By Barbara Dufrêne
At the end of September, 2010, Zhang Jincheng, chairman of the China Fruit Marketing Association’s coffee branch, Kathy Chi who owns a specialty coffee roasting company in down town Beijing, her associate Ken MotoiI who is an important Japanese specialty coffee roaster and writer Barbara Dufrêne, a French coffee and tea adviser, set off for Kunming and from there to former Simao, which was renamed Pu’er City in 2008.
Pu’er municipality is indeed the largest one in Yunnan province with an area covering over 45 000km² and three major mountain ranges cutting through it from north to south as well as three big rivers crossing it. The highest peak is 3,375m above sea level, Pu’er town is set at 1,302 m and the lowlands in the south are at an elevation of 317m.
The objective of this trip was to explore the current state of the coffee production in Pu’er county and to assess the economic perspectives concerning bean quality and output potential. What an exciting outlook to tour the southern part of Yunnan province and to discover the coffee farmers and their plantations, to visit the coffee processing plants and to cup the best of the crop together with eminent experts!
While most people are aware of the fact that China is the home land of tea and has developed the famous ten thousand Chinese teas over the past millennia, or at least since the T’ang dynasty, many are surprised to hear about coffee from China.
Brought to Yunnan in the 1870s by Jesuit missionaries, coffee was grown for their own use together with wine which was needed for the church ceremonies, but there was no real interest generated in the local populations at that time. In the 1930s a coffee boom occurred in Shanghai, where Western ways became intensely popular for a decade or so.
The wave of current coffee consumption started to develop in the 1980s when China was again opening up to the Western world, but now it was Chinese businessmen who invested in coffee shops and coffee places. It was only in 1988 that the Chinese government, together with UNDP, launched a coffee production project in Yunnan and that the world’s biggest coffee roaster, the Swiss multinational Nestlé, decided to set up a big coffee growing area here in Pu’er for supplying its new soluble coffee factory in South China.
Before leaving for China, the author checked with some coffee importers in France if they had Yunnan coffees in their assortment and was shown some rather small beans from the Baoshan region. There was no awareness about the crop in the southern part of the province around Pu’er. It appeared that indeed they were no customers for Pu’er coffee at all in France.
Upon arrival the group met with several local people who were all directly and closely involved in the local coffee economy and keen to get feedback about their guest’s impressions and considerations, in particular as seen from Europe, where the highest per capita coffee consumptions is registered, and from Japan, this being the most eclectic market in the world and also the third largest coffee consuming in the world, ranking just after the US and Brazil and before Germany.
So what was shown, what was there to be seen? Beautifully kept coffee trees, planted relatively recently, not shaded, sometimes interspersed with tea bushes, in an attempt to encourage all-year round harvests; rich, red soil - very muddy after heavy rain the night before; a rich crop with the cherries just starting to color, some nurseries with new varieties and some happy senior agricultural engineers who saw their many years of efforts to improve the crop starting to yield results.
A consistent set of data was provided concerning the current total output of Yunnan‘s arabica coffee of approximately 35,000 metric tons. The data showed that coffee production is primarily shared between the Pu’er and the Baoshan regions (60% and 40% respectively), with the catimore variety accounting for 80% of the crop with typica and bourbon varieties comprising the remaining 20%.
In Pu’er, the plantations are found at altitudes ranging from 1,100m to 1,400m, while in Baoshan they are found from 800m to 1,000m. Pu’er coffee production has been assisted by the advice of experts from Nestlé and benefits from a higher rain fall than its north western neighbor in Baoshan, providing Pu’er coffee farmers with all the necessary requirements to make striving for top quality production a worthwhile undertaking.
The local experts further advised that they are currently doing a test crop with special seeds sourced in France and there is talk about plans to introduce the popular geisha variety, originating from the wild grown species found in Ethiopian forests, which are today fetching premium prices for coffees from Panama and Salvador where this variety was introduced some years ago.
Later in the second day the group had a meeting with the chiefs of the coffee cooperative, grouping 230 farmers who deliver their product to the coop’s processing facility. Suitable land is widely available, the farmers are intensely involved – to the extent that they check the price on the internet before selling their crop. Not one kilogram has been left unsold to date, everything produced finds a buyer. The fee they pay for coop membership is invested in farming improvements, and they all look proud and satisfied.
Dufrêne asked the farmers if they were tempted to transfer all their land to coffee production, or will they continue to cultivate their tea gardens?
“We will keep the tea, because we can live from it, but we will extend the coffee areas wherever possible because this crop is making us wealthy,” was the response.
On the wall panels in front of the coop building the crop reports and earnings are publicly displayed as a success story.
Pu’er coffee miracle
More data was provided concerning the future “Pu’er coffee miracle”. There are about 110 processing factories; three of them were visited by the group. The largest of these, Sunlight – Aini Company, was set up by a Chinese businessman who had returned with his American wife in 2008 to invest in his hometown. The facility is very modern and state-of-the-art.
The second plant the group visited - Beigui Company – boasts the largest drying area in all Yunnan with a brand new colour sorter waiting for the new crop.
Finally, at the Lancangjiang Compan, the group was shown coffee washing facilities which were fed with spring water.
There is a quality classification chart, created by the China Coop coffee branch, which is unanimously recognized and applied, and in order to promote this successful agricultural development the local government is not taxing the green beans and, in a very important decision, has decided to double the coffee growing area in the ongoing five-year plan, However to date only half of the dedicated acreage is effectively planted. So more progress is expected to be enshrined in the next five-year plan.
Liu Biao, vice –director of Pu’er municipal government, invited the group to visit the urban development planning expo, where they viewed plans that include impressive government supplied facilities for coffee storage, quality inspection and export monitoring with the local municipality’s clearly stated intention to turn Pu’er City into a fully-fledged coffee production and export Center in the coming years.
Liu, who is also the vice chairman of the Chinese Pu’er Tea Research gardens and nursery (CPTR), extended an invitation to the group to visit the facility.
Afterwards the guests were asked to join several cupping sessions that demonstrated convincing quality awareness and an impressive technicality in running the show. For Motoi and Dufrêne, with their Japanese and European eyes, it was obvious that while there is no coffee tradition, there is certainly keen interest to catch up with appropriate skills and equipment.
It was possible to see the collections of the labelled samples of the previous years, accompanied by some interesting inside comments, such as who pays good prices who doesn’t.
Finally some beautiful beans from the last crop where displayed for the tasting sessions which were organized at several of the production places and then in the Center of Inspection of Quality (CIQ) lab, which was a real highlight performance as they roasted, ground and prepared the cups on site using their own best coffees and some premium coffees brought along by Motoi from his own assortment in Japan as a token of friendship and interest and also for comparison.
Two Yunnan Pu’er coffees were cupped, one of them with SHB quality and Motoi’s two coffees from central America - a Panama geisha and a Costa Rica. The result was very satisfactory and Motoi confirmed that he would purchase the SHB coffees for his own specialty coffee chain in Osaka, if there were any left … unfortunately, there were none left.
Traceable and organic
The officials confirmed that all the coffees were fully traceable and that they planned to grow organic coffees in the new areas.
In order to complete this Pu’er coffee experience the visitors were taken to local a down town coffee shop, a friendly place with a good choice of cups, from espresso to macchiato, open until 11.00pm and serving local coffees exclusively. Between three to five batches per week are freshly roasted by the owner in her 2kg roaster.
On the way back to Beijing a further cupping session in the Coffee Coop offices in Kunming was arranged, in order to compare some Pu’er and Baoshan coffees. Both were prepared as drip filter and gave pleasant cups.
Close by Kunming airport the group was taken to discover a huge brand-owned, coffee-focused supermarket, were all sorts of extract and powdered drinks, in particular instant coffee mixes, were displayed. There were a few black coffee products but most were white and sweetened, many with flavouring ingredients such as coconut, pineapple, chocolate and honey.
One was invited to taste a small cup everywhere – and everywhere it seemed it was forbidden to take pictures. There were also tea extracts, such as Pu’er tea with roses, tea, coffee and fruit candies, coffee cakes, pastries, wafers…. crowds of visitors were swarming through the cleverly arranged corridors winding through the huge showrooms allowing visitors to see all the products before arriving at the cashiers desk, while being watched by the store’s operators: an incredible place!
Premium Pu’er coffee
This short and intensely busy first exploration trip together with foreign experts has left Zhang and his group with the impression that premium Pu’er coffee can be expected to be launched on the market in the next few years.
There may even be some single estate coffees of such quality that they may wish to compete within the Cup of Excellence scheme.
This will enlarge the choice of specialty coffees for the pleasure of all gourmet coffee lovers the world over.