The gem of Kenyan coffee

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Kenya is absolutely beautiful and charming country with incredible landscape of green lavish valleys and breathtaking Rift Valley that runs through Kenya from north to south. Kenya is home to 64 of the total lakes found within the continent of Africa. I was able to visit two of them, Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha.

Nairobi as a main commercial hub and the capital of the county is less attractive due to lack of safety concern. There are certain areas where you can walk without having your safety jeopardized but in general conception, use of taxi or Uber is preferable to move around. Nairobi was founded by colonial British East Africa in 1899, it grew so quickly that it replaced previous capital of Kenya in 1907, Machakos. During the time of colonial regime, when Kenya was occupied by British Empire, Nairobi became the center for coffee and tea production. In 1905 Mombasa was the capital of British protectorate, and as British colonists started to explore Kenyan region more and more, they used Nairobi as their first place of entry, or port of call, subsequently moving capital from Mombasa to Nairobi.

Main attraction of Nairobi for those who attracted to the wild life, is Giraffe center where you can interact with those lovely creatures and feed them from your own hands; David Shedrick wildlife trust is an elephant nursery that provides a save heaven to orphaned baby elephants, and of course, Nairobi national park, as the main game drive within the city of Nairobi, for those who want to see wild animals in shorter period and do not have much time to explore the country. KICC, or Kenyatta International Conference Center, the 28 story building designed by Norwegian and Kenyan architects that allows you to view the whole city of Nairobi in 360D with outstanding view of the capital, mountains and valleys.

Kenya is relatively expensive country to visit. $1 is equal to 100 Kenyan Shillings. Most places like restaurants, hotels price everything based on USD where you can easily spend $10 for lunch, $20 for taxi, $50 for gas, $10 for visiting parks, etc., etc.

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Kenya produces absolutely exquisite coffee and well known for SL28 and SL34, unique varietals that rarely found outside of the country. Those varietals grown in high altitude region of Kenya and known for their complexity, gracious viscosity, superior brightness, explosive berry like flavors, softness of mouthfeel, juicy body, and classic dryness of red wine like finish. So, my task in Kenya besides exploring the country, doing safari in Maasai Mara National Park, was to explore the coffee production and possibilities of the future of Kenyan coffee. One thing to note here that even though SL28 and SL34 are well known around the world within specialty coffee community for outstanding taste and remarkable flavors, most farmers try to distance themselves from growing those varietals in their own coffee plantations. SL28 and SL34 were created by the company called Scott Labs, where abbreviation of SL comes from. It happened in 1930 when Kenyan government hired Scott Lab with the main goal to survey and catalog the best suitable varieties in the region that stands for cup quality and productivity for further commercial development. After the task was completed and data recorded, the Scott Lab assigned specific number to varieties, 28 and 34 as the countries best in quality, economically and agriculturally speaking.

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So, to fulfill my task about Kenyan coffee production, I approached to John Makau, Kenyan barista champion of 2007, 2008 and 2009 to help me with organizing visits to the coffee farm and processing stations. I was not able to meet him personally as he was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia doing coffee projects in training and setting up a modern roaster plant. But we stayed in contact all the time, and with the help of his partner, Steve Kirimi, we set the date to discover coffee of Kenya.

John Muli Makau, a barista by profession who has risen from coffee bar to become Kenyan champion. He loves interacting and mentoring upcoming baristas into the world of coffee. John started in coffee in 2006, have achieved the highest award and acknowledgement as a barista champion representing Kenya and Africa in WBC. From 2009 John became a national barista trainer in Kenya and eventually a judge. He works closely in all sector of coffee from farm to cup by innovating and training on the importance of specialty coffee. His future plan is to learn more about coffee processing and sooner not later to open his own specialty coffee shop.

“Africa at large is raising the bar in specialty coffee market and this has improved a lot from farm to barista level due to competition, price competitive and incentives to farmers from different buyers and private investors who contributes a lot in the farm level”, as John Muli said.

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At that time I was at Lake Naivasha, 3 hours drive northwest of Nairobi, which is part of Great Rift Valley, this lake is at the highest elevation of the Kenyan Rift valley at 1,884 meters (6,181 ft) with gorgeous surrounding including over 400 types of bird species and sizable population of hippos.

On December 29, 2017 I met with Steve Kirimi and we drove to Meru region, about 4,5 hours  drive Northwest of Nairobi with distance of 269.9 km away from the capital. With an incredible lavish green field upon my eyes, and stunning landscape it got me more excited to step into the jewel of Kenyan coffee region.

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Finally, we arrived to Deman Coffee Estate run by Mutai. It is the most organized and perfectly set coffee farm on 7.5 acres of land. The main varietals grown here are Ruiru 11 and Batian. I mentioned earlier that some farmers try to distance themselves into planting SL28 and SL34, and the reason for that is leaf rust or “la roya”. Even though SL28 and 34 highly admired in specialty coffee market those varietals are not resistant to fungus which affects Kenya as well and reduces production. And for this reason farmers need to look into alternatives not to jeopardize coffee production and sustain their cash crop that feeds the family. Coffee borer disease stands next to leaf rust that could easily reduce coffee harvest by significant percentage, not mentioning the fact that CBD was first discovered in Kenya in 1922. From there on most coffee region in Central America and Caribbean get the effect of CBD on their plantations that could be devastated if not treated properly.

I have never heard of Batian variety until I got to Kenya. I never had an opportunity to taste or to cup this variety, and I was very curious to find out more. Even though as we know, most high quality coffee leaves producing nations for export, and whatever leftover farmers have is used for local consumption, it is very rear to find good cup of coffee in any coffee producing countries. From what I understood based on my research, Batian variety was introduced to Kenya by Coffee Research Institute in 2010, and genetically it is close to SL28. I also heard that Batian even performs much better on the cupping table then SL28. I cannot confirm that for sure as I never tried it but it becomes very intriguing to taste side by side those varieties in order to distinguish superiority among them. Comparing to Ruiru 11, Batian is true Arabica breeding variety, and it is resistant to CBD and leaf rust. Cherry wise, uniformity and size are much bigger then those found in SL28 with deep red color, and cherry ripening started much earlier comparing to SL28 or Ruiru 11. Production wise, Batian is a high yield variety with what I was told, exceptional quality.

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Ruiru 11 that planted along the Deman Coffee Estate, was developed in the 70’s and released in 1986 in Kenya and it was named so after the station at Ruiru region. Ruiru 11 is resistant to fungus or any other form of insect damage which makes it preferable variety to grow with less money spent for treatment but cup quality is lower and less attractive among specialty coffee buyers due to the fact that Ruiru 11 traces its origin from the cross between arabica and robusta, basically hybrido de timor and rume sudan. The robusta content of Ruiru 11 is what differentiate this variety against Batian with an impact greater then the other. Can Batian revolutionize and transform the quality of Kenyan coffee to the greatest possibility we should just wait and find out.

The major harvest in Deman Coffee Estate is from March to July.  Average production here is between 5 to 10kg per tree. All varietals are planted separately so it would ease the job of pickers not to mix them together but separate properly to maintain quality and distinct taste of each of them. The farm planted with about 1,200 varietal of Batian and 6,500 of Ruiru 11. There are average of 50 pickers during harvest season employed at the estate, and their pay starts at KS250 per person per day, roughly $2.50 in current currency conversion. The estate does not use any chemicals whatsoever, it is 100% organic. Again, the certification means little in terms of understanding organic process vs chemical treatment due to cost most farmers simply cannot afford. Any type of disease can have a very catastrophic impact on agriculture sector by reducing the income and rising cost for treatment. For this reason, Mutai as any other farmers in coffee growing regions take prevention, protection and cautions very seriously in order to sustain economically to generate income in years to come. Boosting production to the highest level, selecting varieties with greater yield then others, spending less on any chemical treatments is the biggest gain any coffee farmer could achieve for their sustainability advantage.

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The best part I love about this farm is all coffee here are shade grown which means no chemical fertilizers required to combat bloody insects that causes disease and threatens the livelihood of farmer. Not just because it is bird friendly, and surrounding nature environment provides natural fertilizers from fallen leaves and decomposition of dead corpses from living creatures, it is also requires less water handling and slow maturation increases the quality of the cup by allow beans slowly absorb the sweetness of the pulp with higher sugar content. Shade grown coffee are healthier (organically grown), promote healthy environment (filtration of carbon dioxide), provides biodiversity by creating natural habitant for birds reproduction. Shade grown coffee are sustainable, and do not suffer from soil depletion or erosion. That’s the benefits of shade grown coffee which gives me more attention and more appreciation when I see farms in every country I travel that provide protection to coffee shrubs and the natural habitant to any living soul.

The main process executed at the farm is washed. After picking coffee cherries go through de-pulping where the skin of cherries removed and beans with mucilage intact move forward into washed fermentation for 2 days. First day of fermentation starts with beans soaked in water, drained the next day and placed into washing tank again for the 2nd day. During this time enzyme process starts breaking the bacteria and mucilage finally separates from the beans. On the 3rd day before drying process begins workers start separating all floaters left behind during fermentation, old water drained out, clean water fills the tank and all quality beans go back to the washing tank for the final stage of washed process. After all steps completed beans removed and placed on the african bed for drying. Drying period takes about 1-2 weeks depends on the weather condition. During the drying process the phase is monitored to make sure the moisture level is between 10-11% before beans removed and send to the milling station. The milling station does the rest by removing the parchment and preparing coffee for buyers. As Mr. Mutai told me that selling price of his lot depends on the grade but when it comes to quality needed to hit the specialty coffee market he does not settle for less then $7 per kg. That is a great achievement for coffee farmer who rewards himself for all labor and time devoted to produce specialty coffee. The quality of coffee as any agriculture product is cherishable, and requires time and dedication. As the consumer we tend to buy quality or spent less by ignoring quality. We have choice to dine in fine restaurant or chose affordable and less expensive one. We have choice to wear designer cloth or find something on the market that less expensive as long as it is good. As wine lover we have choice to open our pocket and treat ourselves with high quality of wine (either Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Sauvignon), or buy cheap one and regret later on. We all have choices. But when it comes to quality of coffee, specialty coffee we are being part of, we do not have choice but to pursue with perfection and reward the hard labor of those who put themselves into the position to produce the outstanding quality of coffee we consume daily, those type of quality we score with grade higher then another, the quality we cup and wow ourselves for being sold for the highest price at the auction, the quality we chose to participate in barista competition. And for this reason we bow in front of all those farmers to say THANK YOU for everything you do for us, for your sweat, your long hours, your efforts, your perfection, your job, your love and sacrifice you give in order to let us enjoy your labor and admire  it from day to day.

If you would like to try some coffee from Deman Coffee Estate, and compare Batian and Ruiru 11 varietals grown here side by side, or simply want to engage into direct trade for your own business who supports local farmers, I would advise you to contact the owner, Mr. Mutai directly. Email address is: mutai100@yahoo.com

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New Level of Myanmar Coffee

Coffee of Myanmar in CoffeeT@I magazine

“You may not think about politics, but politics think about you”. The quote was stated by Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner,  portrayed by Michelle Yeoh in 2011 film “The Lady”.

 

Republic of the Union of Myanmar is an independent state in Southeast Asia that went from Imperial rule controlled by the King to occupied British colony that was annexed in 1886 to its independency that run from 1948 to 1962. From 1962 to 2011 Myanmar was under ruthless military rule that due to economic mismanagement and political oppression turned country into the less visited nation with sanctions imposed by the world’s leading powers.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Coffee sector of Cuba

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Cuba is the most fascinating country to visit, and not due to embargo and disgraceful economic blockade imposed by imperialistic American Government but for its charm, beauty, warm hospitality, and pride of Cuban people to preserve their identity in spite of American failure to take down the Castro regime and impose its own capitalistic ideology to the nation who stands firmly to defend socialism and to protect the integrity of Cuban people.

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Cuba is the largest independent country in the Caribbean which is located south of the U.S. and Bahamas, west of Haiti, and north of Jamaica. Culturally, Cuba is part of Latin America with its great diversity and multiethnic population. Economically Cuba faces a lot of obstacles and troubles due to continuous embargo, poverty can be seen in most areas of capital city Havana. But due to recent reforms introduced by President Raul Castro, Cuba is on the path of slow development to benefit country in long run with abundance of private sectors in hospitality and food industry, i.e private restaurants that target tourists. More and more Cubans could be seen running their own private AirB@B lodging that requires government licence to operate and more private food establishments, mostly living room of the houses that were converted into private restaurants, known as “paladar”.

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But let’s talk about main reason why I brought up Cuba in my topic. It is about coffee, and how Cuba struggles to advance further into becoming great producer and exporter of coffee that once dominated the island before Castro’s revolution. Before I landed in Havana, Cuba last year (January 2016), I made some research to understand the ups and downs that rooted into Cuban coffee industry. Cuba started growing coffee in the middle of 18th century when it was brought by French farmers fleeing the revolution in Haiti. During that revolution the slavery in Haiti was abolished, Haiti became the first independent black state, and French colonists escaped to Cuba to seek refuge and establish settlement. Before French, in 1748 Don Jose Antonio Gelabert was credited as the first person who introduced coffee into Cuba, bringing the seeds from Santo Domingo. Having the most fertile soil and perfect climate to allow Arabica thrive, coffee flourished in Cuba and became one of the major cash crop for local farmers. Coffee produced in Cuba in those times had distinctive profile that perfectly resembles lush, elegant and aromatic flavor, according to my research. During 19th and 20’s centuries coffee production in Cuba increased, exporting about 22,000 tons of coffee per year by the mid of 1950’s. During the revolution that overthrew Batista regime, coffee industry in Cuba was nationalized and coffee production declined. Farmers lost their most valuable part to sustain economically, losing private land to the government nationalized industry. There were no incentives, no private land and opportunity to compete in the value chain of sustainability that would benefit farm owners to sustain the economic growth of coffee private sector.

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When I came to Cuba my main purpose was to learn more about coffee sector, struggles and burdens faces this Caribbean island. I did not know what to expect, but eager to learn and be the part of ongoing specialty coffee revolution triggered me to take the journey and get first hand information I possibly could. All coffee in Cuba is controlled and exported by the government agency, Cubaexport, that was established in 1965 by the Ministry of Foreign Trade to regulate export of agricultural products produced in Cuba. I did not have a chance to visit milling, or  washing station in Cuba, but what I was told that it requires special permission from the Department of Agriculture to visit government owned  mills. I did not have much time going through the bureaucratic line of paperwork with long waiting time in order to make this happen. So, instead, I hired a taxi to drive me from the capital of Havana to the Cuba’s westernmost province, Pinar del Rio that not only known for coffee but for producing finest Cuban tobacco as well.

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Rough and bumpy roads create some challenges getting to Cuba’s coffee farm area where infrastructure is poorly developed, and main source of transport locals relied on are mulles. The poor roads provide more obstacles for needed labor of Pinar del Rio coffee plantations. Driving about hour and half from Havana by classic American car of 50’s I finally made it and got heart broken of what I saw. The outbreak of La Roya (leaf rust – hemileia vastatrix) is dangerous and threatening that wipes out most coffee plantations in Cuba if not proper action taken to stop the spread and battle this dangerous fungus. Leaf rust was first reported in coffee producing nation of Sri Lanka back in 1867 that greatly damaged the productivity of country’s coffee sector. This fungus mostly attacks leaves with the symptoms of yellow spots that eventually enlarge in size. There are no organic materials/fertilizers available to fight the fungus but chemicals like fungicide, the toxic substance to kill the rust. Even though Cuba does not have private coffee farms or co-op and controlled by the government the disaster is unstoppable. As farmer told me that the use of chemicals is mandatory to fight leaf rust but results are less promising. And for this reason main varietal used at this moment in Cuba is catimor (cross between robusta Timor and arabica Caturra);  and some robusta planted as well. Catimor provides resistance to coffee berry disease, but from the other side it requires a lot of fertilizers and have less interesting flavor profile that hardly applausable in specialty coffee market.

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The new approach to reviving Cuba’s coffee market was taken by former member of British Parliament, Phillip Oppenheim, who provides his own financial assistance to reconstruct so called “specialty” coffee market of Cuba. In 2014 I have conducted an interview with Mr. Oppenheim about specialty coffee market of Cuba who stated that “The Cubans have taken some national measures recently such as raising prices and providing equipment – our project is due to start as soon as it is signed off and includes improved and new labs for testing and cupping, better logistics ranging from new vehicles to support for mule breeding, training programmes, nurseries and processing equipment from micro-depulpers up to large central depulpers – the final sorting and bagging plant is relatively new, so there is no investment planned for that.” I was eager to meet Mr. Oppenheim in Havana but due to schedule conflict we were not able to cross our path in Cuba.

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The consumption of coffee in Cuba is higher but production does not meet the demand, and for this reason, what I was told, Cuban government imports coffees from other regions, like Guatemala and Mexico and mixes them with local coffee in order to meet the high demand for highly caffeinated population of Cuba. Cuba has a huge potential to get into specialty coffee market but lack of financial support and resources keeps pushing coffee production back not counting the widespread of leaf rust that requires more money to fight the disease, Cuban farmers or Cuban government cannot afford. If Cuba gets more enthusiastic investors like Mr. Oppenheim or NGO who are willing to invest, or perhaps take a risk to revive the coffee market of Cuba they can grow more and better quality of coffee then what we see now with possibility to bring coffee market of Cuba in front line with other major coffee producing nations. As Mr. Oppenheim stated: “Cuban coffee is sustainable as it is pretty much all currently grown with very low inputs and shade grown in forests”.

There are no specialty coffee shop in Cuba per se. Most coffee shops baristas do not have knowledge what it takes to properly brew coffee, or how to execute proper espresso extraction. Lack of internet access (with little availability and costly) makes it impossible for locals to be in line with westerners to grab more info needed to succeed as barista and do not take his profession just because it is regular job and not necessary requires more efforts or learning. As I was strolling from one cafe to another more I understood that proper training needed with possibility of opening the first specialty coffee school in Cuba. Poor performance, not clean equipments, lack of attention to coffee preparation makes Cuban coffee less attractive to specialty coffee folks or properly trained coffee palate enthusiasts. But perhaps with new opening frontiers and establishing bridges of mutual cooperation between U.S. and Cuba those difficulties will be easy to overcome. It would benefit not only western countries but would provide more benefit and create more jobs in Cuban coffee market where profession barista would be considered as more valuable assets to the economic growth of Cuban coffee industry with less young population trying to escape Cuba for better economic advantages elsewhere.

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I encourage USAID, other European government organization to look no further but provide assistance needed in the agriculture sector of Cuba. Yes, you can help. Yes, you can provide resources needed to help struggling coffee industry of Cuba to take the first lift to the market of specialty. Make this happen, build the bridge of economic gesture and you will be rewarded. Great coffee does not just happen, and Cuban coffee should not be just “coffee that tastes like coffee”, it should stand for its unique identity as it used to be in old times.

Viva Cuba. Por libertad y solidaridad. Por unidad y prosperidad de Cuba

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By Mikhail Sebastian

Havana, Cuba and Pinar Del Rio coffee farm video

Struggling to Build Specialty in Nepal

There are coffee regions we know well, but there are regions where violence, accessibility, and poverty have detrimentally affected coffee production. In this post, we’ll highlight different coffee-producing countries and discuss the struggles producers face and how baristas, and various nonprofit organizations are helping to make coffee from these countries viable, more profitable, and available to a wider market.

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The specialty coffee culture in Nepal is small—until 2002, most farmers didn’t think coffee could be a viable source of income.Up until the early 2000s, coffee producers in Nepal were not sure if coffee could become a main source of income due to the lack of market demand. However, in 2002, after a substantial increase in the export and also in domestic market consumption, farmers were motivated to consider coffee as a major income-generating crop and start slowly integrating into the specialty coffee market. However, Nepal’s lack of financial resources makes it almost impossible to get the necessary equipment to meet the standards needed to produce high-quality beans. The Nepali specialty coffee market faces challenges both in improving quality and producing quality coffee in a sustainable way.

In early January, I got the chance to visit a coffee farm in Nepal. I was fortunate enough to meet Nima Sherpa, who is the owner of the only specialty coffee farm in Nepal. After getting a degree in Business Administration from the U.S., Nima returned to Nepal to start growing the specialty coffee market in his native country. He is an absolutely wonderful, smart, and knowledgeable person who is trying to make a difference in the specialty coffee market in Nepal.

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Nima Sherpa runs the only specialty coffee farm in Nepal. At about eight in the morning, Nima came on his motorbike to pick me up from the hotel and start our journey. We went to Lekali Coffee Estate, located about two hours from Kathmandu on the slopes of Bhirkune Village in Nuwakot district. The Lekali Estate only uses organic fertilizers—typically a natural mixture of cow manure, molasses, and tree leaves—and the farm is planted with Arabica coffee trees.

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The most common varietals in Nepal are Typica and Bourbon. Nima also grows Caturra, with some Pacamara plants dispersed throughout the farm.Due to different microclimates at the estate there is a slight variation in temperature from one side of the farm to the other, even a few meters away. There are shade-grown coffees as well as coffee grown under the sun. From Arabica species, the dominant varietals at the farm are Typica and Caturra. Walking around the farm I also spotted some Pacamara and Bourbon.

The estate’s main processing method is washed. Coffee pickers are trained to pick only ripe cherries at the perfect point of maturation. After picking, the coffee is depulped and the mucilage coat is removed. After depulping the fermentation process starts. After the mucilage breaks down during fermentation, the coffee gets pre-dried to remove surface water. The moisture level of the final product during drying process is 12 percent, which is achieved slowly on raised beds.

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Most of the coffees in Nepal are fully washed, depulped, and dried on raised beds, building the foundation for great coffee.The Nepal specialty coffee scene is still in the process of growing and developing. Nima is one of the only people trying to make a difference in the specialty coffee scene in Nepal. But he can’t do it on his own. He needs assistance, but there is very little help from international NGOs or government programs to aid him in improving the quality of coffee.

Recently, the Coffee Quality Institute, in cooperation with USAID, has been working to improve specialty coffee in Myanmar. If Myanmar can see improvements in coffee quality through investment of resources, then the same can be true for Nepal. If USAID, along with Coffee Quality Institute, could sketch the plan in providing assistance, training farmers, and developing Q Grader examinations in Nepal, the country’s specialty coffee market would benefit farmers and citizen alike.

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There’s still a lot of work to be done in Nepal, and investment from NGOs and government organizations can help grow and sustain the coffee market.If you want to try some coffee from Nepal, you can contact Nima directly—he would be more than happy to help guide you through the mystery of Nepali coffee. It’s important to support coffee producers; without them we wouldn’t have the delicious coffee we enjoy. If you are interested in helping Lekali Coffee Estate, please get in touch with Nima at info@lekalicoffee.com.

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Article by Mikhail SebastianWorld barista traveler, coffee educator, barista trainer, coffee farmer consultant. Spent one month of February, 2017 in Nepal assisting Lekali Coffee Estate.

Lekali Coffee Estate Video