The History of Coffee in Yunnan

A Journey of Exploration

The First Coffee in China

China’s coffee culture can be traced back to the 1885, the end of the Tonkin War between the French and Chinese. An agreement signed by the Qing Dynasty allowed the French to conduct business in China. Immediately to the North of French Indo-China, the coffee loving French started to move to explore new opportunities in Yunnan.

In 1892 Alfred Liétard (天德能), a French missionary, traveled north to settle in Yunnan and established a church in the town of Zhukula (朱苦拉村) near Dali (大理). With his possessions he carried coffee seeds which he planted  in the garden alongside his church. These were the first known coffee plants to have ever been grown in China.

The coffee that Liétard carried with him was of the Arabica varietal which has remained the dominant coffee bean around Yunnan up until the present. The village in which Liétard also still grows and brews coffee in the same way that they have since it was introduced over a century ago. At an altitude of 2100m with a stable sub-tropical alpine climate the coffee trees florished. While the first planted died in 1997, 24 of the orginal plants still remain as well as thousands of others to supliment them.

A Difficult Beginning

In 1914, Yunnan’s first small commercial plantations were established in Lujiangba, near BaoShan using coffee introduced by Jinpo border officials. Cultivated in Nongxianshan of Ruili (瑞丽), the coffee was of the Typica and Bourbon varietals imported from Burma. Over the next several decades, an increasing number of this style of plantation started cropping up all through the climaticly appropriate areas of the province. 

By the 1950s Yunnan’s coffee growing area had increased to 4,000 ha but was soon to decline. Together with other market factors, subsiquent leaf rust outbreaks in the province casued coffee production to decrease to 270 ha by the 1970s. Typica and Bourbon coffee varietals are both known for there low levels of resistance to leaf rust.

Commercial Scale Acheived

In the early 1980s in an effort to rejuvenate the local coffee growing industry a government program introduced two rust resistant coffee varietals into the province. S.288 introduced from India and Catimor (Caturra 19/1 x HDT 832/1) from Portugal. This effort was greatly expanded when in 1988 a United Nations Development Programme inititive supported the cultivation and distribution of mostly Catimor (CIFC  7963) trees. This brought the cultivated area in the province up to 7800 ha by 1997.

During this period, many of the coffee farms that we know today were established including Yi Rong in 1987 and the ManLao River Poverty Alleviation Project in 1997. During this time, the coffees from the region were used primariliy for three-in-one instant coffees in China as well as being exported to soluable plants around the world.

Speciality Coffee

Coffee production grew steadily through the 2000s, but also began to change. China, as a nation, was beginning to take coffee more seriously. Cafes around the country started demanding higher quality from overseas and domestic suppliers. While this all started from a very low base, the rate of growth has been increadible. To meet this demand, coffee producers like ManLao River Coffee and our sister manors began producing higher grade speciality coffees using selective harvesting techniques and careful fermentation. Honey and natural processed coffees also started to be produced, offering a wider variety of coffees to suit the pallets of China’s coffee consumers. 

In 2009, ManLao River became the first coffee producer in Yunnan to become organically certified in China and in 2010 also acheived EU and USDA organic certifications.  Further cementing Yunnan’s place as an emerging specilaity origin, in 2012 a ManLao River coffee was used in the finals of the World Barrista Championship. This was followed in 2017 with a ManLao River becoming the the first Chinese coffee to be used in the finals of the World Roasting Championship.

Recognition of Yunnan as a coffee origin increased greatly with the Speciality Coffee Acossiation’s decision to use China as the 2018 Portrait Country. This involved a series of promotions at their events and online aimed at introducing coffee professionals around the world to the rising quality of Yunnan coffee. 

A large portion of China’s high end specilaity coffee is consumed domestically, roasted by companies such as our own. With each passing season we see the quality of crop improve and a growing following of consumers in China and around the world. As the industry here continues to develop, we anticipate that specilaity coffee will become a larger and larger part of the mix to accomodate an ever larger global demand.

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