In fact, the story of Yunnan coffee began 130 years ago. Reputedly, Typica variety came to settle down in local minority villages of the border province from neighboring Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos through Western colonial moves and civil marriages. Historical records say that Alfred Liétard, a French missionary who arrived at Yunnan via Vietnam in 1904, grew a coffee plant he had brought with him from the church in Zhukula Village. Irrigated by the gurgling Yupao River, the little plant thrived and quenched the thirst for coffee for all the Catholic churches across Dali Prefecture in the next half century; some a thousand offspring are still alive in Yunnan today. Smallscale plantings started in the 1950s, when China’s first Arabica coffee plantation was established in Lujiangba, Baoshan City to supply the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Today, many “old varieties” of Typica and Bourbon coffee plants can still be found in the city. Yunnan has now become the largest coffee producer in China, contributing to 98% of the country’s total production. The previous thriving Typica and Bourbon have given way to Catimor and T8667/T5175 (a cross between Timor Hybrid 832/1 and Caturra), which account for 90% of the total planted area. Villages and enterprises dedicated to coffee growing and producing flourish along the basins of Lancang and Nujiang Rivers. Eight prefectures and cities – Pu’er, Baoshan, Lincang, Xishuangbanna, Dehong, Dali, Nujiang and Wenshan – are co-listed as major coffee-producing regions of Yunnan.
A Coffee Plant Called “1988”
At the end of last August, a fleet of Yunnan Specialty Coffee Community (YSCC) embarked on the third “Yunnan Coffee Road Trip” from Menglian, a county on the Yunnan-Myanmar border. Following this young team, I went to visit all the eight major coffee-producing regions. While the caravan bumped along the rugged road to coffee estates, I had to hold on to a little coffee plant every now and then. Less than one meter high, it is called “1988”.
Before launching the Nescafé Coffee Center years ago, Nestlé established an Experiment & Demonstration Farm (E&DF) in Xishuangbanna about three decades ago. Though it did take a while, our blurry memory still managed to navigate us to the old site. Here, what we saw reminded us of respect and excitement for nature. The human footprint has been utterly wiped out in the primeval forest, while dozens of varieties of coffee plants introduced from all over the world are still growing, wildly. The natural lifecycle still goes on from blossoming to fruiting. As it was in early September, we could see the coffee berries hanging on the boughs. That’s where we got the “1988”, as a fellow barista decided to bring it back as his store treasure. He named it after his birth year, and also a tribute to the time when Nestlé entered China.
This is where large-scale production emerged, and the Catimor and T8667/T5175 are the legacy of Nestlé’s vigorous efforts. Flashback to 1988, Nestlé entered the Chinese market and chose Yunnan as a destination. To introduce this new crop to local farmers, the coffee giant established the E&DF to showcoffee farmers actual samples, and stationed agronomists in Pu’er to provide free technical support. Hou Jiazhi is one of the agronomists, having been working at Nestlé for more than 20 years. Traveling between mountains every day, he built a strong bond with local farmers and lands, and earned an affectionate name “Master Hou”. During our trip, he followed us and hosted workshops for the farmers along the way, sharing how sustainable agriculture is linked to our future.
Catimor from Yunnan Is the Best of Its Kind
For many coffee professionals, when speaking of Yunnan coffee, Catimor bias often comes up. With 1/4 Robusta origin, it is often criticized by specialty coffee lovers across the world for its poor flavor. Master Hou explained to us what made Nestlé choose Catimor. “It should be based on local conditions. The priorities should be whether the variety is suitable to be planted in Yunnan, as well as its disease resistance, yield and quality in comparison to product demands. Since coffee was an exotic cash crop, farmers cared more about its harvest and profit. We did research for 79 introduced varieties, and decided Catimor as the most suitable one for Yunnan. Moreover, for a cup of coffee, the variety matters, so do the terroir, care and attention to agronomy, and post-harvest processes.”
Master Hou is quite right. In the past, many farmers used a rough way to grow and process coffee before selling them as commercial ingredients to Nestlé, Starbucks and other local buyers. Compared to Central and South America which could produce millions of tons annually, Yunnan with an output of 100,000 metric tons was too weak to sway the coffee futures market. Coupled with small-peasant planting mode which relies on destiny and resulted in unstable quality, Yunnan coffee often suffered price plunge, and farmers struggled with meager income or even failed to make ends meet. Based on such a condition, the care and attention to agronomy, and innovation of processing could bring better quality, even in the case of Catimor.
In recent years, many people have recognized Catimor from Yunnan as the best of its kind in the world. Catimor is often planted at a relatively low altitude of 1,200m in other areas. However, the higher latitude of Yunnan brings a larger day-and-night temperature gap, together with high altitude(1,600-1,700m) to plant small number of Catimor coffee plants in Yunnan, providing good conditions for the accumulation of flavor precursors. Coupled with farmers’ increasing understanding and awareness of specialty coffee standards, it is not surprising that Yunnan Catimor is better than its peers from other regions and even some other well-recognized specialty coffee varieties. In the 2022 Best of Yunnan Green Coffee Competition, 35 out of the 36 finalists were Catimor beans, and the remaining one was Villa Sarchi. Nevertheless, Yunnan coffee still has a long way to go before it can stand out in top international competitions.
Specialty Coffee in Yunnan
Though the specialty rate of Yunnan coffee is under 10%, it has been an inevitable topic in the region for years. After traveling all over Africa, Central and South America, Beanhunter believes good coffee can grow in Yunnan given the natural conditions in the same league. Back around 2010, with belief in the land’s potential, pioneers flooded to Yunnan for specialty coffee experiments, ranging from coffee-loving entrepreneurs to domestic and international companies and institutions. The most famous one among them may be Seesaw, a local specialty coffee chain which launched the “Yunnan Decade Plan” in 2014. The brand has dived deep in the origin to share international experiences and standards, and promised to purchase local beans in support all the efforts Yunnan did for producing speciality coffee.
It’s well know that the first step to growing good coffee is to inspire coffee farmers and raise their awareness, activating the desire to learn and change. Apart from scientific planting advice, it is equally important to show them how to brew and drink coffee, and how to define the quality of their own coffee by cupping. With the launch of these projects, coffee producers have begun to be trained in sensory protocols, go to cities for exhibitions and get invited by brands to attend related events, generating more attention from the consumer market.
Though some have caught up with the tide of specialty coffee, many farmers who depend on coffee for their livelihoods, have never tried the drink, let alone judging the quality. Therefore, YSCC intentionally drove a mobile coffee van with a coffee roaster machine during the road trip, allowing coffee producers along the way to experience what “from seed to cup” means.
Developing speciality coffee may not be the only way out for Yunnan coffee, but it is an option to take many farmers out of the current plight and improve their income. Per Southern People Weekly, compared to coffee origins in South and Central America, Africa and Southeast Asia, Yunnan’s labor costs are five or six times higher. This means a limited profit margin for ordinary Yunnan farmers if they sell coffee at the price of the coffee futures market. If the price is not decent in the year, they may end up losing every penny. The price of commercial-grade Yunnan green beans has been hovering around 30 yuan per kilo, while new record highs of prices occur every year. For example, a Geisha shot to the highest bid of 2,000 dollars per LB for the Best of Panama in 2022. However, the rapidly emerging domestic market for specialty coffee has brought unprecedented opportunities and demand for Yunnan coffee, and coffee farmers are willing to invest more time and effort in growing coffee with higher quality for a higher pay.
Zeal for New Varieties vs. Drop of Coffee Business
Master Hou once said, “Chinese farmers are tough and open-minded. They are always ready to learn and change, as long as they find actual value.” The first step to produce good quality coffee is to select and breed the right varieties. In Yunnan, many farmers are exploring new varieties; among the little plants in the farm, there may be one seed coming from a famous coffee origin on the other side of the planet. Estate owners excitedly showed us the Typicavarietyhere, the Caturra one there and we even saw some Geisha coffees. These new varieties represent future hope and wealth for the owners, although this future may be at least a decade later.
Compared to other crops, coffee is delicate and time-consuming. Even in the ideal scenario, it takes three to four years for a plant to fruit. A new variety taking root in a new land does not mean the replica of the original flavor. Likewise, it is impossible to integrate amazing flavor, disease resistance and high yield in one variety. In Baoshan with seven decades of “old variety” planting history, local coffee farmers told us that new varieties are now mushrooming everywhere, including Geisha, Caturra, Ethiopia Heirloom, Sarchimor and S288, to name a few.
Master Hou also shared a story with us on the road. Some years ago, blinded by the good market of Typica, a coffee farmer only planted the variety. Despite the low yield of single plant, the high price of Typica led to a good income in the harvest year. Unexpectedly, a severe frost hit next year, affecting all his treasured Typica plants and making it impossible to get income for the next few years. Therefore, many farmers understand that it is a slow business, and they shall never rashly replace all the old varieties with new ones.
This is not always the case. Coffee producers with original capital accumulation and scaled planting tend to have a more certain stance in the attempts of new varieties. For example, Lincang Autumn Amber (Qiupo) Estate, the champion of the 2022 Best of Yunnan Green Coffee Competition, selected Castillo, Sarchimor and Geisha as its trademark new varieties after years-long cooperation with local professional institutes. On a rainy day, we hiked up to a planting base of Autumn Amber Estate, a hillside with an average altitude of 1700m where patches of Sarchimor seedlings are planted. In addition to Typica and Sarchimor, Geisha has fetched the highest bid prices in recent years, becoming a favorite of local farms. In this wave of new varieties experiment, the far-sighted local government will of course not be absent. After twenty- one years of research, the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences announced in October the launch of the new varieties “Yunka No.1” and “Yunka No.2”. Nestlé began its research of new varieties in 2008, and is expected to release results in 2025.
Not all farmers are happy to make the attempt and wait for an uncertain future. Anyone who has been to Yunnan will be impressed by the bounty of the land. It is a place for so many crops, and mushroom hunters in some areas can just make a good living in the wild. It is said that, to an ordinary farmer in Yunnan, only about ten crops are less cost effective than coffee! In Pu’er, we met the first batch of coffee farmers who recalled that they earned 150 yuan per mu of corn and 2,000 yuan per mu of coffee in 1995. No doubt, they shaved off all the corn to plant coffee. However, thirty years later, farmers in Baoshan could earn 70,000 yuan per mu of tomatoes in a year, but that of coffee was only 3,000 yuan. It makes sense that such a huge profit gap would guide more farmers to give up coffee plants with low ROI.
Yunnan Coffee’s Future Lies in Passionate Eyes
In regions with a longer growing history, the farmers have to face up with the disappointing downturn of coffee futures market as well as fatal climate disasters and blight, while staying wary of speculators coming to the mountains for wealth. That’s why some coffee farmers met us with suspicion due to previous deception. Some villages have even lost confidence in the coffee market because of lasting disappointment in the past. Witnessing such struggles and difficulties naturally turned us down. However, those farmers who are still passionate about coffee will eventually heal us.
More than an agricultural product, coffee has embraced special social and humanity values in the industry after 500 years of global expansion. Master Hou would always tell the coffee farmers, “Old pal, you are doing business with the whole world, right from the moment you decide to grow coffee.” By virtue of coffee planting, the isolated mountains began to welcome batches of international friends in the early years, giving locals more opportunities and resources. A female farmer who has been engaged in coffee farming for more than twenty years told me, “Growing coffee allows her, a girl living in the mountains, to see a wider world and meet so many amazing people.” She feels that she has realized her life value, a sense of accomplishment that other crops cannot bring.
Zou Quanqing, who traveled with us, is one of the founders of Hongfeng Guogei Estate. She operated the business with two old friends. When she started the coffee business because of an accident, she accepted every price which the buyers offered, as she mentioned. They only started to learn and improve processes until a few years ago when they knew specialty coffee can bring more revenue. Now in her 60s, Zou is passionate about coffee and always on the road to learn fermentation protocols and drying procedures. In every new estate we visited, she was always the first to step into the coffee field to observe the growth. She is willing to buy all the beans she feels curious, no matter how ridiculously expensive they are.
Miyanhanta is the owner of Gaosanlin Farm, the previous winner of the Best of Yunnan Green Coffee Competition. Her passion for coffee is also overflowing. During the trip, she was the one who cared most about “brewing a good cup of coffee”. Whenever she found a coffee farmer not knowing how to properly store the roasted beans or grind the coffee for brewing, she could not help but nag the farmer: “The good coffee comes from your hard work. You must learn how to brew and serve it, so that you can let guests taste the good flavor. That is the way to not put your hard work in vain.” She often talks to others: “Coffee is bitter. But once you fall in love with it, you will like it more and more. You will keep trying no matter how hard it is. You simply can’t put it down!”
New Faces and New Techniques
Since Nestlé entered China, villagers of Dakaihe have begun growing coffee, and now some farms have ushered in their third generation of successors. Born after 1990, Mei Zi is currently managing the Lin Run Coffee Estate. Her grandfather was one of the first grower to follow agronomists in planting coffee, who was also the first to set up a coffee farm in the village; her father is the village secretary, who has been leading the villagers to grow coffee. But in her childhood, Mei Zi only had a bitter impression of coffee. She never drank their own coffee, same for most of the villagers. A local saying even went that “the life coffee farms tastes more bitter than coffee, why bother to drink it!” However, Mei Zi who once had no thought of taking over the farm fell in love with coffee by chance during her university years. After graduation, she returned to her hometown and became a farmer. Speaking of the first few years, Mei Zi was most impressed by the fact that she was often “forced” to be the receptionist. Due to the convenient location and traffic in Dakaihe, many visitors interested in the coffee origin showed up, and Mei Zi had to squeeze some time to show people around, despite the busy agricultural work. Given the inconvenient accommodation and dining, as well as the labor shortage, she had to chat with guests while cooking in the kitchen for a dozen people’s meals in the busiest case, she recalled. Now, the estate has set aside new land earmarked for visitor reception facilities. The experience center and accommodation building are constructed next to the processing plant, allowing future guests to experience the whole process of coffee growing and processing, while also understanding coffee culture in an immersive way. This is also in line with the local government’s policy of “integration of primary, secondary and tertiary industries’’. The farm, originally for agricultural purposes, uses its unique resources to launch a cultural tourism project. This echoes with the market demand, allows more people to learn about Yunnan coffee and coffee culture, and also gives the farm an opportunity to earn higher revenue.
Not far from Mei Zi’s home, the Yeyatang River Valley Estate is also in the hands of a young owner. Yang Hongjian, born after 1990, is also the third generation of his family coffee business. In 2020, he quitted his job as a teacher and took over the estate; now, he is also preparing for the integration of the three industries. As he told us, he spent the past year on the renovation of the coffee plantation, in order to make sure visitors can find fun and nice food here. In the estate, thousands of fruit trees are newly planted, including pineapple, bell fruit and grapefruit, in addition to tens of thousands of ornamental plants. He has also initiated the coffee volunteer program, which has completed more than twenty sessions, attracting more than a hundred volunteers to experience life at origin. Yang hopes to team up with coffee estates in Simao District in the future to do further volunteer projects. He also plans to welcome college students to do research, as a way to make up for the lack of data related to coffee origin and offer cultural endorsement for Yunnan coffee.
Yang mentioned that Pu’er is facing some challenges due to its long history of farming, such as the aging of some coffee plants and the worrying nutritional status of soil, which may make good coffee impossible. After taking over the estate, the first thing occurred to him was to restore the biodiversity, such as replacing chemical pesticide weeding with manual weeding and planting more shade trees to improve coffee quality. On the recent frequent disease and insect damage which has seriously affected some bases nearby, “People in the river valley should truly thank Nestlé, no kidding, for the shade trees they planted well back then. In the area, the pests and diseases are minimal and the vegetation is very good,” Yang said.
Many young farmers have realized the rough growing method in the past is not conducive to sustainability, and started to take actions. In response to haphazard fertilization, many farms began to do soil tests for different plots via scientific methods, and then formulated fertilizers according to the results. The way fertilizer is applied has also changed, as the estates regain confidence from the bright prospect; they have invested in trials of new equipment and farming technology, such as replacing original manual fertilizer application with Agriculture & Spraying Drones, a way helping to improve efficiency while reducing high labor costs. In some coffee fields in Yunnan, weather monitoring stakes called “electronic scarecrows” are also installed, reflecting local efforts to collect soil and weather data via modern digital devices, which assists farmers in field management.
In addition to modern equipment, Guiben Plantation in Yiwu is addicted to Biodynamic farming. The estate owner Lan Tiancai said he once visited many coffee fields and felt the “yield first” concept has made people gradually forget the essence of agriculture. Due to the blind pursuit of more convenient management mode, the organic fertilizer has been replaced by simple and labor-saving industrial fertilizers; in the long term, it can contribute to soil acidification and soil crust, thereby reducing the biomass of soil organisms, which can directly affect the plant root’s absorption of nutrition and ultimately worsen the coffee flavor. Therefore, he believes that the biggest advantage of Biodynamic farming is “its rich bacterial colony, which will bring benefits to coffee plants one after another!” In the plantation, we also saw a field with Pacamara coffee plants less than four years old. In addition to the rich vegetation cover on the ground, banana and mango trees are used as shade trees and also for generating more income. With organic fertilizer fermented from sugar cane water, soybean milk, seaweed powder, milk and other organic matter, the plants can thrive on this land.
Master Hou repeated the benefits of sustainable agriculture in every workshop. He believes that it is more than planting shade trees and increasing yields, but also about benefiting the lives of coffee farmers and future generations from all aspects. In particular, he mentioned to the villagers that “1988” still thrived in the E&DF which was left unattended, and the coffee plants there were still fruitful every year, attracting nearby farmers to pick the wild coffee berries. This is largely due to the sustainable farming followed in the demonstration site, he stressed.
Over the past century, Yunnan coffee farmers have experienced the ups and downs amid natural disasters and the sluggish market; some gave up, and others are still holding on to their beloved coffee fields. Along the way, the eight production areas are going to different futures. We heard that the last coffee company in Wenshan stopped operation not long ago, just like many predecessors annihilated in the course of history. However, fresh vigor will continuously be infused by passion; new ideas and technologies will also be introduced into this still young industry. Perhaps, the disappearance and decline are not the end, but the beginning of a new cycle!