China’s sleeping giant

Shirley Liu of Yunnan Volcafe explains why coffee is no longer playing second fiddle to China’s tea production, and how Chinese coffee is poised to play a key role in Australia’s coffee landscape.
Chinese coffee

There’s an unusual scene in the large Chinese cities of Shanghai, Chongqing, Beijing, and Guangzhou. Rather than occupying stores selling Sinkiang Black Beer, green tea, or pearl milk tea, city goers are flooding coffee shops for a daily caffeine hit.        

“Coffee drinking in China is a fashion, not a habit,” says Shirley Liu, Yunnan Volcafe General Manager. “Five years ago, you wouldn’t have seen any coffee shops in the city. Now they’re everywhere.” 

The country is dominated by large global chains such as Starbucks, which opened its Reserve Roastery in Shanghai in December 2017, but Shirley says there’s a noticeable uprise of independent coffee shops moving into the specialty scene. 

“Very few people drink coffee at home. China is a tea dominant country so coffee drinking in dedicated shops is becoming popular,” Shirley says. “These days there are more young people such as students who go abroad and get exposure to specialty coffee. It’s their interest that will influence the market here in China and is likely to encourage greater education and increased levels of consumption of coffee.”

With a population size of 1.3 billion people, Shirley is confident that, in time, more Chinese locals will accept coffee into their daily routine, and appreciate that 98 per cent of the country’s own coffee production resides in the Yunnan and Hainan provinces.

At the 2018 Specialty Coffee Expo, China was honoured as the Portrait Country of the expo in Seattle, in which Lu Han, President of the Pu’er Coffee Association, announced that China’s coffee had officially turned into “an important part of global coffee production”. Lu announced Pu’er, located in the southern Yunnan Province, the official “capital of coffee in China”, and the largest coffee producing region in the Yunnan Province. The Pu’er government is putting its full backing into promoting its coffee as one of the “three treasures of Pu’er,” along with tea and dendrobium orchids.

China has been growing coffee since the 1890s when a French missionary planted a young coffee seedling in the Yunnan province and deemed it a viable producing region. Small volumes were grown until 1988 when the Chinese government in collaboration with the World Bank and Untied Nations Development Program initiated a project to encourage coffee production as an alternative to tea, rice, corn, tobacco, and other crops. 

Nestlé and the Chinese government helped kick start large-scale commercial cultivation and improve the coffee producing landscape, and from there the investments paid off. From 1998 to 2012, annual coffee production grew 19.4 per cent on average. Production took a huge leap in 2013, nearly doubling to 1.9 million bags. This placed the country just above Costa Rica in total output, and making China the 14th largest producer of coffee in the world in 2014, compared to 30th just 10 years before.

Yunnan Volcafe’s Shirley says last year’s 2016-17 total production was 1.3 million bags. However, she expects next year’s crop to be low in yield and high in flavour and quality because bean size will be bigger than the previous crop year.

The Yunnan province, between 1000 to 2000 metres above sea level, is surrounded by mountainous terrain and sloping lands, not unlike the climate of Colombia and Indonesia. Yunnan is one of the world’s few producing areas where coffee is harvested and processed in winter. Peak harvest season is from December to May.

Small annual temperature differences and consistent cool nights make Yunnan an ideal coffee growing region. Abundant water resources and plentiful sunshine provides the best conditions for washed processed coffees, the most common form of processing in Yunnan. However, Shirley says Yunnan producers are constantly exploring new processing methods to explore the diversity of Yunnan coffee.

Only this year Shirley says producers have started to see the impact of climate change, with consistent rainfall for half the year making a “very big and obvious influence” on crops.  

“We need some sun to shine,” Shirley says. “If it keeps raining it’s hard for farmers to grow coffee and sun dry the beans – they need about 20 to 30 days to dry. For this reason, more and more people are trying to invest in drying machines to prepare for these unpredictable circumstances.”

Today, 120,000 hectares of the Yunnan province are coffee fields. The region has 1.14 million famers, more than 38,000 farmer households, 643 coffee primary processing mills, and 261 cooperatives.

Yunnan Volcafe, the newest joint venture for the Volcafe Group, is working hard to support the region’s producers and make coffee farming a sustainable and viable career. It has established a 4C cluster with more than 1000 metric tonnes of certified production in the Pu’er region. It has a warehouse space for 4000 metric tonnes of Arabica, processing machinery with 10,000 metric tonnes of parchment capacity, state-of-the-art colour sorting machinery, and patios for sun-drying coffee parchment.

Specialty coffee represents about 20 per cent of Yunnan production volume, which Shirley says is scoring 80 to 85 points on the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) scale. Even then, Shirley says the dominant commercial grade varietals, of which 99 per cent is the Catimor variety, is scoring 78 and above.

“Catimor grows well because it has high yield and is leaf-rust-resistant. Small farms are trying to grow other varietals such as Catuaí, Caturra, and Geisha, but it’s still at an experimental stage,” Shirley says. 

“If specialty coffee can keep 20 per cent of the market share in the years to come, I’ll be very happy, but the cost to produce specialty coffee is very high and the price for crops is very low, so the way the farmers manage their plants is limited.”

Though Volcafe, ED&F Man’s coffee trading business since 1851, an outreach program works directly with farmers to train them in sustainable production techniques and good agronomy skills to increase the volume of quality coffee and help them gain a higher payment.

Farmers are also working closely with the Coffee Quality Institute to improve farming and processing practices, so much so that China has the largest number of certified Q Graders than any other country,  and around 4000 members who have participated in SCA programs. 

This article appears in full in the December edition of BeanScene.To read the story in FULL, subscribe now.