Xinglong, China/Hong Kong: Du Yansheng, a farmer on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, hasn’t gone without his morning cup of coffee in five decades, not even during the Cultural Revolution—when such “mock-Western” practices could have landed him in prison.
“People here have never stopped drinking coffee,” Du said in Xinglong, the cradle of coffee culture in an otherwise tea-drinking country.
Du’s father was one of China’s first coffee farmers, at a time when it was considered an exotic foreign beverage. He brought robusta beans from Indonesia in the 1950s—decades before Nestle or Starbucks Corp. arrived on China’s shores.
Today, coffee is fast catching on, especially among younger urban Chinese, and the percentage increase in demand is in the double digits—though still less than one-tenth of tea consumption.
Hot cuppa: Coffee grown in China is climbing the quality ladder.
And coffee grown in China is beginning to climb the quality ladder. Arabica from the southern province of Yunnan is now catching the eye even of speciality roasters such as Starbucks or Italy’s Illy.
“Demand for Yunnan arabica is expanding,” said Tomonori Hashimoto, a trader from S. Ishimitsu Co. Ltd in Japan, one of the world’s top coffee consumers, and known for being picky.
“There are clients eager to try the new and the rare. It’s mild and easy to drink,” he said over phone from Tokyo.
Official data showed Chinese coffee exports jumped 40.8% to 6,484 tonnes during the first quarter of this year, with more than 4,000 tonnes headed for Germany and Japan. It imported 4,642 tonnes in the first quarter, down 5.7% year-on-year.
“When we began a coffee business here in 1998, our monthly sales were about 10 kg. Now our sales are calculated in tonnes,” said Zhou Zhihua, a coffee trader based in Yunnan’s provincial capital, Kunming.
To be sure, industry officials say Chinese production is still too small for some roasters to pay much attention, especially as growing domestic demand is absorbing a large chunk of it.
China has no official data for coffee production. Industry officials estimate it harvests 22,000-28,000 tonnes of arabica per year in Yunnan, a mountainous province the size of Japan that borders Vietnam.
That is tiny compared with some 900,000 tonnes grown in Vietnam, the world’s No. 2 producer. And there’s little scope for production increases because farmers remain keener on growing rice, rubber or other higher-priced cash crops.
Data from International Coffee Organization showed that average coffee prices had risen about 7% in 2006 from the year before. That’s while prices for the other commodities more than doubled partly due to strong demand from China. And Yunnan arabica has not yet reached the rank of Indonesia’s Mandehling—regarded by many as Asia’s best— though its quality has improved, officials said,
When grown and processed properly, Chinese coffees have a light to medium body and acidity, similar to a wet-processed South American coffee, Roast Magazine quoted Stuart Eunson from Arabica Coffee Roasters (Beijing) Co. Ltd as saying. But coffee still has some distance to go before supplanting tea in Chinese homes: China consumes 700,000 tonnes of tea per year. “Chinese are still small coffee drinkers. One cup a day is enough for most. Some finish only a half,” said China Coffee Association’s Zou.