Coffee was first introduced into China in the late nineteenth century by a French missionary in Yunnan province, in the southwest of the country. Coffee production subsequently languished for the better part of a century, until 1988 when the Chinese Government, in association with the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program initiated a project to regenerate the sector. Large Companies Like Nestle also encouraged coffee growing in the region, and as a result production soared.
Coffee is still predominantly grown in Yunnan province, which accounts for over 95% of China’s coffee output. Yunnan is traditionally a tea-growing region, source of the renowned ‘Pu’er’ tea. However, with its mountainous landscape (an average altitude of around 2,000 meters) and mild climate it is well suited for coffee production. It also borders Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, in the heart of the coffee belt. It grows exclusively Arabica coffee, and is a large province with an area of 394,000 km2 and population of 46 million people. There are also small amounts of Robusta grown on the island of Hainan, situated in south China, and in Fujian province, in the southeast.
Coffee production in China has escalated rapidly over the last twenty years. Figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggest that output in crop year 2013/14 reached 1.9 million bags, and has been roughly doubling every five years. This would make China the 14th largest producer of coffee in the world, ahead of Costa Rica but behind Nicaragua, compared to the 30th worldwide ten years ago with a level of 361,000 bags.
There is some debate over the current quality of China’s production. It is generally considered to fall short of specialty coffee standards, yet is too high to be used purely for local consumption. Most of the Arabica production is fully washed Catimor, although producers have recently been moving towards other varietals including Typica and Bourbon, which can bring a higher return.
The flavor profile of coffee from China is most similar to what you would expect from a Central American coffee. In the cup you would expect medium acidity that is nutty, chocolaty, herbal, earthy undertones with a medium body. We usually roast this medium, to medium dark, but it also holds up well under a variety of roast profiles. Most of the coffee grown in China is wet processed, with some farms trying to produce natural processed coffee. China’s coffee production history is young and there is a lot of opportunity for improvement as they experiment with different varietals and processing techniques. I look forward to the next 5-10 years to see how the production improves.