The first container of specialty coffee left Yunnan, China for Australia in late 2015. Over the last nine years, Yunnan’s specialty coffee production has increased in leaps and bounds in both quantity and quality. We’re typically not familiar with specialty grade Asian coffees, but the truth is that these coffees can pass quality tests with flying colors and display an enormous amount of sweetness, consistency, and complexity.
Tim Heinze (Yunnan Coffee Traders) and Hu Xixiang (Mangzhang Farms) are generally regarded as the progenitors of large volume specialty coffee production in Menglian, Yunnan. Tim is a CQI Q-Arabica instructor and also one of only a handful of CQI Q Processing instructors in the world. Hu operates one of China’s longest running (continuous) coffee farms. They make a great team and are in a good position both experientially and professionally to give an opinion on Chinese coffee. Following is a summary of their feedback.
“Given the advancements of post-harvest processing, the association of a given flavour profile with a specific origin can now be challenged. Current processing techniques can significantly direct the flavour development of coffee (for better or for worse). Accepting this, there are still regional characteristics that hold up under different processing methods. In general, Yunnan coffees (Catimors) are characterized by a high body. This feature cannot sustain a coffee in isolation; however, when rounded out with other desirable qualities, it creates a unique profile that is gaining a reputation for Yunnan as an Emerging Specialty Origin. In particular, the latitudinal position of Yunnan results in cooler evening temperatures at higher altitudes, which produces a high level of sweetness. So, the overall experience in the cup for a Yunnan coffee is one of high sweetness and classic citric acidity balanced out with a full creamy body.”
Three distinct improvements and advancements in Chinese specialty coffee rise to the forefront of efforts led by the Yunnan Coffee Traders team in the last decade: embracing Catimor, quality improvement techniques, and farmers given access to professional development. Yunnan Coffee Traders says this,
Embracing Catimor: “Catimor is the offspring of a Timor Hybrid (with Robusta heritage) and a Caturra. It was developed in Portugal almost 70 years ago by scientists seeking to create a coffee that was resilient to disease and pests while delivering high yields from a small plant size that could do well at lower altitudes; basically, the ultimate ‘commercial’ coffee. While the Catimor has somewhat lived up to its commercial promise, it is treated with suspicion from its specialty cousins due to frequently cited issues with cup quality. As such, the Catimor has largely been overlooked as a specialty variety of coffee. However, as Steve Leighton from HasBean notes, “There is no such thing as a bad varietal, just a varietal planted in a bad space” or processed in a bad way.
Suspicions around Catimor quality inevitably created a tension for specialty farmers – if the market isn’t willing to pay ‘specialty prices’ at the consumer side, then there is little incentive to apply ‘specialty methods’ at the production side. So, in 2013, our company asked the question: What would happen if we showed the Catimor some respect? And treated it with all the love and care in production as we would a Gesha or a Bourbon? Five years later, the answer to that question is the recognition of China coffee (which is 99 % Catimor) as an emerging specialty origin!
Quality Improvements: “The saying goes, ‘Techniques are taught, and tools are bought.’ This usually means that it's harder to upgrade methods than machines. And if particular methods are tied to particular machines, then both remain hard to improve even if there are better alternatives available.
Again, we asked a question: What would happen if we used specialty processing methods alongside industry-leading quality improvement technologies at the farming level? This meant reviewing the picking, wet mill and drying. We introduced color bracelets for pickers, (which ensures a strong ripe cherry base), color laser sorters at the wet mill (which further increases the ripe cherry base), and moisture meters at the drying areas (rather than relying on the infamous ‘bite test’). The result of the combined technique and technology improvements was an average increase of 2-3 points across all our coffees – and there is still room for improvement!
Farmer Education: “While Nestle and other companies had been offering classes to local farmers for some time, it was the nascent processing classes introduced by Dr Mario Fernandez (CQI) with Torch Coffee Labs and the Yunnan Coffee Exchange in 2015 that really began to take things to the next level. Inspired by the results we saw in our own coffees, we made the decision to ensure our core team and farming partners all receive the best possible training available. Many of our team are now Q-Graders and our CEO is both a Q Arabica and a Q Processing instructor (as well as being an AST with the SCA).”
We purchased two lots from the project in Yunnan, both washed and naturally processed 100% Catimor lots. Both of these coffees are high in complexity and sweetness, offered varied cup profiles, and we are honored to represent the best of what Chinese Specialty Coffee production has to offer.
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