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Brewing up something special in Yunnan
By Zhu Jing

A cup of coffee is not just a welcome pick-me-up — there’s a whole culture based around the bean that plays a huge part in many people’s lives. This Shanghai Daily column offers an introduction to coffee culture: from bean varieties to famous producing areas; from brewing to tasting to terminology; from the drink’s history to up-to-the-moment city café choices. So make yourself a cup, relax and read on.

Casual coffee drinkers may be surprised to learn Yunnan Province is becoming a major growing region of beans for their caffeine beverage of choice.


Yunnan is no longer famous for its exquisite Pu’er tea, the Stone Forest and other gorgeous landscapes. Media agencies such as Forbes, The Economist, and the Financial Times have run features about the coffee in Yunnan. The name Yunnan is now printed on the menu of single origin coffee at hundreds of coffee shops across the country and is among the most popular coffee beans sold online in China.

European missionaries planted the first coffee plant ever grown in Yunnan more than 100 years. But the coffee didn’t earn much attention until Nestle, the world’s biggest food company, started teaching farmers in the province to grow coffee in 1988. Under the ongoing program, Nestle provides training, scholarships and other support to farmers, including purchasing coffee directly from them.

Meanwhile, Starbucks has partnered with the local government and set up a joint venture with local companies in Yunnan. It also established a farmer support center in 2012 to offer technical assistance to growers and improve the quality of coffee beans. The coffee chain also sells “South of Clouds Blend,” a Yunnan coffee.

Look for the term “Manlao” when perusing single origin coffee menus. It refers to the Manlao River in Pu’er City. In 1997, project Manlao River, a non-profit poverty alleviation program, was initiated by the Yunnan government and a food company. The project aims to help poor farmers find a new way to making a living. Under the project, thousands of farmers have been relocated to a 10,000 hectare rainforest and started working on organic farming, from which they earn more than before. Manlao River Coffee is the first Chinese coffee to be used in the World Barista Competition and features in many domestic and international competitions.

It is said that around 98 percent of coffee produced in China is grown in Yunnan. Most of the beans are exported. Many cafés around the world have started using the beans in their espresso blends. Yunnan coffee is gaining popularity in both domestic and overseas markets with annual production equaling that of Costa Rica and totaling about one tenth of Colombia’s output. The mild taste of Yunnan beans is reminiscent of the beans from Honduras or Guatemala but the strong chocolate aftertaste makes them distinct.

In major coffee growing areas such as Pu’er, Baoshan and Lincang, October to February is the busiest season for farmers as they have to handpick coffee cherries.

On the market you can now get both dry and wet processed beans. As more and more international coffee companies have sought joint ventures with local farms and cooperatives, the coffee industry in Yunnan is booming on all front — growing, processing, roasting and distribution.

Yunnan coffee has also smashed the stereotype that the bulk of coffee produced in Asia is Robusta — the variety used to make instant coffee.

World Barista Competition

Every year, champions representing more than 50 nations and regions participate in the World Barista Competition, a pre-eminent international coffee competition held in Seattle. Each competitor has to prepare four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four original signature drinks to exacting standards in a 15-minute performance set to music. The 2015 champion is Sasa Sestic from Australia while Chan Kwun Ho from Hong Kong finished fourth.

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