Toby’s Estate on Myanmar: A coffee origin unlike any other

Myanmar coffee

Toby’s Estate Coffee Roasters has built strong relationships with coffee producers in Myanmar, a young and unique origin when it comes to specialty coffee, which have withstood political turmoil and challenges during 2021.

It has been a difficult year in Myanmar following a military takeover of the government in February resulting in widespread protest and civil unrest. The military coup hit just as Myanmar’s coffee producers were finishing their harvest, making it even harder for them to get their coffee to market. 

Toby’s Estate Coffee Roasters is currently the only company bringing Myanmar beans to Australia and has done so since 2017. Green Bean Buyer Charlotte Malaval tells BeanScene the strength of these partnerships made it possible to continue them in 2021, despite the challenges faced in Myanmar. 

“Some of the producers we work with, like Melanie Edwards from Behind the Leaf, or the Shwe Taung Thy Organisation, lived in regions that went without internet access for months. Some countries also imposed sanctions on Myanmar that made it even harder for workers and producers to sell their coffee and generate incomes,” Charlotte says.

“But Melanie was amazing. After harvest, she drove six or seven hours to the capital to send samples but discovered that all air freight services had been cut. Instead, she spent two days organising samples to be sent to us.

“When we tried to pay for this amazing coffee, we found out the government had frozen many people’s accounts, including Melanie’s. It took a huge amount of trust on her part to send us the coffee anyway, knowing we’d pay once she had created a new account. That wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the relationship we’d built with her over the past five years.”

Toby’s Estate has worked with Melanie Edwards from Behind the Leaf since 2017.

Charlotte was first introduced to Myanmar’s coffee through Mario Fernandez of the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) at a tradeshow in 2016. CQI was working with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other groups to help producers in Myanmar improve their cup quality. Charlotte says with basic help in picking, processing, and handling, the coffee jumped as much as 10 cupping points and crossed from commodity to specialty grade.

“They’re such humble producers and very keen to learn. We’ll give their coffees high cupping scores and tell them they’re amazing, then the farmers will ask ‘are you sure it’s that good?’” she says.

“Every single relationship we have with producers is an important one, but our connection to Myanmar is unique. Before COVID, we travelled there every year and to see the hard work and improvements over the last five years is incredible.”

Myanmar’s coffee producers typically work on a very small scale, with coffee trees mixed among other crops in their farm or backyard. Companies like Behind the Leaf work with entire farming villages, collecting cherries from many farmers to produce micro lots. 

“Melanie has identified and partnered with 10 coffee-growing villages of the Pao Tribe, in the Pinlaung area, from whom she buys and processes exceptional coffee cherries, while controlling every step of the process,” Charlotte says. “Her amazing work has helped them to resurrect their farms, as well as inspiring those small-scale producers to a sustainable and environmentally responsible growth.”

She adds the sudden jump in quality is particularly impressive because it was achieved with traditional coffee varietals like Catuai, Typica, and some S795, rather than those that typically score higher numbers.

“Other countries have decades of knowledge in coffee processing and are still working to achieve the quality Myanmar has in only a few years,” Charlotte says.

“The cup profile is really unique and something you can’t find in any other region in the world. There’s usually lots of cherry and red fruit in the profile, it’s sweet with positive herbacious tones like anise or liquorice and dark chocolate notes. It’s really rounded and balanced, and these unique flavours give you this really cherry-like cotton candy feeling.”

Toby’s Estate Assistant Head Roaster Joshua Haidinger visited Myanmar coffee farms in 2018.

Toby’s Estate’s first lot from Myanmar in 2017 was used in its Underdog Series, highlighting emerging specialty coffee regions. It’s since been featured in many of the product innovations from Toby’s Estate, including its single serve Steeped coffee bags and the Butterscotch Pudding blend it released near the end of 2020, the first in Toby’s Flavour Savour series. It is also a consistent feature in the roaster’s Single Origins program.

Assistant Head Roaster Joshua Haidinger says the relationship with Myanmar coffee and Behind the Leaf and Shwe Taung Thu is important to Toby’s Estate, and carries through to Australian coffee drinkers too.

“We’ve built an almost cult-like following for Myanmar coffees. Whenever we release one on our monthly single origin rotation it’s always a big seller. Customers are drawn to that red fruit profile with intense flavours in the cup,” he says.

Josh travelled to Myanmar to meet the producers directly in 2018 and says it was eye opening to see how to farmers operate.

“Myanmar has been growing coffee for centuries, but it’s still very new to specialty coffee and it’s not common to have such a ‘young’ specialty coffee producing country,” Josh says.

“It’s unique in the way everything is set up. They were meticulously organised and well trained thanks to the project from CQI and USAID. It’s really impressive they’ve achieved such a high level of skill in such a short time.”

Lachlan Berger, another member of the roasting team for Toby’s Estate, visited Myanmar one year later and calls his first trip to origin a “memorable experience”.

“Working in a café or even a roastery, you can’t comprehend the work that goes into one espresso or green bean. I picked a few cherries, the farmer laughed and said ‘only three of those are ripe’. They all look the same to me, but to them were completely different,” Lachlan says.

“Because specialty coffee was so new to them, they are really open to with things like fermentation tanks and black honey processing. Despite being so new to it all, the coffees are tasting amazing. It’s like they’ve struck gold.”

Lachlan Berger (left) says visiting Myanmar with Charlotte (right) helped teach him the value of coffee.

The coffee Toby’s Estate brought in from Myanmar in 2021 includes a black honey processed Catuai from Pingalar. During the processing, the mucilage of the coffee cherry was left on the bean to dry, which resulted in a citrus-like acidity, paired with the sweetness of blackberry and the elegance of strawberry. 

“Prior to this coffee, we’ve only offered natural process coffee from Myanmar, and this is one of the better honey processed coffees I’ve ever had. It retains the nice fruity flavours and intensity we expect form Myanmar with a bit more pop of acidity and clarity in the cup,” Josh says.

“It’s incredible when you know the story behind the coffee and how hard it’s been to get it to the roastery. It makes us want to represent the coffee in the best way we can.”

Another experimental coffee Toby’s Estate received from Behind the Leaf includes a lot fermented with a unique rice yeast, which the roaster will release in a special format later in 2021. 

“During this harvest Melanie and her team at Behind the Leaf conducted numerous experiments in manipulating fermentation. One of those experiments far exceeded all their expectations, and we can’t wait to share it with our Australian market in November this year,” Josh says.

“The story of this winning processing experiment involves the use of ‘yeast balls’. These mysterious little white starch-based balls are made in isolated Kayah villages using secret recipes that have been handed down generation to generation.”

Cupping notes of this new experimental coffee included grape, bubble gum, mango, sticky rice, tropical, and candy. Lachlan calls it round and very complex.

“All of the coffees we’ve tasted from Myanmar have been packed full of flavour and this one is no different. I haven’t experienced a Myanmar coffee that failed to deliver. They tick the box and raise the bar time and time again, and this one doesn’t miss a beat,” Lachlan says.

“It’s not easy to get our hands on Myanmar coffee, so I think there are even a lot of people in the industry who haven’t had the chance to experience it before. The quality and level of innovations grow ever year.” 

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This article appeared in the October 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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