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Your guide to Myanmar Coffee
Myanmar's entry as a player on the global coffee stage is fairly recent, as it has begun to invest in high-quality, specialist crops. Although the country did have a reputation for producing so-so coffee, that is rapidly changing and farmers are now offering something very different with a tangy taste of its own.
Origins of Myanmar Coffee
Coffee beans were first introduced to Myanmar (then known as Burma) in 1885 by British missionaries who set up a few small farms around Pyin Oo Lwin city in the north. Production on a commercial scale was slow to get established. When British rule ended with the nation's independence in 1948, the coffee business stalled. Most of the crop at that time, grown mainly in Mandalay, Southern Shan State and Kachin, found its way along irregular supply chains to its neighbours over the border in Malaysia and South Korea. Up to the end of the 20th century, trading of coffee just limped along. In the last decade, however, the intervention of entrepreneurs, local and foreign investment, and support from the ministry of agriculture have seen an upsurge in quality and quantity - and an expansion in the acreage of land where coffee is grown.
Myanmar Coffee Industry
Although a new addition, Myanmar has plenty of scope for coffee production. The Southeast Asian nation, wedged between Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, covers about 260,000 sq miles (680,000 sq km) - 10 times the size of Ireland and bigger than its Thai neighbour to the south. Known as Burma until the government changed its name in 1989 (although some countries still use its old name), it is noted for its heat, humidity and jungle. The cooler weather in its high plateaux plus copious rainfall and rich, reddish and yellow soils have proved to be ideal for growing higher-quality varieties of Arabica plants.
Most of the higher-grade coffees are cultivated at heights of 1,100 to 1,250 metres (3,600 to 4,100 feet). The Arabica varieties are Geisha, Bourbon, Caturra, Catual and Saramon. In all, the country has more than 30,000 acres (12,000 hectares) of land used for growing the coffee plants, more than 80 per cent of which are Arabica and the remainder Robusta. The major cultivation areas are Mandalay and Shan State.
The supply chain is still not stable or particularly efficient. Since the end of British rule, the country's 45 million people have seen political turmoil - the country seems to be in a permanent state of civil war between the government and rival factions. Consequently, the infrastructure is poor, investment in sectors such as coffee cultivation has been weak and farmer access to export markets has been limited.
The nation was an independent republic from 1948 until 1962 when a military junta took over and since then it has been under a dictatorship. Several countries, including the USA, still do not recognise the junta and refer to Myanmar as Burma.
Myanmar (or Burma) grows about 7,500 metric tons (125,000 60kg bags) of coffee a year, of which about 500 tons is consumed locally, a similar tonnage exported to the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia, while the rest, a huge percentage, goes across the border and contributes to the coffee culture in Thailand.
Coffee production in Myanmar
For many decades, the coffee trade has inched along on a fairly limited scale. Over the last few years, however, several organisations have begun to put more focus on the sector as the Myanmar economy has started to open up. Improvements in agricultural practices, milling and harvesting have boosted the growth of a genuine gourmet and speciality coffee business. Some government-sponsored training centres and the Coffee Quality Institute are offering education in agricultural engineering, research and economics. Additionally, Shwe Ywar Ngan, an organisation introduced not only to provide suitable seedlings for coffee plantations, but also to support small farmers with loans, helps maintain consistent production. As a result of these initiatives, new entrants to the coffee world are starting to make some headway.
Such has been the improvement in quality and standards that the Myanmar Coffee Association (MCA) now hosts an annual speciality coffee competition in Yangon (Rangoon). In its first year, 2015, women farming in the same village in Ywar Ngan claimed first and second prize among 50 of the best offerings from smallholders. Recent years have seen an increase in the numbers of entrants and more participation by young coffee professionals.
The climate in the highlands, hot days followed by cooling nights, gives coffee producers a helping hand. At harvest time, the exceptionally dry and hot weather assists natural, open-drying processing which takes place at many coffee farms. Washed coffee is also produced from larger estates and co-operatives around the country.
Myanmar Coffee Regions
Some of the finest coffee in Myanmar - perhaps in Southeast Asia, in fact - is grown in Southern Shan State in the highlands of Ywar Ngan. The Danu Hill tribe have farmed this area for generations and its climate, soil and elevation provide good conditions for the cultivation of Arabica plants.
Shwe Ywar Ngan coffee, produced in collaboration with the Danu Hill tribe, is grown in the shade of palms, bananas and a wide variety of other broad-leaved trees. Working on small plots between one and five acres, hundreds of farmers tend the land that their forefathers did, following organic practices and techniques to maintain high standards for their speciality coffees. The use of pesticides is banned. In common with many regions of Myanmar, the coffee cherries here are hand-picked. Most of the green coffee beans will then be washed at a recently installed community processing station, while the rest are naturally dry-processed, on raised beds.
About three-quarters of Myanmar's coffee is Arabica, grown in the higher altitudes in the north. The remainder, Robusta coffee, is mostly cultivated on the lower southern slopes. Some Liberica and Excelsa coffees are also grown in Myanmar. Eighty per cent of the total crop comes from the many thousands of smallholders following old-established methods, who have access to only basic natural processing and harvesting practices.
Mandalay and Shan State produce most of the coffee in Myanmar, but other regions such as Chin State and Kachin State have recently joined in. Mandalay is home to the majority of the larger estates while Shan State has many smaller farms.
A number of groups head up Myanmar's speciality coffee growing: such as the Mandalay Coffee Group, a consortium of 50 separate estates using wet milling, and Shwe Taung Thu (a grouping of 19 villages in Ywar Ngan) whose produce is mainly naturally processed.
What does coffee from Myanmar taste like?
Most people who try Myanmar coffee - often still called Burmese - for the first time are pleasantly surprised by how good it tastes. While the Robusta varieties are perfectly fine for blending, the gourmet coffees which are the best Arabicas, have their own distinctive characteristics: full-bodied and with a nice aroma, fairly full-bodied and slightly acidic, flavoured with caramel, tangerine.
Our dark roast Myanmar coffee from the Danu Hill Tribe in Shwe Ywar Ngan offers a round body with bright acidity. The area’s fertile soils and climate make Ywar Ngan an optimal environment for growing coffee, and since pesticides and chemicals are forbidden here, it is produced in an organic style. Tasting notes for this high-quality Arabica coffee include hints of caramel and lemon and it is suitable for all brewing methods.
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