"Without China on our menu, we honestly wouldn't be where we are now," explains David Lalonde of Rabbit Hole Roasters.

Rabbit Hole Roasters is still the only specialty coffee roastery in Canada to feature China as a coffee origin. We wanted to learn more about the underrepresented coffee origin and see how it all got started and what the future holds for Chinese coffee.

China Coffee Production

The History

Traditionally an origin that is known for exceptional teas, Yunnan (and Chinese) coffee production only really took off in the late 1980s, as part of a government-led program assisted by the United Nations Development Program and the World Bank. China is very new to specialty coffee, though as most of the coffee produced was scoring at the commodity grade.

Part of the reason for this is coffee is a tricky crop to invest in. With the instability of the commodity market, farmers are unsure if coffee is the crop to rely on for providing a steady income for their families.

“If nobody buys coffee from China, they’re going to get paid less money and they cannot really improve. So one of our main goals is to just focus on emerging origins just for terroir and also just to have something different on our menu,” explained David Lalonde of Rabbit Hole Roasters on their desire to purchase from emerging coffee origins.

Digging through Instagram, Lalonde came across the profile of Yunnan Coffee Traders, a company based out of China that partners with local farmers to help get their coffee into the hands of specialty roasters around the world.

The team at Yunnan Coffee Traders puts a heavy focus on education and collaboration with their producing partners.

“The co-founder and CEO of the company is called Tim Heinze, and he's a Q-grader instructor and a Q-processing instructor. He's been involved with the CQI, which is the Coffee Quality Institute and the SCA. He's a super, super-good teacher. Just talking with the guy for 10 minutes is what you would learn in weeks with other people,” furthered Lalonde.

YCT and Heinze provided input to the producer of this Rabbit Hole coffee, Li Jiangrong, on ways he could improve his coffee before they were officially partners.

China Coffee Production

The Varietal

Currently, producers in China are mainly growing a varietal known as Catimor, which is a hybrid of the Caturra and Timor varietals. Timor is a varietal produced by a cross between a Robusta and Arabica plant. Catimor is coveted for its higher, quicker yield, but also because it is resistant to coffee rust (a fungus known as Hemileia Vastatrix). This resistance allows the farmer to not have to use pesticides, however, because the varietal has genetic ties to the Robusta plant, cupping scores are usually impacted.

“But in China, the Catimor, cups really, really well. The varietal scores the highest on average in Yunnan province. All over the world, it’s there that you can find the highest-scoring Catimor in general.”

The hypothesis on what causes this varietal to do so well in this region goes back to its unique climate – the exceptionally warm days followed by very cool temperatures at night.

“It's amongst the sweetest coffees I've ever tasted in my life… I would say that Chinese, right now, for me, is not tasting like anything else I've tasted before. It's quite unique,” stated Lalonde.

The Future

"The way that the market in China is going right now, prices have gone up for Chinese green coffee," explains Lalonde.

"There are fewer containers, so it's crazy difficult to get Chinese coffee. The coffee market internally in China is exploding; coffee shops are opening at a rapid pace, and let's not forget how many people live in China. A small city is going to have like two, three million people sometimes. So if they open cafes in cities with this many people, they're gonna need a lot of coffee, and it's insanely difficult to import green coffee from other countries [into China]. So the prices paid to internal farmers are super high, which can be hard for roasters like us to match."

All photos of China provided by Yunnan Coffee Traders (@YunnanCoffeeTraders).

August 11, 2020 — Suneal Pabari

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