This guide on Myanmar coffee lifts the lid on the incredible people, terroir and produce from this historic country. With the support of trusted importers and exporters, dedicated research institutes, and a keen commitment from cooperatives and farmers, a well-deserved global interest is emerging, putting Myanmar on the map for all the right reasons.
Cyclones. Civil War. A fight for independence. Myanmar – formerly known as Burma – has, historically, had to work against seemingly endless social, environmental, and political instability. And while the future of Myanmar is still less than certain, the growing recognition in the quality of the country’s speciality coffee scene cuts a hopeful path for the farmers and producers looking to create positive conversations and a peaceful, prosperous trajectory.
Here, we delve into the country’s history, geography, and the promising future of coffee.
Myanmar sits in an enviable location, located in the middle of trade routes between the European continent, and major trading economies of China and India, yet the country has been kept isolated from the rest of the world for hundreds of years—a place where much of the population lives in poverty, while the landscape is rich in natural resources. Occupation, civil war, and a military controlled government has meant that, for the people of the country, finding their own voice to tell their own story, has been near impossible.
British colonisers invaded and gained full control of the country in the late 1800s; it wasn’t until 1945 that, after the Burmese army joined forces with the British and US troops in an effort to force out the Japanese, the country fought again for independence, which was finally granted in 1948. However, civil war has kept the country in turmoil.
Myanmar is the northernmost country of southeast Asia, bordered by China to the north. The capital, Yangon (known under British rule as Rangoon), is the country’s largest city, and the most important port for domestic and foreign trade. Mandalay is the second largest city.
Myanmar possesses the largest expanse of tropical rainforest in mainland southwest Asia, with substantial biodiversity. The country has a tropical monsoon climate, with hot, humid summers, and rain typical from June to September, and dry, mild winters from December to April. Myanmar is also prone to extreme weather. In 2008, Cyclone Nargis wiped out numerous villages, leaving 138,000 dead or missing, making it the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of the country. While tropical storms and high humidity can bring plenty of challenges to growing coffee, the landscape, with hills, valleys, and mountain ranges, paired with hot days and cool nights, makes for ideal coffee cultivation conditions, particularly in the Shan Hills, which stretch into the coffee growing regions of Yunnan and Thailand.
Coffee was introduced to Myanmar by British colonisers, but the crop went largely uncultivated; Catholic missionaries brought coffee to the Shan State in the 1930s where most of Myanmar’s coffee is today grown; in the township of Ywangan, 90 of the 125 villages are involved in coffee plantation. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s, when the government partnered with the UN to start a project aimed at replacing illegal poppy production (grown for opium) with coffee trees, that the coffee industry began to grow. Today, around 80 percent of all coffee grown in Myanmar is Arabica; Robusta is mostly grown in the lowlands, while Arabica is grown at higher altitudes.
The dry, hot weather of harvesting season – typically falling in the dry season either side of January --works particularly well for naturals, though many coffees are fully washed. Most coffees produced in Shan State are grown by smallholders cultivating under one hectare of land. Most of these households have 10-20 trees in their gardens, where they also grow subsistence crops. Common varietals grown include Caturra, Catimor, Bourbon, Typica, S795, and SL34. The harvest is meticulously picked, processed, and sorted and collected on a village level, then either sent to a central mill for processing, or sun-dried on raised beds.
Farms in Mandalay are typically larger estates and most coffee from these estates is fully washed. Myanmar’s largest mill is run by the Mandalay Coffee Group – formed in 2014 and owned entirely by citizens of Myanmar – who are, together, with the Myanmar Coffee Association (also established in 2014, with more than 300 members), driving speciality coffee production forward. The Group are one of the leading exporters of Myanmar’s speciality coffee, buying and processing ripe cherries from smallholders and estate farmers in different regions of Myanmar at its facility just outside of Pyin Oo Lwin in the Mandalay region.
While there are still numerous challenges to overcome, including a lack of infrastructure for transportation and shipping, it seems that the people of Myanmar are committed to the future of speciality coffee, and organisations are investing in education, training, and research, such as the Coffee Research, Information, Extension, and Training Centre (CRIETC), who focus on agricultural matters, including varietal selection, preservation, boosting yield, and pest and disease management. Exceptional coffees, with clean and bright, fruity profiles are showing that, despite numerous obstacles, Myanmar’s keenness to join the global speciality coffee scene are more than worth supporting, with the potential to positively shape the outlook of the country’s future.
[updated Jan 23]
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