August 29, 2016

Myanmar Specialty Coffee Reaches USA After More Than 15-Year Import Lull


On the 23rd August 2016, about 60 people gathered at La Colombe in Chinatown, Washington D.C. to celebrate a historic moment: the first ever shipment of specialty coffee, ICO marked, from Myanmar to the USA.  

SEE ALSO: How Myanmar’s Coffee Trade Is Dictated by Infrastructure

Le Colombe

Members of the coffee industry and development organizations gather at La Colombe in Washington D.C. to celebrate Myanmar’s first import of specialty coffee to the U.S.

How Myanmar Coffee Came to the USA

Myanmar has been growing coffee for over a century, but its tumultuous political state and lack of solid export standards made it easy to overlook. And so it took a small chain of people passionate about coffee to bring this import to fruition.

At the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s 2016 expo, Craig Holt of Atlas Coffee Importers and the CQI, and Andrew Hetzel of CQI, gathered a group together for a cupping of a new coffee. It was a cupping that impressed Chris Miller, lead roaster for the specialty chain La Colombe Coffee.

“Cuppings are usually a pretty quiet affair, and being the initial offering we really didn’t know what to expect… but by the second time I went through, the room was getting loud… and everyone stuck around to talk about it,” he says.

He knew there was something special about the clean taste of the beans, and so he approached Andrew Hetzel and Craig Holt about buying the coffee.

“[Chris] is ultimately the reason we are all standing here today,” Andrew Hetzel explains.

La Colombe Coffee

The first imported specialty coffee from Myanmar, roasted by La Colombe Coffee.

Two Years to Reach Specialty

Yet the story of how Myanmar’s coffee came to the US started not in La Colombe in 2016, but in Myanmar in 2013. It began with two people: Rick Peyser, a volunteer with USAID’s Farmer-to-Farmer program, and Steve Walls, Chief of Party for the Value Chains for Rural Development Program for Winrock International, an organization brought in by USAID that delivers market-based solutions to improve development.

The Value Chains for Rural Development program works to advance smallholder farmers in the production of a variety of types of agriculture. And as luck would have it, Steve Walls is also a coffee lover.

Winrock International engaged the Coffee Quality Institute to consult on a five-year project, and CQI now assists in teaching good agricultural practices, providing technical assistance, and training on harvesting processes and processing techniques.

“We came up with a very simple message: take care of your plants, pick ripe cherries only, and sun dry them on raised beds. That’s how in two years we were able to get this product,” Walls said proudly.

Cupping Competitions in Myanmar

As it stood, many of the coffee farmers in Myanmar didn’t consume coffee themselves. However, CQI knew that that from this they would gain insight into how to improve their product. So along with other training programs, in 2015 they established a cupping competition to help the Myanmar coffee industry evaluate their beans.

They worked with a man called Thu Zaw from the newly established Myanmar Coffee Association. This organization is still young, but it assisted in hosting the cupping competitions through the provision of equipment and a venue. As for Thu Zaw, he didn’t realize that Myanmar was sitting on a coffee gem until the association learned how to properly cup and taste their beans.

Steve Walls explains, “Of the approximately 60 we cupped, about 20 scored as specialty, and that’s without doing anything. The next year, 57 of the 66 scored specialty, and that is really amazing. It’s a re-imagination of the Burma coffee industry as the next new specialty origin.”

Myanmar Coffee

Steve Walls talks to a reporter about Myanmar’s specialty coffee.

Sustainability Is the Goal

The atmosphere during the unveiling was energetic and hopeful. There was enthusiasm about both the quality of the coffee and the positive influence this import would have on smallholder farmers, especially women.

“What a wonderful way for Myanmar to present itself. What a positive thing to put out there, this sensory experience. I for one am extremely happy to have the opportunity to talk about what a wonderful place Myanmar is,” quipped Craig Holt, CEO and founder of Atlas Coffee.

Craig Holt has such faith in Myanmar’s potential as a coffee-producing region that he heavily invested his own time and resources to make the project successful. He personally assisted with the final processing and packaging of the beans before the coffee was loaded onto the containers in Myanmar.

Yet emphasis was also placed on the need to make the Myanmar coffee industry sustainable in the long run. The Value Chains for Rural Development program in Myanmar is funded up until 2019. CQI will play a major role as they continue to plan initiatives that will improve quality and productivity, as well as making linkages to the market through events like the SCAA expo.

And revealing Myanmar as a specialty coffee-producing region, as they did at the event in La Colombe, will help to keep this momentum going.

“In Myanmar, agriculture is really the key to the future… rarely do we get to go from the field to an event like this,” says Justin Finnegan, Deputy Assistant Administrator in USAID’s Bureau for Food Security, on the value of this exposure.

Craig Holt

Craig Holt shares his admiration for Myanmar as Andrew Hetzel looks on.

The Way Forward

The event in Washington DC drew to a close but Myanmar coffee is just getting started in the international arena. USAID is merely two years into a five-year project that has already enriched the lives of over 6,000 people in Myanmar, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of everything they’ve achieved to date.

Education, investment in infrastructure, and an awareness of coffee quality will keep the market fresh and the production chains moving in positive directions. There’s a lot that this newly exposed coffee scene can bring to the specialty scene – and a lot that specialty can bring to Myanmar.

sample Myanmar’s coffee

Guests sample Myanmar’s coffee at La Colombe Coffee in Washington, DC.

Where Can You Buy This Coffee?

The initial import of Myanmar specialty coffee will be available at Nordstrom Ebars;  Whole Foods Markets through their coffee producers, Allegro; Kaldi’s Coffee Roasters in Kansas City, MO; Rojo’s Coffee Roastery in Princeton, NJ; Central Markets in Texas through their coffee producers, Little City Coffee Roasters; and La Colombe Coffee Roasters, both in stores and online.

All photos by D. Kilbride.

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