Over the last six months, we’ve been cupping Yunnan coffee with a vengeance. Most of the coffee we try comes from Pu’er, Baoshan and Simao regions with both quality and price going from disappointingly low to dismissibly high. Right from the start we could see there is still a lot of disorganization in the young Yunnan coffee industry as we had to pull teeth to get simple information like elevation, strain, and even screen size from some growers. With this mysterious growing region playing hard to get, we rolled up our sleeves, hopped on a plane and decided we needed to see it to believe it.
We flew in to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. This quaint little town of 6 million people is home to the Yunnan coffee and tea industry. While most of the farms are located in rural areas like Pu’er and Baoshan, the offices and sales centres of small and massive plantations alike reside in concentric rings around the Kunming Airport. This is where we met our guide-slash-super-cool-dude David from Manlao River Farms. From Kunming we had another 45 minute flight south to Pu’er, where Manlao River has a beautiful plantation tucked into the mountains facing the Laotian border.
After another hour of driving through mountains that looked like they had been plucked from Chile or Spain we arrived at Manlao River Farms. This plantation is home of some of China’s best tea, tapioca, and coffee, as well as mango, banana, pineapple, corn and adorable baby goats. This plantation is home to nearly 10,000 farmers during harvest season, most of them displaced Lisu people, a diminishing ethnic group from the mountains of Burma and Tibet.
After the usual pleasantries and suppressing our fears of jurassic-sized bugs, we get right into the coffee. Manlao has two main varietals of coffee that are grown on the plantation. The first is a Caturra which is used for their specialty coffee offering. While it still hasn’t been fully endorsed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, it has been sent through to many professional graders with very positive results. The second is a Castillo which is grown completely organically and is certified by the USDA, EU Organic and China Organic certifying authorities. Both are washed and use a ferment-and-wash process followed by drying in the brilliant and bright Pu’er sun.
Both coffees cup quite well, we started with the Caturra strain, which they simply call Manlao Specialty. Well balanced, with the crisp acidity that is expected from a Caturra coffee. The initial flavours reminded us right away of staple Colombian coffees that have been refined over generations. There is a slight deterrence in the middle with more floral notes than the apple and fruit that we normally see. The finish comes in strong with rich chocolate, but lacks in the thick molasses mouthfeel that we were hoping for. Thin body is not a slight against this particular coffee, it’s a characteristic we found consistent across all the coffees from this region.
The Castillo which they have named North 22 Latitude. Castillo varietal is normally seen as inferior to Bourbon or Typica, but with the lower elevation of the organic section of the plantation they decided to go with this higher-yielding strain. It is a hybrid creation using genetics from both Robusta and Arabica and is one of the most resilient strains to diseases, making it a good choice for an easy to manage organic crop. During cupping we found the same balance, but with a much milder flavour. Some hints of vanilla and toasted nuts peak through, and a mellow wash of chocolate takes over the aftertaste. While this coffee may not stand on the rooftop and shout with flavour, we see a world of potential using it in an espresso blend or combining it with a rich-bodied Sumatra.
We brought back a few sacks and will be experimenting feverishly with different blends and single origin roast profiles. With a little luck and a ton of shots we should have a beautiful Yunnan featured espresso blend to offer shortly.