agricultural level, as well as technical improvements and market access strategies on the management side, Ou Yang has a vision and commitment to create a sustainable coffee industry for his community. This will be emphasised by the opening of a ‘coffee experience’ visitor centre at the farm later this year, and we’re looking forward to visiting!
Ou Yang has precisely the kind of approach to coffee and farming that we wish to support, so it’s with great pleasure that we have been able to buy his coffee to share with you for the first time this year.
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STRAWBERRY JAM / LYCHEE / CREAMY