2018 Portrait Country
Explore the world of Chinese coffee
Visit us at the Specialty Coffee Expo to learn more about this emerging coffee origin
Specialty coffee grown in China? Chances are the notion is foreign to you. Even the words “Chinese coffee” sound dissonant at first listen, like “Colombian tea” or “Icelandic chocolate.” But the Chinese coffee industry is in the midst of a transformation. Once an afterthought in the global coffee landscape, China is now a burgeoning coffee origin, and is poised to play an important role in the green coffee sector in the years to come.
After years of infrastructure investment, annual growth rates of Arabica production in China are nearing 20%. Farmers across China’s coffee-growing regions are working closely with organizations like the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) to improve farming and processing practices. Results have been promising, with the country’s best coffees earning Q scores that rival coffees from some of the world’s most celebrated origins. In-country consumption is also on the rise, opening exciting new markets for roasters, retailers, and investors. In short, it’s time to learn about Chinese coffee—where it’s grown, why it’s improving, and why coffee professionals are so excited about the origin’s future. On behalf of the Chinese coffee industry, we’re excited to introduce you to this emerging coffee destination.
A Seismic Shift in Production
Home to 46 million people, 26 ethnic groups, and seven temperature zones, China’s Yunnan province is also home to 98% of China’s coffee production. Most Yunnan coffee is grown in the mountainous highland region, which boasts cool nights, mild days, and abundant water resources. Catimor is the dominant cultivar because of its high yield and leaf-rust-resistant properties, but farmers are increasingly experimenting with other cultivars to meet demand. Although coffee is grown throughout Yunnan, Pu’er is the official “Capital of Coffee in China.” The Pu’er government has gone all in on coffee production, promoting Pu’er coffee as one of the “Three Treasures of Pu’er,” along with tea and dendrobium (a genus of orchids). Given the ideal growing conditions, you’d think coffee would have gained a foothold in China much earlier. But coffee wasn’t introduced to mainland China until 1893, decades after most other origins. China didn’t grow coffee on a commercial scale until the mid-1950s, and production stayed modest for half a century afterward.
The tide began to turn in 1988, when the Chinese government initiated a project to encourage coffee production as an alternative to tea, tobacco, rice, and other crops, with assistance from the World Bank and the UN Development Program. China’s Ministry of Agriculture further amped up support in 2007, providing additional financing, technology, and research to Yunnan farmers. The investments have paid big dividends in the years since. From 1998 to 2012, annual coffee production grew 19.4% on average. Production took a huge leap in 2013, nearly doubling to 1.5 million bags. In the 2013/2014 crop year, China produced nearly 1.9 million bags of coffee, placing the country just above Costa Rica in total output according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO). This made China the 14th largest producer of coffee in the world in 2014, compared to the 30th worldwide just 10 years before. This explosive growth shows no signs of slowing—a welcome sign to an industry concerned by a global shortage of high-quality coffee.
Specializing in Specialty
While much of China’s commercial output is bought up by Nestle, Starbucks, and other large merchandisers, an important specialty niche is emerging, as producers and local officials seek access to new markets and higher prices. Farmers are working closely with organizations like CQI and local extension stations to implement best practices at the farm level and improve wet/dry processing techniques. Various organizations are also diversifying with other cultivars in an attempt to improve the cup profile of individual coffees. The Yunnan International Coffee Exchange (YCE) runs a buying platform designed to encourage quality and transparency. As detailed in Coffee Talk magazine, each lot up for auction includes a Q score and cupping notes for the coffee. To be eligible for the auction, coffees must score at least 80 in two blind cuppings and undergo a quality inspection. In addition, each lot is “Farmer Identified,” meaning the lots are traceable to the farm, with a QR code that provides information on the farmer, farm, and growing conditions. To further improve quality, the YCE is launching a new industrial park in 2018 that offers a range of services for farmers, including training, financing, equity investment, and equipment leases. The industrial park will also include processing plants, warehouses, and a cultivar farm for research. Because of these and other efforts, cup quality in China has never been higher. In the 2017 Best of Yunnan competition hosted by YCE and CQI, an international panel of judges gave the winner an average 85.5455 score. James Craig, an Australian roaster and licensed Q Grader, described his experience as a Best of Yunnan judge this way: “There are just so many surprises here. Honey/natural process, new varietals, different growing techniques ... all the hallmarks of a progressive, vibrant industry with massive resource and potential.”
Traditionally a tea-drinking country, China’s coffee consumption is increasing nearly as fast as production. A 2015 ICO analysis estimated that China’s consumption has grown 16% per year over the past 10 years, reaching 1.9 million bags of coffee in 2013/2014. This level of consumption made China the 17th largest consumer in the world—and growing. The real eye-opener, however, is how much growth potential the Chinese market still offers. With a population of 1.4 billion people, per-capita consumption in 2013/2014 was a mere 5 to 6 cups per year. Compare this with per-capita consumption in the U.S., which has remained at roughly 985.5 cups per year since 1999. Moreover, coffee shops and Western-style coffee culture are just now gaining a foothold in China, as coffee sales to this point have mostly been in the form of instant coffee. Fresh-roasted, whole-bean coffees are expected to become more prevalent as the Chinese society and economy develop and Eastern and Western cultures continue to converge. The upshot? The China coffee landscape you once knew is changing before your eyes.
Immerse Yourself in Chinese Coffee
We’re excited to share more details about Chinese coffee and give you the opportunity to taste coffees from the country’s diverse growing regions. Visit us at booth 827 at the Specialty Coffee Expo to learn more.