September 11, 2020

The Increasing Quality Of Chinese-Grown Coffee


Chinese coffee cultivation covered more than 1.2 billion square meters in 2016. In the same year, China grew more than 140,000 tons of coffee – roughly 1.5% of all coffee produced in the world.

Until recently, the majority of Chinese-grown coffee was renowned as being cheaper and generally of lower quality. It was exported globally, mainly through companies like Starbucks and Nestlé. 

However, over the past decade, smaller Chinese coffee farms have not only  started to produce better quality coffee, they have also become more sustainable. To explore this trend, I spoke with Joshua Jagelman, Tom Mitchell and Paul Hoey.

Lee este artículo en español El Aumento en la Calidad Del Café Cultivado en China

The Recent Increase In Quality

The main growing region in China is the Yunnan Province, located in the southwestern part of the country. In total, the province produces some 138 million kilograms of coffee (2.3 million 60kg bags) a year. Yunnan accounts for more than 97% of all Chinese-grown coffee.

Coffee was first cultivated in China in the late 1800s on a small scale. Production started to grow throughout the 1960s and spiked in the 1980s. Since 2015, Chinese coffee production has grown, on average, by 13.7% a year. 

However, Yunnan coffee struggled to sell by itself in the early days. Joshua Jagelman is the co-founder and Managing Director of Yunnan Coffee Traders. He says: “Early on, Yunnan coffee tried to go to the market as a single-origin. It had to compete against some established coffees and established flavour profiles.

“Even though some of the micro-lots did well, as soon as [it] went to volume, they couldn’t compete.”

Joshua says that adding Yunnan coffee into blends helped to solidify its place in the market: “When sold as [part of a] blend, it got a lot more traction. Then, as people became more confident, they started to experiment with it on its own. 

“There are some unique flavours… ‘strawberries and cream’ is a classic profile from the region.” 

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Today, Yunnan coffee often has a notable sweetness and unique mouthfeel. “Distinctive for its tropical fruits profile, it’s also a great swap out for a mild washed coffee,” Joshua tells me. “For its price point, it has a really good body and plays well in just about any blend.”

Thanks to an increase in quality and its distinctive flavour profiles, Yunnan coffee is performing better and better on its own, rather than as part of a blend. “We’re now in the process of branding it as a single-origin,” Joshua says.

“Local production has improved, quality and volume have improved, and we’re now seeing some 85, 86, 87, even 88 scored coffees coming out that can be produced at larger volumes. 

“However, the real evidence that things are changing is in the significant improvements in consistency. The same flavour profiles are now being delivered year-on-year, even at large volumes.”

Catimor: A Mainstay In Yunnan

As a hybrid of the Caturra and Timor varieties, Catimor has some genetic roots in the canephora (robusta) species which provides it with a greater resistance to disease. 

This makes it especially suitable for growth in China, where coffee leaf rust is a common issue. Catimor also has a comparatively high yield, producing an average of between 3 and 5.25 tons per hectare per year.

However, Catimor plants tend to grow much more quickly than other varieties. This can result in a less flavourful coffee, as the sugars don’t have the time to fully develop.

This means there is some stigma surrounding the quality of Catimor, but Tom Mitchell, President of Strategic Coffee Concepts and organiser of the Pu’er International Specialty Expo, explains why Chinese Catimor is often of a higher quality.

“Catimor doesn’t have a great reputation, but the Catimor grown in China is really good, comparatively. This is because the cooler nights in China allow the cherries to grow more slowly. Some of the 85 coffees [we are seeing] are Catimors.”

However, despite the variety’s success in China, Tom believes that farmers will begin to switch to other varieties in the next few years. “I think that we will see a slow shift away from Catimor, but it will be a slow process because of the economics of replanting.”

Joshua tells me that he has seen other varieties be successful in China. “While Typica has struggled, on our research and development plots, we have Bourbons and Pacamaras which are doing well.

“We’ll see Bourbons do well in the next couple of years, and the first commercial volumes of Chinese Bourbon will start to become available,” he adds.

A Move Towards Natural Processing

Washed processing is the most common method in China, but more farmers are moving towards natural processing to experiment. However, Joshua says that it has not been easy. “We have been producing naturals for a few years. This year, we did at least 20 tons, which was large for us.

“People want more [Chinese naturals], but the cost of production is really high and getting that consistency is difficult. The consumer isn’t willing to pay a price that makes it worthwhile for farmers.”

He notes that it’s important for Chinese producers to consider how able they are to use different processing techniques. “It depends on the size of the farm and your existing infrastructure. 

“Getting the production ratio correct for any given farm is a challenge. It’s not about preferring washed or natural coffees; it’s about taking into consideration the factors that will result in greater sustainability.”

Improving Sustainability

Even with this recent increase in quality, coffee production in China still faces a lot of challenges. For starters, there is a lack of infrastructure that limits growing capacity.  As well as this, many farmers still rely on outdated or ineffective processing equipment that can hinder quality. Finally, despite washed processing being the most popular method, there are a lot of droughts in Yunnan. 

Tom tells me there is an issue with scale for most of the smaller farmers. He says: “Most of these farms cannot produce enough coffee to even process it themselves. These producers often then align themselves with a certain village [or larger coffee producing community]. Sometimes it’s tribal; they act like a co-op and work with between 50 and 500 farms.

“The individual farmers bring their coffee to the central business which handles the processing and marketing. However, these middle groups have only been in business for 10 to 12 years, so their experience in how to process, market, sell and store coffee is limited,” he says.

Joshua adds that quality and sustainability are linked, and that it’s important to recognise the need to improve both. “When we hear the term ‘improving coffee’ the natural thought that we go to is improving the quality of coffee on the Q scale,” he tells me. 

“But improvement in Yunnan coffee is also about achieving consistency, determining the cost of production on the farms, and improving general practices around the wet and the dry mill.”

Growing Interest From The Specialty Sector

In recent years, there has been an increase in interest for Chinese coffee from specialty roasters and consumers. More and more Yunnan coffees are appearing on menus. 

Paul Hoey is the Head Roaster at Vagabond Coffee Roasters in North London. He tells me how Vagabond started sourcing Chinese coffee.

“We had the opportunity to try samples from Yunnan a couple of years back through a fantastic importer named IndoChina, which really impressed us! We’ve since stayed close and continue to source through them, with two Chinese coffees currently on our shelves and next year’s options on the cupping table for consideration.”

The natural processed Ou Yang is one of the Yunnan coffees on offer at Vagabond. Paul tells me that the farm uses fermentation techniques similar to those in South America. They rinse the cherries and place them in plastic bags, using “reposado” fermentation, allowing the heat to accelerate the chemical reactions.

“The cup profile has always been on the fuller, more intense, and somewhat funkier side, and the processing is definitely instrumental for those characteristics,” Paul tells me. “We are in the second year of working with this coffee, and we think it’s only getting better.”

Joshua says that the practice of cultivating Catimor to specialty standards allows its best characteristics to shine through. “Traditionally, Catimors were a commodity-quality coffee,” He says. “However, we quickly realised that they have never been given a chance for specialty. When we treat the coffee differently – as we would with any specialty product – it performs well.” 

Yunnan Catimors tend to have a medium-high body, with high levels of acidity. Yunnan naturals can have notes of fudge, plum, and black tea, while washed Yunnans produce notable fruity flavours with a clean acidity.

The Future For Chinese-Grown Coffee

Over half of Yunnan’s coffee production is concentrated in the region of Pu’er, which creates the potential to grow even more coffee. Tom says: “The region has [an almost] unlimited amount of land. They have this huge potential to grow more coffee… there’s no reason why farmers there can’t produce 10 or 15 million bags a year.”

Paul adds that the unique nature of Chinese coffee helps to increase consumer interest and market power. “Historically, it’s been an unusual origin,” he says. “And I think that appeals a lot to some people.

“I’ve heard many consumers state that they weren’t aware of China’s ability to produce coffee, and that they find that understandably intriguing! On top of that, the coffee is very good and improving fast.”

And what about the future for internal consumption? Well, the number of coffee shops in China has doubled in the last five years alone. Coffee consumption within China is increasing rapidly. This trend has been attributed to Chinese millennials, who have been more exposed to Western culture than their elders.

The younger generations are not only pushing for higher quality in cafés, but also on Chinese farms, Tom says. “Younger people coming back to the farms are getting more involved. Many of them are well educated, [with] formal business training, and they understand globalism as they have been to big cities.

“They are driving this change… once they started working on the farms, quality started to increase even faster.”

Despite the challenges that farmers face, the demand for and quality of Chinese coffee is increasing at an astounding rate. As producers take more opportunities to invest and implement more sustainable farming practices, they could definitely capitalise on this potential. 

So, next time, you visit your roaster or head to a local specialty coffee shop, ask if they have any Chinese coffee in stock. The quality may well surprise you.

Enjoyed this? Then read Entering China’s Emerging Coffee Market

Photo credits: @therightroast, Joshua Jagelman

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