Mangzhang Coffee Harvester

Building a Specialty Coffee Export Business

In Information Article, Interview by Timothy Heinze

Green coffee awaits export from the dry mill in Pu'er - in the specialty coffee export business, both quality and consistency are really important.

Interview with Pu’er Coffee Magazine

Thinking back to the beginning of your company, how was the brand established? And what is the meaning of the company name and logo?

Although our team had already been working alongside farmers to improve the quality of coffee since 2007, Yunnan Coffee Traders didn’t become an ‘official’ coffee export business until its first export in 2014. Small pockets of specialty coffee could be found across Yunnan, but no one had ever successfully exported 20 tons of Yunnan specialty coffee to the global market.

YCT Registered Trademark
YCT Registered Trademark

While we certainly had our challenges and failures in the early days, we also had great partners on the ground and across the oceans who were committed to doing what was needed to get Yunnan specialty coffee onto the world stage. In 2014, we exported to one country, but five years later we are now exporting all over the world!

Keeping the coffee export business Simple

When thinking about our name and logo, we just wanted to keep it simple and to the point – Yunnan. Coffee. Traders.  When people see our name, they know exactly where we are and what we do.  We rank on the first page of Google and have close to 2000 organic followers on Instagram (@YunnanCoffeeTraders), which isn’t bad when you consider we’re a China-based specialty coffee exporter!

Keeping the coffee export business Real

As for our logo, it depicts the “Mountains of Yunnan” and the “Colors of the Coffee Process”. The five mountains and colors are also symbolic – they represent the five mandates of our company: Love the Bean, Justify the Chain, Polish the Links, Engage the Community, and Enjoy the Journey. While these are just simple tag-lines, they represent much deeper and powerful values and commitments. If you’re interested in learning more about our mandates, you can find the details on our website.

In the process of starting a business, there must be a lot of interesting stories. Can you share a memorable story from that time?

In the early days, people couldn’t believe how much money a 60 kg bag of specialty coffee was worth compared to commercial grade coffee; one bag alone was worth about RMB 2000 (which was more than one month salary for someone on minimum wage in Pu’er at the time). So, for our first exports, our CEO, Tim Heinze, used to sleep on the 60 kg bags each night while we were waiting for the trucks to pick up the coffees. While it seems laughable now as an established coffee export business, it was exactly that kind of commitment that changed the coffee profile of a nation! Seven years ago, if you mentioned, “China specialty coffee,” people would retort, “What’s that?” But these days, everyone is like, “Wow! Where can we get some!?” 

After five years of trading, what is your current situation?

Perhaps, this question is best answered with a few comparisons.  In 2014, we exported approximately 20 tons of coffee to one country. In 2018, we exported over 200 tons across the globe! In 2014, our best coffees were cupping at 83. In 2018, our best coffee cupped at 87. And we don’t mean just a few tons, we mean tens of tons of coffee cupping really high all of the time! We are really proud of the quality and consistency that we’ve been able to maintain for large volumes of coffee. However, it’s the fact that companies such as Sustainable Harvest, Square Mile, IndoChina, Farmer Bros, and Pablo & Rusty’s choose to work with us that shows the greatest proof of our progress and gives us immense satisfaction.

What are your business plans for the future?

We’ve already fulfilled our dream of becoming the largest coffee export business for specialty coffee out of Yunnan; and now we need to keep working hard and smart to maintain this. Best of all, this achievement has turned into an effective platform to really help local farmers who want to succeed in producing and selling specialty coffee.

Harvesting ripe catimor coffee cherries at Mangzhang coffee farm in Menglian, Yunnan, China.
Harvesting ripe catimors at Mangzhang coffee farms in Menglian, Yunnan, China.

Now that we understand who we are and what we’re good at, we are more intentionally turning our focus on custom-building solutions for our clients – who are usually importers and large roasters. These businesses don’t just need quality coffee, they need specific and consistent flavor profiles to deliver to their own clients. With Q Graders and Q Processors on our team – at origin – we are really well positioned to help our clients solve one of the biggest challenges in the import business, namely, consistency across large volumes of coffee!

We want to see better management practices at the farm level, the use of technologies to improve quality, and the ongoing incorporation of waste-reduction practices in production.

What’s New for 2019?

In 2019, Yunnan Coffee Traders will be commencing CQI Q Processing L1 and L2 Courses to better equip Yunnan coffee farmers (and, of course, farmers from other regions are welcome too!) We are also stepping up the preparation and supply of organic waste material to our partner Huskee, the inventors and producers of the incredible HuskeeCup.

The amazing HuskeeCup created in partnership between Yunnan Coffee Traders and Huskee - featuring coffee husk as a raw material.
The amazing HuskeeCup – featuring recycled coffee husk as a raw material

Finally, we plan to step up research and development projects with Matt Bentley from the University of Colorado, Boulder, USA. He has already done some amazing work with coffee waste to make fuel briquets, biochar water treatments, and organic fertilizers.  We want to see each of these projects go through to full commercialization as well as launch a few new projects!

This article is an adaption from an interview with Pu’er Coffee Magazine, Dec 2018

Building a Specialty Coffee Export Business
Article Name
Building a Specialty Coffee Export Business
An interview with Puer Coffee Magazine discussing the startup of the brand and coffee export business as well as current operations and focus areas for the company.