Today Myanmar is the most vibrant and colorful country with more tourists entering this nation in order to learn the mystic past and modern present of this Buddhist dominated nation. Besides jade, gems, oil and natural gas, Myanmar recently went on the map of specialty coffee scene when the first samples were introduced back in 2016 cupping gathering at La Colombe in Philadelphia with collaboration of Winrok International, Atlas Coffee Importers, USAID, and CQI represented by Andrew Hetzel.
Before coming to Myanmar I knew little about this country situation after political climate shifted to more milder and approachable way of discovering the nation that rapidly went from poverty into modernization on the global scale. Yangon as former capital of Myanmar is very hot and humid and makes it very unpleasant to wander around not to feel sweaty and tired, nevertheless, lovely and welcoming to be mesmerized by gorgeous pagodas surrounding the former capital.
My main goal was to understand and learn from the first hand about the specialty coffee market of Myanmar, its present and future, and efforts implemented by Winrok International along with USAID to change the practice of better agricultural development, and the initiative to help local coffee farmers to earn more and produce the best out from the industry Myanmar could offer. After spending 2 days in Yangon, I booked myself an express bus to Mandalay, former royal capital located in the north of Myanmar with about 9 hours comfortable bus ride. From Mandalay I had to take a two hour taxi ride further north to Pyin Oo Lwin, a scenic hill town in Mandalay division, located in the Shan highland where most of great Myanmar coffees come from. The place is absolutely picturesque, lovely, with cooler climate then Yangon, peaceful with charm of former British rule. I got in touch with major coffee producer in that area, Sithar Coffee that were kind enough to embark with me on the journey of discovering the best of Myanmar coffee. I met with Sithar Managing Director, Min Hlaing who was with me throughout of my stay in Pyin Oo Lwin area to allow me to observe as much as information I could to have a better picture of work involved around coffee estates of the region.
What exactly happening in Myanmar coffee industry? According to Winrock International the USAID-funded Value Chain for Rural Development project integrates smallholders and poor rural household into competitive commercial value chains to increase productivity and achieve agricultural growth. It is a five year project that started in 2014 and ends in 2019. The main goal is to improve the way coffee picked, processed and eventually marketed in order to attract broader international audience with purchasing ability for coffee to be exported around the globe. Improving quality from production and processing through cupping, with the goal of producing high value specialty coffees for global market is one of the main goal of organizations like Winrock and USAID to be part of the revolutionized industry that previously left unattended due to political instability.
Coffee was introduced to Myanmar by missionaries in 1885, mostly robusta but in 1930 Roman Catholic missionaries brought Arabica coffee that was planted along the Southern/Northern Shan state and Pyin Oo Lwin district. According to the 1940 report from the Department of Agriculture of Burma, 95 tons of coffee were exported from Burma between 1932-1936. Previously, before USAID initiated project Myanmar coffee were mostly exported to China and Thailand for very cheap price where buyers won’t pay more than $2 per kg what I was told.
My first visit was to Sithar Coffee farm, Myanmar’s crop to cup coffee expert located on the elevation about 3,500 feet above sea level. The main varietals grown at Sithar are SL34, Catimore and S795 with Coffee Quality Institute’s cup Q-score above 83. Sithar is the largest investor of Mandalay Coffee Group (processing plant and USAID sponsored cupping lab that serves as exporter of Myanmar coffee as well. It was built with an efforts from local coffee farm community. Amy VanNocker of the US is current General Manager for the next two years of contract deal) and closely collaborating with Winrock, USAID, CQI, exporting green coffees to Japan, Europe, and recently to the US. Sithar promotes women’s group in coffee industry of Myanmar and employs industry’s top notch roasting technology from Dietrich. Besides producing coffee on its own plantation (40 acres with 40,000 coffee trees planted), Sithar buys coffees from other smallholders and resell it in domestic market for coffee shops across Myanmar. The proper picking is paramount for Sithar where only ripe cherries handpicked in order to preserve the aroma and taste of the terroir. Sithar uses fully washed process with natural and honey process initiated as well to highlight flavors of the origin. Fermentation process if carefully monitored to avoid any undesirable off flavors where after the fact they are naturally sun dried to moisture level of 11-12%. The most interesting fact I found in Pyin Oo Lwin area is most coffee farms have shade grown coffee which is the most important factor for proper cherry maturation and preservation of ecosystem and biodiversity. Sithar’s farm natural forest serves as shade protection for coffee trees while only bio-fertilizers are used without any chemical impact.
The perfect climate of Pyin Oo Lwin makes it a most desirable place for Arabica coffee to thrive with an optimum daily temperature of 68F and rainfall of about 55 inches per year.
When I had an opportunity to cup this year cupping competition winners of Myanmar at Mandalay Coffee Group I was shocked and more than surprised to find out that such varietals like Catimor and S795 that usually performed poorly in cupping table changed my perception of cultivar and hidden treasures behind certain varietals we know less about. Nobody argues that growing environment and varietals used to plant coffee tree will have the huge influence on cup quality and the yield. What I’ve heard here was that the yield of Myanmar coffee is low but the farms I visited in Pyin Oo Lwin area did not complain much about the yield rather than being happy of the production they receive every season.
My next stop was Ngu Shwe Lee Coffee farm in Pyin Oo Lwin. The farmer is Kyaw Sein. He owns 230 acres of coffee farm and has 1300 mostly SL34 varietal per acre planted. He took 4th place, if I am not mistaken in recent cupping competition in the natural process category. All coffee trees grown under the shade that allows slow maturation that would eventually manifest the results in the final cup. SL34 is high yield cultivar, and well known among specialty coffee professionals as one of the exceptional Kenyan varietal. This varietal was born in 1931 as mutation between Bourbon and Typica, and was introduced in order to withstand the heavy rain in the mountains. It has great flavor characteristic that range from fruity, berry and citrus alike. SL34 got to Myanmar as what I was told by local sources, directly from Kenya. Other varietals came from Brazil or elsewhere. Besides coffee he grows macadamia nuts as well.
Mr. Sein has about 50 people employed at the farm. Pickers mostly women because as he mentioned “women have more patience picking coffee then males, and they are more accurate in selection”. Pickers get paid roughly $0.10 per kilo. Mens do mostly sorting, removing floaters, de-pulping, and drying. They get paid $4.00 per day. There are still equality issues among gender here. As Mr. Sein said “women should get paid less than men”.
As most coffee farmers in Myanmar who engaged in producing high quality specialty coffee, they want to see better compensation for all hard labor and efforts they put in producing coffee that requires proper selection and processing in order to get paid premium. Most of the time buyers do not want to spend more than $4.00 per kilo for coffee from Myanmar with an exception of Atlas Coffee who bought the whole container of Myanmar coffee from different farms last year and paid $7.00 per kilo. That was the only time I was told that coffee from Myanmar got paid higher price and was exported outside of Myanmar to the western world.
Ngu Shwe Lee farm owner, Kyaw Sein recently got lucky and had signed the contract with Japanese coffee buyer who offered him $6.00 per kg for his natural process coffee and they secured 1 ton of his hard work. I am really happy for him, and hope he could find more buyers who appreciate the labor farmers put in order to produce quality and not quantity, and who can be rewarded for their tremendous job and love they put to make our morning cup more delicious.
This farm as I was told send some of picked coffees to Mandalay Coffee Group processing plant for further processing and drying, and some executed inside the facility, particularly natural and honey process.
The next in the itinerary is Blue Mountain Coffee farm located also in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar at the elevation of 3,632 feet above sea level. This farm is owned by Philie who was awarded 4th place this year cupping competition in washed process category. At his farm 25% of natural process handles inside the estate and the rest goes to Mandalay Coffee Group for the final process and post production. He does not have moisture meter in order to measure the % of moisture level inside the beans. Instead he uses old traditional technique by biting the bean, and if it’s hard it means its ready to be stored in the warehouse to get stabilized. His farm is 75 acres and has 1200 coffee trees planted per acre. Comparing to other coffee farms within Pyin Oo Lwin region I visited, Blue Mountain only produces T8667, Costa Rican varietal which known for high yields and resistance to leaf rust fungus. This varietal considered to be the child of Catimor. T8667 was introduced to Myanmar from Costa Rica in the late 1980’s by the Government.
Costa Rican T8667 varietal is basically a sub-cultivar of Catimor (developed in 1959 in Portugal to fight disease and produce high yield, and is natural cross between robusta and arabica – Caturra and Hybrido de Timor, from East Timor) known as short plant with very big berries and seeds.
It was nice chatting with Philie about specialty coffee and the future of coffee industry of Myanmar. I was able to help him to understand the various processing methods and how they can influence the cup. I have instructed him to try other processing methods not known to him and provide me with feedback. All coffees in Blue Mountain are shade grown and protected against sun exposure. He also harvests macadamia nuts and reveled me some interesting fact that apparently T8667 that grows under the shade of macadamia nuts produces much sweeter cherry then those that grows under regular trees.
The last stop of coffee farm journey was Green Land Coffee plantation. This farm started in 1999 with seeds imported from Costa Rica, varietal T8667. Nursery is planted largely with SL34, Kenyan varietal. Farm has 400 acres with 300 used for coffee. About 1200 trees per acre planted here. The farm received 2nd place in this year cupping competition in washed category. Farm also specializes in dry process. Washed process is typically 24 to 48 hours. During harvest season they employ 150 migrant workers. Most pickers are women and get paid $0.10 per kg. Men are in charge with processing, de-pulping and washing and get paid $4.00 per day. As the other farms I visited, Green Land involved in shade grown coffee.
The impact of sustainability, high quality performance of specialty coffee market in Myanmar is absolutely mind blowing. Everyone in the value chain is on the run to be recognizable, respected and do what is necessary to get top dollar for job that echoes in bringing Myanmar specialty coffee to the front line among other producing nations we know about. But some farmers I spoke to expressed their uncertainty about future of Myanmar coffee once the USAID sponsored project would be terminated in 2019. Who will be there to monitor and control production? How the marketing will be implemented? Who will be in charge to make sure that quality is not jeopardized. Farmers I spoke to want higher price for their specialty coffee due to intensive labor involved to produce high quality coffee, and they feel like international organizations and even US and European buyers take advantage of them. They are not reluctant to sell their coffee for $4 per kg and would like to have more compensation in order to sustain themselves for all efforts and labor they put to make coffee special. They want to see themselves being motivated, financially stable to provide their families and stay on float during off season.
Specialty coffee market of Myanmar is new and slowly developing but most specialty coffee shop owners I spoke to mentioned one thing to me that local consuming power demands dark roast rather than light because the habit and cultural etiquette of consuming coffee drink is rooted in old tradition. But, nevertheless, specialty coffee scene is moving forward. I visited Easy Coffee owned by young entrepreneurs from Singapore, Javier and Melissa Phua. They run their own roastery, Gentleman Coffee Roasters and two coffee shops in Yangon. Javier said that previously he was in finance in Singapore and used to come often to Myanmar, and idea was to move to the country and start new business. He embarked into coffee business without having any knowledge about coffee, quality, roasting and demand. But he just wanted to leave crazy and bustling, tiring life of Singapore. When he started his first coffee shop the original concept was to use Illy’s coffee and tea. After a while Javier realized that there is some potentials in specialty coffee market with proper equipments, correct ratios of coffee and water, extraction, execution and presentation, and that coffee is no longer was commodity but like any other agricultural product varies by seasonality and requires more in understanding flavor, terroir, and bring the best out of it. So, journey into specialty transformation of his coffee shop started. He started learning roasting with some mistakes and trials until he mastered his skilsl. New “third wave” movement underwent facelift of his specialty coffee shop, where manual pour over method, V60 was introduced to customers , something you do not see anywhere else in Yangon. Compare to other coffee producing regions where import of coffees from other regions is prohibited, Myanmar is more flexible when it comes to it. Coffee shops have an opportunity to import coffees from other producing regions, like Brazil, Costa Rica, Kenya, Ethiopia and sell them in domestic market. But the most shocking part of all this, the difficulty in finding Myanmar coffee in specialty coffee shops around Yangon. Amy VanNocker of Myanmar Coffee Group said that besides high quality coffee being exported to other countries, Myanmar coffee is expensive for local coffee shop owners to purchase and they shift to more less expensive coffees from other countries. She also underlined the fact that for locals coffee from Brazil, Ethiopia, Kenya sound more exotic and attractive even if its bad quality rather than coffee from Myanmar. But with the leadership of Sithar Coffee and Myanmar Coffee Group new plan was developed to keep high quality coffee of Myanmar within the local market for consumption in 50/50 range where customers (local or visitors) would also benefit in trying and understanding Myanmar coffee as demand is much higher now according to Javier Phua. Easy coffee is settled in nice and quiet residential area populated mostly by expats where you could meet people from UK, US, other European countries who made Myanmar their home. With an effort of Winrock Group, Javier was able to get Q class exam and finally became Q grader which helps him a lot when he travels to North to judge cupping competition of Myanmar’s best coffee. I had incredible opportunity to taste the coffee from 2016 1st place cupping competition winner that was brewed for me by Melissa Phua using V60. It was old coffee but it stood for its great flavor and gave me the first glimpse of how Myanmar coffee tastes. It was very juicy with delicate acidity, slight bitterness more like grapefruit, with plum and cranberries as the most dominant flavors. It was WOW moment to know you just discovered what you were looking for.
Next specialty coffee shop on the map was Coffee Circles located on Dhammazedi Road and owned by two brothers. Zaw-Phone, one of the brothers who owns the shop was in Vietnam judging Barista Competition by the time I came to Coffee Circles. We finally made an arrangement to meet and discuss specialty coffee scene of Myanmar. Comparing to Easy Coffee, Coffee Circles does not offer pour over option due to lack of demand for black coffee. Their customer base is oriented on espresso and milk beverage. Coffee Circles is lovely place in not so busy area of Yangon. Cute and welcoming location with nice decor. Cappuccino I ordered came with nice texture, taste of sweet caramel, milk chocolate and perfect velvety finish. Both brothers are graduates from the US and moved back to Myanmar to start introducing specialty coffee movement in their country. Besides coffee shop they also distribute coffee grinders, espresso machines, various coffee related equipments under the name of “Element Coffee” which is located across from Coffee Circles with barista school inside the premises for training and further developing barista carrier in Myanmar where it becomes more profession rather than job. Zaw-Phone want to see specialty coffee of Myanmar to be more recognizable among specialty coffee communities around the world as main destination for coffee lovers who come to the country not just to see coffee farms, or visit pagodas but being able to broaden their knowledge about what Myanmar has to offer when it comes to specialty coffee shops with properly trained and skilled baristas who also compete in local championship to showcase the possibilities of treasure hidden within the country. Barista Championship of Myanmar is not part of WCE due to lack of resources and organization structure within Specialty Coffee Association of Myanmar but it does have its own competition where the winner is representing Myanmar on broader Asian competition. The first Myanmar Barista Championship started in 2014 and was organized by Coffee Circles and Element Coffee Consulting and machine supplies.
Myanmar coffee has great potentials, more markets to conquer. The perfection of harvest, the meticulous sorting, explosive flavors puts Myanmar as a new specialty coffee region on the map of new discovery. I wish Myanmar a lot of success, more freedom in getting strong buyers with top dollar paid to those farmers who sacrifice what needed to make our coffee more special rather than commercial.
“The art of people is a true mirror of their mind”, Aung San Suu Kyi