China has long been a tea-drinking nation. But, increasingly Chinese interest in a different brew is starting to percolate both in the country’s massive cities and the mountains of southern Yunnan Province.
In big cities such as Beijing, coffee shops are seemingly on almost every corner. And it’s not just international coffee giant Starbucks, but chains from South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Britain among others.
Cup of Potential
According to the China Coffee Association Beijing, a typical Chinese person drinks an average of five cups a year.
And while that is still far below the global average of 240 cups a year, the association says consumption is growing by about 15 percent annually.
On any given day, international chains such as Groove Café - a South Korean chain - in Beijing is buzzing with activity and coffee drinkers.
Lu Ming works for an Internet company and says she drinks about a cup a day.
“I’ll often grab of cup of coffee in the morning when I am sleepy before I go to work or in the afternoon,” she said.
With more people gulping down java, many see an opportunity for Chinese-grown beans, even if most of the coffee on sale in China is imported.
“For those of us who have been drinking coffee for awhile it is more a question of convenience, said Hsueh. “It’s not that easy to get domestically made coffee.I imagine that most of the coffee we drink is from international distributors.”
Coffee in Tealand
Most of China’s coffee is grown in southern Yunnan Province. A French missionary brought plants to the region over a century ago, but coffee growing did not pick up until more recently.
Starbucks has been opening stores in China since the 1990s, but it wasn’t until a couple years ago that it opened a coffee farm in Yunnan Province. Starbucks sees not only a bright future for the consumption of coffee but for the growth of product as well.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has been quoted in state media here as saying that China could eventually become the company’s second largest market after the United States.
A large percentage of the coffee that is currently grown in China comes from Pu’er, a city better known for its pungent black tea.
Swiss food giant Nestle has been working with farmers in Yunnan for more than two decades, looking to increase the output of green Arabica beans and raise coffee growing standards.
In Pu’er, Nestle has a buying station and coffee center, which is managed by Wouter De Smet.
He says that unlike tea, which residents know a lot about, one of the biggest challenges at the beginning was growing new knowledge about the crop.
“Coffee is new. How to grow coffee? How to prepare the small plants? But that’s only one part,” he said. “The next part is how to produce a good quality coffee. Because that is also completely different from tea.”
To do that, De Smet and his team work with more than 2,600 coffee farms across Pu’er and nearby Xishuangbanna.
Over the past few years they have managed to help all of them get verified under an international standard of sustainability called the 4Cs or the Common Code for the Coffee Community.
The 4Cs focus on the complete coffee supply chain from soil to store counter and includes measures to limit water use, soil exhaustion and the impact coffee growing can have on the environment.
Child labor is also banned and farmers must use low toxic pesticides among other things.
In the cities, there are many buyers that farmers can sell their product to, but Nestle’s aim is to be their preferred partner, De Smet said.
And by being a part of the Nestle 4Cs program, farmers get training and indivudial technical assistance, discounts of fertiizers, access to a scholarship program and free soil analysis
“If we can give a good service that is not only focused on buying the coffee, but also the whole of what is around them, then the farmer will probably stay with us,” De Smet said.
Growing more than coffee
As one of China’s poorest provinces, coffee growing has proven to be a good cash crop for some in Yunnan. Unlike other crops, pricing is more transparent and determined by the international market, which farmers monitor closely.
During the coffee season there are peaks when farmers sell their coffee, based on market fluctuations and individual needs, De Smet said.
“During the season we can see that farmers are keeping the coffee like a kind of bank account,” he said. “Keeping the coffee and when they need the money they will sell it.”
Some of the peaks come before Chinese New Year, and when children go back to school or towards the end of the season when farmers are making preparations for the next crop.
Huang Dabao, is a coffee farmer who used to grow fruit. He says the crop is a better alternative and more lucrative, allowing him to fund a new addition to his home.
“We used to grow oranges, but that was too unpredictable. When we started we didn’t know much about the crop, but there were some similarities to fruit growing. And unlike fruit, coffee is more reliable,” he said.
Wang and her family have been working with Nestle for nearly two decades. They have a plot of more than 4 hectares of coffee in Xishuangbanna. She says that with work here in the fields there is no need for her children to follow in the footsteps of other Chinese and migrate to big cities to find work.
“Working in the cities is not sustainable in the long run. When you’re working in the cities you barely make enough to make ends meet,” said Wang. “Here, all that you need is around you.”
Nestle's De Smet has spent most of his life living in small farming communities. He said that thing he enjoys the most about what he does is seeing the progress that families make, raising their living standards and the happiness it brings.