Field Notes from Pu’er, China: Coffee Production in the Land of Tea

Coffee sorting at the Nestlé experimental and demonstration farm, near Jinghong, China

By Emma Sage, Coffee Science Manager, Specialty Coffee Association of America

This spring, I had the opportunity to visit China’s Yunnan Province to tour the region’s coffee farms. Yunnan Province is located in South-Central China and borders Vietnam, Burma, and Laos. It is a tropical region famous for its indigenous populations, green mountains, and (remaining) wildlife. The Tropic of Cancer actually runs through the province, which means this region is at the northern edge of the geographical area known to be acceptable for growing coffee. I had heard of Chinese-grown coffee, but I arrived with minimal knowledge of the market or local practices. We frequently hear about China’s fast-growing contribution to the world economy, so it should come as no surprise that I can confirm that the country’s coffee production is also on the rise and improving in terms of quality. I now consider it a true frontier in the coffee world, as beautiful as it is ripe with potential for specialty coffee production.

The region around Pu’er, China (known as Pu’er Prefecture) has the most concentrated production of coffee in Yunnan. This area is world-famous for its tea production and is also known for its terraced mountains and tropical climate. Although coffee has been grown in China for over one hundred years, worldwide awareness of the country as a real commercial force in this industry did not occur until recently. It seems that every coffee shop I visited in China had a ‘local’ Yunnan coffee within their single origin offerings. Exporting has also picked up due to growing international awareness and the arrival of several major coffee trading companies. Today, most Chinese coffee is grown in the Pu’er Prefecture, although there is also some coffee growing in other areas within Yunnan, such as Baoshan, Jinghong, Lincang, and Wenshan.

On my visit, it became clear that there was one company primarily responsible for this boom in Pu’er coffee: Nestlé. The Swiss company entered the province 25 years ago and soon developed big ideas with their leadership there. They have been supporting coffee development in the region since before 1992, when they established their permanent agricultural technical assistance office. This expanded to an experimental and demonstration farm, which has aided in both establishing agricultural practices for the region but has also served as a model farm for producers to strive towards. It is clear that the ethics, standards, and practices of Nestlé outreach have been admirable. During the past five years, the expansion of coffee in the region has progressed rapidly and has been widely publicized. Today approximately eighty thousand farmers are now growing coffee in Yunnan Province, most of those being smallholder farmers growing less than three hectares of coffee.

Farming Practices in Pu’er China

Although almost 40,000 hectares of coffee is planted in the Pu’er region, that is made up of many small farms. The average farmer is responsible for about three hectares of coffee, and each of these farmers takes personal responsibility for the year-round maintenance, harvesting, and processing of that coffee. Most are family-based units that invest in their own de-pupler, washing channels, fermentation and soaking tanks, drying areas, and milling system. Most coffee at the small farm level is hand-sorted to remove defects. Due to the historical events that have shaped China over the past century, this individual approach to processing is the preferred method and there is some resistance to co-ops and other collaborative farming and processing approaches.

Although the mountains in the Pu’er Prefecture reach up to 3000 meters, the elevation suitable for growing coffee is fairly low, from about 800 to 1,300 meters, as the cold affects higher regions and there is real danger of frost. The main coffee variety grown is Catimor, which is a hybrid cross between C. arabica and C. canephora. There are multiple Catimor lines available and Nestlé has distributed seeds of the most productive, resistant, and high-quality lines bred by their research department. It was explained to me that due to the severe and perpetual presence of Coffee Leaf Rust (Hemileia vastatrix) in the region, growing pure arabica varieties had not been possible in most areas. I saw first-hand evidence of this at a farm that was attempting to grow a small trial of Typica and Bourbon. The trees were clearly infected with Rust and looked unhealthy, sparse, and pale in comparison to the healthy Catimor lines growing just meters away. Nestlé has put many years of research into determining the exact line of Catimor that should be grown in this region and I certainly would not contradict this solid, experience-based decision. I can say that I tasted some good Catimor coffee on this trip and would defend the need for this approach.

Yield is high relative to many other coffee growing countries due to the local fertilization regimens, planting density, and coffee variety. Yunnan Province produced about 82,000 tons of coffee during the 2012/13 harvest, with the Pu’er region accounting for over 39,000 of that. Farms have been advised to fertilize 2-3 times per year due to poor, iron-laden, clay-rich soils in the area. Because of these factors, the Pu’er region averages over a ton of green coffee (~1960 kg) per hectare. From what I saw and heard, organic fertilizers were not yet available in the region and therefore organic certification has not been a priority. However, Nestlé’s 4C practices have influenced growers to improve environmental practices by planting shade trees, considering soil and water resources, installing wastewater treatment systems, among other efforts.

Parting Thoughts

As I toured small coffee farms in China, I was struck by the great potential of Pu’er to be an exporter of quality washed coffee. I will admit that most of the coffee produced in the region today is likely not specialty grade. However, the production, best-practices, and quality have seen major improvements in the past decade. Reportedly, the week prior to my visit, a panel of Chinese specialty coffee business representatives had convened in the area, scoring some Catimor coffees as high as 82 points on the SCAA cupping form. From what I saw, the coffee quality in Pu’er will likely continue to improve in the future. Perhaps in the near future we will begin to see specialty coffee coming from this region.