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Eyes on Yunnan

From the March 2019 issue.

Three decades of effort from the private and public sectors are finally paying off as coffee companies around the world turn their attention to the Yunnan Province.

YunnanAlthough China has been growing coffee for more than 100 years, and especially so in the past few decades, the reality is that the country is still not widely known as a coffee producer. But the Chinese government, local producers, multinational roasters, industry organisations, and more are working to change that through efforts including greater international promotion, farm level programs and trainings, and investment in infrastructure and other resources.

Meanwhile, the Yunnan Province, which produces more than 95 per cent of the country’s coffee, has helped China quietly become the 13th coffee producer globally and the number-nine Arabica producer, according to 2018 data from the US Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service.

March’s Pu’er International Specialty Coffee Expo is one such effort to highlight the region’s burgeoning coffee industry and its specialty coffee sector.

“As the region started to producer greater quantities and better qualities, we were looking at how to launch China into the international coffee market,” explains Tom Mitchell, Founder of Seattle-based consultancy Strategic Coffee Concepts, which is helping put on the annual forum and expo with the Yunnan International Coffee Exchange (YCE) and the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI). “We decided to host a forum to try to get some global recognition for what [the region is] doing and share information about the global coffee market with the local market.”

Similarly, Tim Heinze, who has been working in the local industry for the past decade, wanted to bring more attention to the region, particularly for its emerging specialty coffee market.

“When we started Yunnan Coffee Traders, a big vision for us was to put Yunnan on the map as a specialty coffee origin,” he says, attributing its absence largely to China’s relative newness to the global coffee industry.

Even though European missionaries introduced coffee to Yunnan in the late 19th century, the crop didn’t gain traction until the late 1980s when the Chinese government, in association with the World Bank and the UN Development Programme, and Nestlé devoted time and money to the industry.

Heinze says Yunnan’s youth compared to other producing regions is both a benefit and a limitation.

“Farmers are excited to innovate and experiment,” he tells Global Coffee Report. “Whether it’s growing or processing methods or equipment, they’re definitely willing to hear about and consider different options. We don’t have the ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ mentality, which can be challenging to break.”

Some recent examples in the region have included trialling new cultivars and experimenting with fermentation and honey processing (washed is the most common process currently).

While farmers aren’t locked into tradition, they lack generations of tradition to reference as a young coffee producing region.

“Because it doesn’t have the long history, there isn’t the experience that comes with having third- and fourth-generation coffee farmers,” Heinze points out, “so the government, along with internationally certified training programs, is providing opportunities for exchange of information and dialogue that can bridge that experience gap.”

He doesn’t discredit Yunnan’s centuries of experience in other agricultural products. In fact, Pu’er is renowned for its tea production, a crop that conveniently harvests on the opposite schedule as coffee. But as global coffee demand expands and Yunnan coffee increasingly moves into the spotlight, more farmers have started growing coffee, too.

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