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China's oldest coffee plants find new life in expanding market

2018-12-08 16:55
Coffee is big business in China, boasting double-digit growth over the past two decades. Almost all Chinese coffee beans are grown in the mountains of Yunnan Province, a humid region in the southwest, bordering Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. There, multinational firms like Starbucks and Nestle, satisfy domestic demand and a global market from Yunnan plantations. But it all started with a French missionary 126-years-ago, in this remote village, called Zhukula. Caffeine courses through the sleepy mountain village of about 400 residents. Small paths wind through a lush plantation of different generations of coffee bushes. The old way of making coffee was on a wood stove, then drank from bowls, explains 56-year-old villager Zheng Shulian. Tea, totally dominant elsewhere in China, wasn't available. Zheng shows visitors how Zhukula's coffee traditions have barely changed in decades. She roasts the fresh beans on a wood fire stove, turning them with a metal spoon. When roasted, she puts them on a wicker sieve to separate the beans from chaff. Her 90-year-old father-in-law, Li Liangzhong knows the historical roots of Zhukula's coffee plants. According to village legend, a French missionary working in Vietnam brought coffee beans with him, so he could enjoy his favourite drink. Those sprouted and became plants alongside the Christian church. Nowadays, Zhukula villagers depend on the more profitable walnut to get by, but households manage their own coffee plants, roast their own beans and make their own coffee. "I cannot bear without drinking coffee," says 78-year-old villager, Li Bingxiang. "We have to drink coffee at least once a day. Sometimes I drink it twice a day." According to the International Coffee Organization, coffee production in China has "escalated rapidly" since in 1988. The Chinese government, in association with the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme, initiated a project to regenerate the sector. But while plantations in China have started to supply the world, Chinese consumers are drinking more espressos, lattes and cappuccinos. Wan Xuejun is hoping to cash in on that trend and make Zhukula beans sought the world over. She's also hoping to kickstart coffee tourism in the sleepy village. Wan bought 23,000 mu (1,533 hectares) of land to grow coffee in 2011 and has taken over an old construction firm's building as a headquarters for Binchuan Plateau Organic Agriculture Development. She's marketing Zhukula beans' unique history. "(We wish to) preserve the indigenous way of coffee processing in the village," she says, inside a greenhouse. "The villagers need a motivation to follow our advice and they need to see (the) financial benefits. "The cooked coffee of the first generation has a strong taste that stays long in your throat. I was impressed when I first tasted the ancient generation."