Two women picking coffee cherries on a green farm hillside

Made In China: The Dawn of Specialty Coffee in Yunnan

May 07, 2019 0 Comments

Yunnan hillside with rows of coffee farms green and brown

Those who have been following specialty coffee for any period of time know the lingo thrown around whenever coffee is brought up in conversation. They know the difference between third-wave coffee and everything else, that, if we’re honest doesn’t really compare to the quality of coffee we have now. They know the notes, the mouthfeel, and the body a coffee has when tasted. Anyone who identifies to this level of coffee consumption knows that everything a nice cup of coffee offers, begins entirely where it is grown.

If you research the specialty coffee industry you’ll learn that in order for coffee to actually taste good, the circumstances surrounding where that coffee is grown must be exactly right. The soil needs specific amounts rainfall, particular elevations, and certain soil-consistencies. Do any more research and you’ll soon learn that for coffee to be considered "specialty," it cannot grow in United States. The soil in the U.S. simply does not allow for this. This leads to coffee being labeled according to where it is grown. Places like Ethiopia, Kenya, Indonesia, and Brazil are some of the most well-known producers of coffee. Again, those who follow specialty coffee may already know this and may even be able to tell where a coffee is from, simply by the taste. And to those faithful coffee connoisseurs, we tip our hats.

The places I mentioned earlier likely come to mind whenever the “coffee snob” thinks about single-origin coffee, but the last place most people think specialty coffee would be grown in is China. And yes, remember we are actually talking about coffee, not tea. It is no secret that China produces some of the highest quality tea the world has ever seen. The tides are turning and, the term “made in China, might soon mean exquisite coffee.”


There are other drawbacks to this mass production of coffee: the soil is derived of its nutrition through constant planting and pulling. The coffee farmers cannot make a sustainable living because they are often not paid enough. They often do not have the means to grow quality coffee because the instant coffee farming in Catimor is what is prominent in China. This does not altogether mean that this bean is a bad coffee. In fact, 99% of the coffee that is grown in China is Catimor. The process in which it is grown and treated, however directly affect the body and flavor of the coffee, and our partners Yunnan Coffee Traders have worked hard in the past five years to ensure that Catimor is treated with respect.Even though China is relatively new in the specialty coffee arena, foreign corporations have been growing coffee in bulk there since the 90s. Some of the coffee that was planted largely included Catimor, which is a hardy coffee that can survive in rugged conditions and produce large amounts of coffee, butoften low in quality. Since it is largely about quantity and not quality and it is cheap to make, this is exactly

what large coffee corporations intend to do. Sadly, this is no different with most coffee production in the world. Stories of the abuse of coffee farmers run rampant throughout the coffee industry. Because the coffee sells for so little, sometimes the coffee cherries are not even picked, as it wouldn’t be worth the effort for farmers to pick them. Some sources like Sprudge even document much of the coffee being sold at as little as 15 cents per kilogram.Red and dark red coffee cherries sitting in a green bowl



The instant coffee craze, it seems, is passing, and sustainable coffee in China is becoming more and more realistic every day. Yunnan Coffee Traders have been working in the area since 2013, and in 2015 they had their first successful specialty coffee export. We started working with them last year and are happy to join their mission in providing sustainability for Yunnan coffee farmers. Around 97% of coffee in China is grown in Yunnan and the coffee we source from them is grown in an area called Nanben. Grown at a height of 1600 meters, this makes for a coffee bean that is PACKED full of flavor. This coffee has notes of raspberries and chocolate, and unsurprisingly, has a Specialty Coffee Association Score of 85, which is quite high and much better that the instant coffee Catimor has been traditionally been used for. Yunnan Coffee Traders is largely responsible for this as they have documented raising the score across the board by about 2-3 points. Realistically speaking, the difference is probably even higher than that!


One of the reasons that coffee farmers across the world are treated poorly and are underpaid lies in the fact that they do not know how much their coffee is actually worth. A specialty coffee, like a fine wine, should be valued and treated with respect. For instance, by teaching the Yunnan coffee farmers how to farm Catimor, they raised not only the SCA score, but the price of the coffee as well. Since the coffee tastes better it becomes more of a premium good and that impacts the wages of the Yunnan farmers, helping them to grow their best coffee and get a better return on investment.

Our passion for education doesn’t end at valuing the coffee farmer’s quality of life, but extends to everyone who interacts with coffee as well. Many cafés and coffee shops are trying to reshape the culture of coffee and we are committed not only to this, but to sustainability and ethical sourcing. Every coffee we offer at Baba Java is born in this idea and is sourced so that every person involved with the process - the farmer, those sourcing, the roaster, the café, and yes, you - have a better quality of life through it. It’s crazy how much a beverage can impact culture - if there were ever a drink to be the catalyst, coffee would be a safe bet.

Thanks for checking in about our coffee from Yunnan. All of our coffees have a story - stories that we intend to share and that we want you to take part in!

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