Home Insider Insider Review Time for Myanmar’s Specialty Coffee

Time for Myanmar’s Specialty Coffee

The world over, tea has been known as a therapeutic beverage, and coffee often derided for its addictive caffeine content. But coffee has always been a fashionable drink, people fastidious about how it is prepared, how coffee beans are roasted and stored, wrinkling their nose at instant coffees, savoring the aroma of freshly brewed filtered coffee in cafes and coffee shops.

For a country where three-in-one coffee sachets containing coffee, sugar and milk in powder form, are the most popular, it is admirable that some of the finest specialty coffees are being produced to capture the exclusive market of the elite coffee drinkers in the US, Europe and neighboring Asian countries.

Myanmar’s coffee journey

A highly fertile land, favorable climate in Myanmar’s highlands, with warm days and cool nights, sufficient rainfall during the year, and a dry season at harvest time, make the country ideal for growing coffee. Coffee came to Myanmar with the British colonialists towards the end of the 18th century and small coffee farms were set up in Pyin Oo Lwin by the missionaries. Though not a commercial success, this did serve as a base from where coffee growing started in Mandalay, Kachin and Shan states, and continues to this day. Small coffee farms are found in Rakhine, Bago and Mon states as well. Today, Mandalay and Shan states produce most of the country’s coffee, with Mandalay having large coffee farms run commercially to produce washed coffee, and Shan state having small farms owned by small farmers owing small pieces of land and producing naturally processed coffees. Coffee farming has been revived by the participation of a few private companies, NGOs and international organizations, to improve agronomy, yield and productivity, educate coffee farmers about correct harvesting practices, and assisting financially to improve the milling processes. Their interest has been piqued by ideal growing conditions and an environment conducive to natural processing of coffee, in an age when ‘natural’ has become the biggest selling point. 80% of the coffee produced falls into the ‘natural’ category, dried on raised platforms under the sun, hulled by pounding, all in small farms that are less than an acre in size.

Coffee production has been seeing an annual growth rate of 4.02%, and a total of 8,474 tons was produced over 20,000 hectares of irrigated land in 2016. According to statistics provided by the Ministry of Commerce, exports have also increased from 535 tons to 860 tons last year, bringing in $1,438 million. In the first five months of 2017-18 alone, exports generated $ 1.5 million since prices offered ranged from $ 3,000- 7,000 per ton depending on quality. Some of the best known local coffee brands include Genius, Sithar and Greenland coffee. Genius coffee is processed in Ywa Ngan in Shan State after collecting cherries from small farms. It is sold as high quality organic coffee and exported to Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. The most significant player is the Mandalay Coffee Group which runs a processing plant in Pyin Oo Lwin. It processes the beans and evaluates their quality. It processes cherries from each farm separately and then classifies them after ‘cupping’. Sithar Coffee has its own farms growing Arabica varieties in Pyin Oo Lwin, and the company processes the cherries at its own facility. Greenland coffee has some of Myanmar’s largest Arabica coffee plantations with more than 600,000 trees spread over 700 acres in Pyin Oo Lwin.

Coffee varieties – Arabica and Robusta

Myanmar grows both Arabica and Robusta varieties of coffee, the former confined to the northern highlands with elevations of 1100-1200 meters above sea level, and the latter in the lower southern parts of the country. At present, Arabica accounts for 66% of the total produce and Robusta, the remaining 34%. Recently, seven varieties of robusta coffee have been planted in Kayin state, as part of a Nestle funded cooperative program to yield superior grade coffee. Catuai beans are mainly grown in Ywar Ngan, and Caturra and Costa Rica beans planted in Pyin Oo Lwin. These are all Arabica varieties. Robusta coffee beans are stronger, more bitter, with a higher caffeine content and popularly used for preparing espresso and for instant coffee varieties.

Robusta beans when roasted have a strong earthy flavor and the bitterness comes from its high pyrazine content. Robusta is also a preferred crop due to a higher yield.

Coffee as a beverage

There is a certain attitude about the coffee drinking experience that extends beyond just the beverage being consumed. The preparation is specific, its flavor all important, its potency varying if it is cold brewed, or the customary hot brew. The latest innovation is coffee-on-the-tap, a concept akin to draft beer, termed nitro coffee that comes out creamy and foamy. The world’s favorite drink is sold in multiple varieties in cafes and retail outlets. While one can buy instant coffee in powder or granular form, or roasted coffee beans to be ground just before preparing the drink, or freshly ground coffee packed in airtight packages to conserve freshness. Over 400 billion cups are estimated to be sold worldwide annually, and the demand continues to grow. While coffee has been negatively branded as addictive, harmful, and avoidable for heart patients, it does have therapeutic qualities with its reserve of antioxidants. It is believed to be good for the liver, helps those suffering from Parkinsons’ disease and diabetes. An 8-ounce cup of coffee provides the essential B-vitamins, folate, manganese, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus. As a natural source of caffeine, coffee keeps one awake by blocking the sleep-inducing hormone, adenosine. It stimulates the brain and hence works as a preventing for degenerating brain related diseases like Alzheimer’s. It stimulates the system to release nonrepinephrine and dopamine to trigger enhanced mental clarity, greater energy and also serving as an antidepressant. Its low calorie count works well for the weight conscious. Myanmar’s specialty coffee Exotic is the term used often, to define Myanmar, and the country’s coffee is also considered equally exotic. Its entry into the international market at the 2016 Specialty Coffee Association of America Expo in Atlanta got it a score of 90 points on the 100-point SCA quality scale. The SCA standard is a measure that scientifically tests quality and allocates a score after assessing samples. It has a range of values for coffees based on which it sets cupping standards, brewing standards, and so on. This high-quality recommendation is globally accepted as an indicator of coffee quality.

Specialty coffee has the highest value in the beverage market and is also the fastest growing, though as of now, it accounts for only 10% of the coffee trade. While there are no stringent or specific rules to qualify coffee as a specialty grade, it is generally coffee that is free from defects, and unique in some manner, with a specific differentiating factor that makes its flavor different. These are best grown on small farms where unique characteristics can be introduced, and which then procure a premium for the product. Hence the small farmers of Shan State in Myanmar stand to benefit without having to compete with machine harvested coffees from Brazil and other countries.

Credit for reviving the coffee industry and introducing specialty coffees as a lucrative option goes to USAID that started a five-year Value Chains Project in 2013. USAID provided a USD 27 million grant to Winrock, an international nonprofit organization, that has been trying to create value through improved crop productivity, better quality, and access to international markets for trading. There is an effort to engage ethnic minorities and women at every step of the coffee journey from seed to port. Experts from Winrock have been teaching farmers how best to tend to berries, the right time from plucking, and ideal natural drying, to help improve cup scores. Efforts have also been made to sell coffee to specialized coffee markets instead of the generic commodity traders. To date, some 3400 coffee farmers have been taught best agricultural practices for optimum quality beans, which are helping improve coffee scores, with a clean consistent product.

The road ahead for Myanmar coffee

The government is sincere in its efforts to promote and encourage coffee growing, not so much for local consumption, as for exports. With an affirmative global response to the country’s specialty coffees, the government plans to increase coffee growing acreage to 200,000 acres, and take exports to 60,000 tons in the next 10-12 years. There is a distinct need to introduce the latest technology at harvest times and for post harvest processing, and packaging to ensure that moisture does not penetrate and spoil the flavor. This will help in capturing a segment of the ever increasing demand for coffee worldwide.