Naturals Pouring on Drying Beds

China Specialty Coffee – Awakening the Dragon

In Information Article by Joshua Jagelman

Naturals Pouring on Drying Beds
Naturals being poured onto raised beds at Banka coffee farm, Menglian, Yunnan, China

Although the Chinese proverb “Long Fei Feng Wu” (Flying Dragon, Dancing Phoenix) describes masterful calligraphy, it’s also a sarcastic reference to sloppy handwriting. Admittedly, the epithet, “Made in China” is not yet a compliment when it comes to specialty coffee, but that’s changing and it’s changing fast!

In 2015, when the first full container of China Specialty Coffee was exported into Australia for Pablo & Rusty’s Specialty Coffee Roasters, it was used only for blends. However, in 2018, industry specialty coffee roasters such as Irving Farm and La Colombe in the USA and Square Mile [in the UK, are now proudly serving up China single origin coffees with fantastic feedback from both industry professionals and casual drinkers alike.

What’s So Special About Single Origin?

Brix readings on coffee cherries in Myanmar
Taking Brix readings (sugar content) on coffee cherries in Myanmar

So, why is the term “Single Origin” the Specialty Coffee Industry’s way of giving its seal of approval to a coffee? Well, when a coffee can be served as a Single Origin, it means that the coffee has a unique profile that is good enough to be experienced by itself; it doesn’t need to be blended with other coffees or, heaven forbid, have milk and sugar added!

Over time, different coffee Origins develop a reputation for a particular kind of coffee profile. For example, Indonesian coffees are often characterized by low acidity, high body and pleasant earthy flavors. Papua New Guinean coffees are generally regarded as sweet and clean. Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer, is recognized by its chocolaty and nutty flavor notes. African nations, such as Ethiopia and Kenya, are famous for producing coffees that are bright, complex and fruity.

I recently asked a barista in Melbourne (Australia) to tell me about their filter coffee. She replied, “Well, it’s a Brazilian, but it tastes a heck of a lot like an African Natural.” By likening the coffee to a specific origin (and processing method), the savvy coffee drinker can know what kind of taste experience to expect from the coffee. And that’s the reward of becoming a Single Origin coffee – the Origin becomes ubiquitous with a particular (and desirable) coffee profile.

When did China Start Producing Exportable Volumes of Specialty Coffee?

Raised drying beds
Placing naturals on raised drying beds at Mangzhang coffee farm, Menglian, Yunnan, China

As best we can tell, the first legal and successful export of a full container of China Specialty Coffee from Menglian, Yunnan occurred in 2015 under a partnership between Mangzhang Coffee Farms, Yunnan Coffee Traders and Pablo & Rusty’s Specialty Coffee Roasters. Leading up to this time, we were busy running around trying to convince industry folks to, “Try some samples of Yunnan Specialty Coffee.”  One roaster, who shall remain nameless, retorted, “Don’t you mean China specialty tea? They don’t make specialty coffee in China!”  No, we meant specialty coffee – and it’s come a long way in recent years!  Two current achievements for China Specialty Coffee include selection as the “Portrait Country” in the 2018 Specialty Coffee Association Trade Show (USA) and host to the inaugural Specialty Coffee Symposium in Pu’er, Yunnan (China) [] – with industry legends such as Atlas Coffee, Sustainable Harvest and the ICO’s Jose Sette all giving keynote addresses.

What are the Unique Characteristics of China Specialty Coffee?

Picking catimor coffee cherries
Picking catimor coffee cherries at Mangzhang coffee farm, Menglian, Yunnan, China.

While participation in big-name specialty coffee events is certainly a good sign, let’s face it, we still need to know what China Specialty Coffee actually tastes like! What makes it unique? Why is it now being taken seriously as an Emerging Single Origin? I put these questions to Tim Heinze (Yunnan Coffee Traders) and Hu Xixiang (Mangzhang Farms), who 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 China 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 washed 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.”

The Unique Yunnan Flavor Profile

Okay, now we’re talking! Anecdotally, we’ve heard industry professionals liken Yunnan coffee to a Columbian washed coffee; however, we are consistently seeing a fragrance profile in the coffee that is unique to Yunnan: f

  • black tea
  • baker’s chocolote
  • fragrant spices
  • dried cherries
  • soft nutiness

When I nudged Tim Heinze for a one-liner to describe Yunnan coffees, he answered, “a good quality Yunnan coffee profile will be balanced, sweet, and have some unique fragrance reflective of region and processing choices. It’s also possible to find some complex acidities (malic and phosphoric) in the higher elevations.”

How did China Specialty Coffee Production get to where it is Today?

Yunnan Coffee Traders team
Some of the Yunnan Coffee Traders team: Tim Heinze, Hu Xixiang, Joshua Jagelman

So, how did China coffee go from being the darling of the instant coffee industry to emerging as a genuine Single Origin in less than a decade? Three key activities took place: the ‘Catimor myth’ was challenged; quality improvement technologies were introduced at the wet mill; and access to professional development was made available to farmers.

Challenging the Catimor Myth

            The 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!

Introducing Quality Improvement Technologies at the Wet Mill

Picker bracelets colored to match perfectly ripe catimor coffee cherries
Picker bracelets colored to match perfectly ripe catimor coffee cherries.

            The saying goes, “Techniques are taught, and tools are bought.” This usually means that its 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!

Creating Access to Training for Farmers

Hu Xixiang, Mangzhang coffee farms, Menglian, Yunnan, China
Hu Xixiang, Mangzhang coffee farms, Menglian, Yunnan, China

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).

            Thanks for taking the time to learn more about China as an Emerging Specialty Origin. May your next Made in China specialty coffee taste like a Flying Dragon and Dancing Phoenix!