Coffee Origin: Myanmar (The Past & Present, Processing and Taste)
“They're backyard gardens, they are small patches of land that seeds have been thrown onto,” explained Cole Torode, Director of Coffee at Rosso Coffee, on the Myanmar production he visited a few years ago, sharing about a coffee featured in our June Espresso pack.
Myanmar is new to specialty coffee, which means its operations most certainly aren’t as fancy as those of more established growing regions. With that said, Torode is optimistic.
“Personally, I think Southeast Asian coffee producers are bound to get better and better year over year.”
Myanmar has received some support, and that’s helped plant the metaphorical and literal seeds for a specialty coffee industry.
“The Coffee Quality Institute (a U.S. NGO) and Winrock (an international nonprofit) partnered up with the goal of taking farmers in Myanmar who are planting opium and educating them about coffee because their conditions for coffee are pretty outstanding.”
“The aim was to shift their mentalities with the hope that they'll change their crops. They'll have better sustainability and less danger or risk in their lives. These guys went from selling their coffee internally, where there was little to no export internally, for probably like $0.20 or $0.30 per pound. We paid FOB $3.80 a pound for the coffee.”
This conversation obviously piqued our interest. With that, we had to dive deeper into the Myanmar coffee history:
The Early Years
Though coffee plants were originally introduced when missionaries built a few small farms in 1885, it was mostly Robusta, a high-yield, predominantly commercial-grade cousin of Arabica, that was planted. By the time the British occupation ended in 1948 and the country gained its independence, coffee was not seen as a favourable crop and was farmed entirely at a commercial level for the rest of the 20th century. During this time, the bulk of the coffee that was exported was done off the record and to the many surrounding countries.
The New Generation
After massive government reforms in 2011, more farmers have been incentivized to switch from growing opium and commercial-grade coffee to specialty. Through special interest groups and charity organizations the world over, Myanmar has seen impressive leaps in quality and is only improving more with each year. As farms are slowly converted from opium, foreigners have been legally allowed into these regions for the first time ever starting in the last five years. The first commercially available specialty coffee from Myanmar was released in 2016 to high praise, and the country has been slowly gaining popularity since then as a new origin to be celebrated and invested in.
In the 20th century, natural processing is almost exclusively used to clean and dry cherries in preparation for harvest. Water is a precious and unfortunately limited commodity throughout large parts of the country. As foreign interest and investment have started to make their way into the country, washed processed coffees have only recently begun to see production in the specific regions of the country that have better access to water. For much of the country, this is still not close to being a possibility.
In the early stages of farming, the coffees have often been known to taste subtler than those of other regions they may be reminiscent of. Washed coffees are citric, smooth and sweet while not incredibly imposing. The naturals being produced, while more robust and sometimes earthier, have incredibly sweet, syrupy and thick mouthfeels. As the coffee trees develop and the farmers expand and share knowledge in their communities, these flavours will only get more and more exciting. This is only the beginning for what will likely soon be a household specialty coffee name.