Caixin
Apr 13, 2021 11:39 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Photo Essay: The Bitter Taste of Yunnan Coffee

Coffee farmer Li Faneng and wife Luo Dafeng pick coffee cherries in the fields of Nanping Town, Pu'er City, Yunnan Province.
Coffee farmer Li Faneng and wife Luo Dafeng pick coffee cherries in the fields of Nanping Town, Pu'er City, Yunnan Province.

Getting off the expressway from Pu'er City, southwest China, passing a roundabout trail, and climbing the mountains for over three hours, coffee trees planted on steep hillsides along the road will lead visitors to Sanqiutian Village.

Ubiquitous coffee farms outside the village extend to the valley. Occasionally, coffee pickers sling bamboo baskets, walk between the dense and plump coffee trees, and disappear in a flash.

Sanqiutian is one of the remote villages in Yunnan province where people cultivate coffee trees for a living. Coffee trees in Yunnan mostly grow in mountainous regions with an altitude of 800 to 1,500 meters.

Coffee growing in the inland province can be traced back to 1904 when French missionary Tian De Neng brought a few Arabica plants to Yunnan in hopes of having a small cup of coffee a day. In 1988, food giant Nestle introduced standardized coffee planting, picking, and processing techniques into Pu’er, setting off the commercialization of the local coffee industry.

Now, Yunnan accounts for nearly 99% of China’s coffee production. However, coffee farmers in Yunnan have generally been left out from the country’s coffee industry boom and earned slim profit margins due to the opaque pricing system.

Chinese people now drink more than 10 billion cups of coffee every year. However, coffee farmers in the country earn only 0.2 yuan ($0.03) from each cup of coffee sold at 20 yuan, less than what they earned ten years ago, industry research showed. Declining coffee bean prices worldwide over the past few years have forced some Yunnan farmers to quit coffee cultivation to seek higher profits from other plants.

2

A deserted terrace next to the Xiaoaozi Coffee Plantation. According to local coffee growers, the hillside was originally planted with coffee trees.

In a bid to survive, some coffee plantations in Yunnan have strived to promote their own brands while introducing Western industry standards into their production in hopes of shifting to a more sophisticated, boutique-style coffee business to meet higher-end market demands. But such a transformation is not easy for small coffee farms.

3

When the tea picking season approaches, coffee pickers are in short supply. Two coffee pickers decide to give up their job because of the difficult topography and low yield of coffee fruit.

The raw taste

A small workshop built with iron sheds is located at the entrance of Sanqiutian Village. At around 5 pm, an elderly woman who had picked fresh coffee cherries squatted in front of the workshop, drinking tea and chatting. Yang Jianxiong, a 45-year-old man with thick gray hair, runs this coffee processing plant with his family. Yang’s son is responsible for the washing vat and the dryer. His wife, daughter-in-law, and other helpers go to the field to pick coffee cherries. Yang is involved in every aspect of the work, and he also drives a large truck to buy fresh cherries on other coffee farms.

Yang purchased around 70 acres of land years ago when coffee prices were high. He did not expect the price drop in the next year, causing him to incur a huge debt. When large coffee processing plants shut down one after another, Yang and farmers from Mojiang, a county 100 kilometers away from Sanqiutian, held on together. Yang made the business transition from a grower to a middleman in coffee purchasing and processing while waiting for coffee prices to rebound.

4

Yang Jianxiong drives a large truck and goes from house to house in the mountains to buy fresh coffee cherries. It's getting dark after Yang visits the last house in Sanqiutian Village.

When guests visit, Yang always takes out a large bag of roasted coffee powder, adds sugar, and uses a yellowed teapot to serve it. Yang has never heard of professional coffee tasting methods and does not know how to evaluate specialty coffee. According to his practice for many years, fresh cherries are sorted according to their maturity, and then the pulp is washed to obtain raw beans. The better-quality beans are put into a large vat for drying, and others are spread out on the ground to dry. The drying vat is about two meters high. Yang and his son have to climb into it every once in a while. They use a rake to flip the beans to help them dry evenly. Yang believes the full and clean beans make the finest coffee.

6

Yang Jianxiong takes a carriage full of fresh coffee cherries home, and his son unloads them into the sink.

However, this rough processing method makes it difficult to guarantee the quality of coffee beans. For example, in the drying process, beans are spread near the barn to save space, which makes it easy to mix the beans with other materials. Besides, when picking coffee cherries, pickers put all the cherries into the same basket regardless of their maturity. These processing methods lead to the inconsistent quality of Yunnan coffee.

5

After Yang Jianxiong counts the weight of the fresh cherries purchased from the growers, he jumps on the platform scale and weighs himself. He carries his money in the plastic bag and says the money is heavier than he is.

Huge potential

In the long coffee industrial chain, planting and consumption are the two ends, but farmers and consumers do not know much about each other. Few farmers have tasted their coffee beans, and they can hardly imagine a good cup of coffee can be sold for 30 to 40 yuan or even higher in large cities.

7

A coffee picker rests in the coffee field after lunch in Sanqiutian Village.

For a long time, farmers lacked enthusiasm for growing high-quality coffee beans. Through exhibitions, training courses, and coffee bean contests organized by industry associations, some coffee farmers realize that they must learn more about coffee to communicate with customers.

8

When picking coffee cherries, workers squeeze all the fruit down along the branches to improve efficiency. Leaves and coffee flowers are mixed with cherries, which makes sorting harder in the later stage.

9

Coffee bean drying yard on the mountainside in Puyi Town, Ning'er County.

Liao Xiugui, an 80-year-old coffee farmer in Pu’er, witnessed the changes in Yunnan’s coffee industry and created a unique coffee farm and a specialty coffee brand. In Liao’s Xiaoaozi Coffee Plantation, visitors are invited to take a farm tour and hear Liao’s explanation of several coffee varieties in the plantation. The guests learn about the entire process of coffee production from planting, picking, processing, to roasting.

10

Liao Xiugui brews the specialty coffee of the plantation to treat guests from afar in Xiaoaozi Coffee Plantation.

In recent years, Yunnan coffee appeared more and more frequently in cafe shops in major Chinese cities. After Starbucks established a plantation in Yunnan in 2012, the U.S. coffee chain has introduced Yunnan coffee beans into its coffee menus.

With the improvement of living standards and coffee tasting awareness, Chinese coffee consumption is growing. Industry data show the average annual growth rate of coffee consumption in China is 15%, compared to the world's average growth of 2%.

Despite the huge market potential, coffee farmers in Yunnan still have a long way to go to build up their brands, as high-quality coffee like the beans sold by Liao’s Xiaocaozi Coffee Plantation account for less than 20% of Yunnan’s total coffee production.

The article is translated by Hao Shuai

Contact editor Han Wei (weihan@caixin.com)

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