Yunnan Coffee: The Future is Bright!

Photo: Bryon Lipponcott for YCT

As I finish pouring water over my freshly ground, YiWu Natural coffee and take the first sip, I’m reminded how the pleasure of enjoying an amazing cup of coffee is nothing short of a miracle. When you consider the journey coffee takes from its birthplace to your cup, the conditions and opportunities working against it are immense. The two heroes of the story —— the farmer and the roaster —— working in tandem to deliver an exceptional product that invites the consumer in and tells them of this journey. This bringing together of both sides of the industry is what I have been honored to strive toward over the last decade working in coffee. Being at the forefront of producing specialty quality coffee in Yunnan and sharing this with the world has been an honor. During this time, I have seen wonderful advances on the ground and roasters across the world taking note of this hard work and innovation.

Yunnan coffee is continuing to make its mark in Europe, Australia, the USA and many more specialty coffee markets. Companies like Square Mile in London, 19 Grams in Berlin, LaColombe in the USA, and many more are sharing the stories and introducing the world to the amazing people of Yunnan.

Photo: Julie Roberson

Farmers in Yunnan have unique challenges and opportunities set before them. Compared to countries where large-scale coffee production has a long history, Yunnan is relatively young and still gaining experience. However, in a short amount of time, farmers, processors, and producers have jumped leaps and bounds forward in the pursuit of quality. They have taken steps to adjust their growing practices, layout of their mills, and attention to detail that all have contributed to increases in quality. Not to mention, they have an inquisitive and curiosity that drives innovation and experimentation.

Over the last few years, one can find coffees with various fermentation protocols, processing specialties, and unique recipes that set these coffees apart. Farmers are innovating with the use of new technology like color sorters for coffee fruit, hydraulic separators at the wet mil for sorting based on density, and various fermentation vats all focused on increasing quality and consistency. So, what can we expect to see coming out of Yunnan over the next several years?

Photo: Byron Lipponcott for YCT

New Varieties

Within the Specialty Coffee industry there are certain biases that exist, some of which are founded on historical experiences and others that are, unfortunately, purely anecdotal. The ‘Catimor bias’ is one such unfortunate position many people hold. There is a general turning up of the nose and push back against Catimor as a cultivar. Even though with the innovation in processing, care and attention to agronomy, and overall improvement in post-harvest processes, one can produce a high quality Catimor, it is frequent to find people who upon reading ‘Catimor’ are not willing to give Yunnan coffee a chance.

This bias paired with the passion for innovation has driven many farmers in Yunnan to pursue new varieties. It’s a hard path though. The challenge is to find a variety that produces similar to Catimor. After all, how can we expect farmers to agree with decreasing yields if prices are not higher to compensate, or change from a cultivar that has low susceptibility to disease, and tastes delicious? This tall order in Yunnan has been met with various degrees of success. I personally know many farmers who are planting Pacamara, Bourbon, Typica, Geisha, Java, and the list goes on in pursuit of finding new options. Nestle has also released a new variety and introduced it to farmers in the region.

Photo: Byron Lipponcott for YCT

The bottom line is Catimor is not going to be replaced widespread. I still believe it can be a pretty good cup of coffee and a fantastic option for farmers; however, we are going to be seeing new varieties and options being offered here in Yunnan.

Improvements in Consistency

A common complaint I hear about Yunnan coffee is that the quality from year to year or batch to batch is not consistent. Of course, I don’t believe Yunnan is the only region to struggle with this; however, I have experienced it as well with coffees we have received as samples from potential partners. But I am convinced that because of the hard work of companies working hand-in-hand with growers and producers on the ground to improve sanitary conditions and processes, this is going to improve. More producers are being trained in sensory protocols (thanks to trainings from companies like CQI) and understanding how fermentation protocols and drying procedures can improve consistency.

The knowledge, training, and experience they are receiving will drive them to turn the corner on the consistency challenges of the past and run forward producing beautiful, consistent coffees that will make drinking Yunnan coffee a memorable experience.

Photo: Bryon Lipponcott for YCT

Innovation Abounds

In the years that I have been working in Yunnan, I have sat around the tea table, which by the way make fantastic coffee tables too, tossing up ideas and challenging the status quo with young and old producers who continue to push the envelope forward on the potential for quality of Yunnan coffee. Everything is being put on the table and dissected. The layout and general workflow of the wet mill, fermentation times and methods, drying procedures, fertilizer regiments, and more are just some of the areas where farmers are pushing forward and seeking to “do it better.” Over the years, I have grown to respect the ingenuity, cleverness, and passion of the farmers I have worked alongside in Yunnan.

The heroes of this story will continue to be the farmers of Yunnan who strive for excellence and the roasters who showcase and honor that hard work through introducing and serving these coffees to consumers across the world. As I enjoy the last drop of my delicious Yunnan coffee, I’m excited about the future for this region of the world and the way it will continue to challenge people’s biases and surprise them. I know the coffee will grow to be as rich, complex, and beautiful as the people who work so hard to produce it.

Photo: Bryon Lipponcott for YCT

What Roasters are Saying about Yunnan coffee:

“We focus on emerging origin so Yunnan fits the bill. We don’t just focus on emerging origins though: It needs to be tasty and different. Yunnan fills both slots! Feedback has been beyond amazing. People love the facts it’s a new origin. [The coffee] is nutty and chocolaty, but with hints of cherries and insane sweetness.”

-Rabbit Hole Roasters, Canada

“With the effects of climate change threatening coffee production globally, we actively explore new opportunities for producer relationships. The quality of coffee from Yunnan and the technical support provided by Yunnan Coffee Traders, our partners on the ground, made it interesting for us — our customers have been surprised and impressed by the sweetness, character of the acidity and clean cup of these coffees, especially upon learning they’re Catimor.”

-Phoenix Coffee, USA

“Back in 2017 when we started Foreword Coffee, few roasters in Singapore featured Yunnan coffee as a single origin coffee and many people did not know that Yunnan (and China) produced coffee. Fast forward three years later, many other specialty roasters have started to offer Yunnan coffees and customers give great feedback. The chocolaty and nutty notes of a Yunnan washed [coffee] provides a safe choice for most consumers. We also feature a natural coffee with notes of cherry and wine which surprised many specialty coffee drinkers, and the quality is comparable to what we can get from Ethiopia and Kenya.”

-Foreword Coffee, Singapore

“We decided to go with the Yunnan coffee because it’s a unique coffee from a very special location that we wanted to share with our customers. But it’s especially the taste that blew our minds, the fruity notes are very distinguished…[with] dried watermelon and cherry flavors. We actually enjoy it so much that head-roaster Anthony is going to use it in an upcoming coffee competition.”

– 19Grams, Berlin

“We chose to buy coffee from Yunnan partly due to it being a unique and interesting origin, not commonly seen in specialty coffee, and we purchased Xingang specifically as it is produced by women. The feedback for the Xingang has been unreal, with a number of customers stating it was their top coffee of 2019. Both wholesale and retail customers have loved it! We’ve had nothing but a positive experience with Yunnan coffee. We’ve enjoyed learning about the area, the processing, and the producers. As a roaster, it’s a joy to roast such amazing quality coffee. I love everything about it, from the aroma of the green which is candy like to the way the scent of the roasted beans fills the air in the roastery when it’s being packed! We can’t wait for the next harvest!”

– Girls Who Grind Coffee, UK

Photo: Bryon Lipponcott for YCT

Roasters currently offering Yunnan Coffee across the world:

(This is not an exhaustive list as there are new companies joining in all the time!)

  • 19 Grams, Germany
  • Allpress, UK
  • Ariosa, Ireland
  • Artisan Roast, UK
  • Baba Java Coffee, USA
  • Bun Coffee, Australia
  • Calvin Fletchers Coffee, USA
  • Clifton Coffee, UK
  • Climpson & Sons, UK
  • Coaltown Coffee Roasters, UK
  • Coffee Factory, UK
  • Colectivo Coffee, USA
  • Combs Coffee, USA
  • Cricklewood Coffee Roasters, UK
  • Crooked Nose, Lithuania
  • Dark Woods Coffee, UK
  • Deep Coffee, France
  • Django Coffee Co, UK
  • Foreword Coffee, Singapore
  • Four Kilo Fish, Australia
  • Frank & Earnest, UK
  • Frazer’s Coffee Roasters, UK
  • Girls Who Grind, UK
  • Grumpy Mule, UK
  • Hani Coffee Co., USA
  • Hatch Coffee, Canada
  • Horsham Coffee Roasters, UK
  • Inside Ground, UK
  • John Watt & Sons, UK
  • Kape Pan, UK
  • Kawa Coffee, Cyprus
  • KB Roasters, France
  • Kiss the Hippo, UK
  • LaCava, Poland
  • LaColombe, USA
  • Lafayette Coffee, USA
  • Legacy Coffee, Canada
  • ManCoCo, UK
  • Mission Coffee Works, UK
  • Number 13, UK
  • OM Roastery, Italy
  • Origin Coffee Roasters, UK
  • Ouseburn Coffee Company, UK
  • Pablo & Rusty’s, Australia
  • Paradise Coffee Roasters, USA
  • Pharmacie, UK
  • Phoenix Coffee, USA
  • Poblado Coffi, UK
  • Quarter Horse Coffee, UK
  • Rabbit Hole Coffee, Canada
  • Rave, UK
  • Ristretto, UK
  • River Coffee Roaster, UK
  • Roots Coffee Company, USA
  • Small Batch, UK
  • Square Mile, UK
  • Studio Coffee Roasters, Ireland
  • Sunrise Coffee, Ukraine
  • The Grand Howl, UK
  • Tres Cabezas, Germany
  • Unity Coffee, USA
  • Unorthodox Roasters, UK
  • Urban Dwellers, USA
  • Utopian Coffee, USA
  • Vagabond Coffee Roasters, UK

Thank you to Indochina Coffee Co and Atlas Coffee Importers for providing this information! Get in contact with them if you’d like to learn more!

Timothy Heinze (Photo: Bryon Lipponcott for YCT)

Timothy Heinze

He has been working throughout the world in coffee since 2009. He is one of a select few coffee professionals in the world instructing for the Coffee Quality Institute’s (CQI) Q Arabica Grader and Q Processing Level 1 and 2 programs. After cutting his teeth in coffee working with farmers in Yunnan, Heinze has gone on to work on coffee development projects in Myanmar, Thailand, Philippines, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and more. His passion is to train farmers and producers to see a regenerative and healthy coffee supply chain and equip baristas, roasters, and green buyers to work ethically and collaboratively with producers across the world. He is one of the founding owners of Yunnan Coffee Traders (YCT) and HuskeeCo.