Charlie refers to Myanmar Kyauk Kuu Pyin Village Natural—our first of four Single Origin releases from the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma—as a perfect storm of deliciousness.
In this two-part blog series, we're exploring the serendipitous confluence of events that brought him to the other side of the globe and revealed a coffee from one of the industry's dark horses.
Before last November, Webster Street lead roaster Juliet Han had never visited one of the smallholder farms where we source our single origin coffees. But after more than ten years in the industry, she knew a thing or two about coffee. When our green coffee buyer, Charlie Habegger, asked her to join him on a trip to teach Burmese farmers how to grow coffee for the specialty market, she jumped at the chance to share her expertise.
Juliet and Charlie journeyed to Kyauk Kuu Pyin, a remote village located in Myanmar’s southern Shan State, to kick off a workshop series created by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) called the Partnership for Gender Equity (PGE). Teaching smallholder farmers about coffee was just one of the program’s goals. The other was to cultivate gender equality among some of the world’s most vulnerable coffee families.
Building Gender Equity
Juliet discovered that the people of Kyauk Kuu Pyin were eager to learn on both fronts.
“They were passionate. They asked every question they could about coffee,” she says. “And when we were doing the exercises around gender, these smart, incredible women stepped up and became leaders. Everyone, men and women, had the same goal in the end: They wanted a better life for their children, and they wanted to earn more money and save it, to stop living hand to mouth.”
“It’s very noble work, and couldn’t be more in line with Blue Bottle’s practice of empowerment for the people we work with,” says Charlie. “That’s why Juliet and I were there—not as buyers, but because we believed in the mission.”
An Unexpected Coffee
That all changed when they actually tried the coffee grown in Kyauk Kuu Pyin. Although nonprofit organizations like CQI had been working with local farmers developing the potential for specialty coffee over the last year or so, neither Charlie nor Juliet were expecting much from a region that’s still generally disparaged in the coffee world.
“People talk about Myanmar as an emerging ‘golden child’ of the industry,” says Juliet. “All the pieces are there, and with the right infrastructure and financial support, it will really take off in the near future. We knew that success was coming for Myanmar, we just didn’t know we were going to taste it for ourselves.”
Myanmar and Coffee
Coffea arabica was first introduced to Myanmar by its British colonizers in the late nineteenth century, around the same time the crop arrived in Latin America. But unlike the developmental arc that established the New World as coffee powerhouse, coffee culture in Myanmar remained stifled due to decades of political unrest marked by a military dictatorship, as well as one of the world’s longest-running civil wars.
Since the end of that war in 2012, the country formerly known as Burma has begun opening itself, and its industries, to the international community. But even now, expectations for Burmese coffee are only just beginning to pick up.
“As development in rural areas uplifted smallholder farmers, the specialty coffee industry began to show a lot of interest in southern Shan State,” says Charlie. “A few short years later, we have astounding quality from what were previously invisible producer groups. Everyone thought they could make improvements to the status quo—but no one expected results this good.”
A Perfect Storm of Deliciousness
In many ways, that goodness is nothing short of a miracle. “High-quality coffee is already outlier an in this area,” says Charlie. “Specialty naturals would be an outlier anywhere in Southeast Asia. Highly traceable coffee would be an outlier in Southeast Asia. Anything from Myanmar that specialty roasters are excited about would be an outlier in Southeast Asia. But the coffees we're working with this year from Kyauk Kuu Pyin are all of these.”
Then there’s the deliciousness itself. “This profile is unique in all the world,” says Charlie. “The only other terroir I can compare it to would be Yemen, because of its very articulate, fruit-confection-like sweetness and gamey complexity. It's delicate and expressive and precious-tasting.”
A combination of terroir and natural processing—a sustainable method for a region where water must be rationed outside of the rainy season—is one reason for such remarkable results. But it's the farmers who are bringing a coffee backwater to the global forefront.
“They asked every question they could about the coffee process, from harvest to grind to pour,” says Juliet. “They hadn’t even seen a pour over before, hadn’t even tasted their own coffee. But they saw the opportunity they had with specialty coffee, and knew this business could be a big part of their future.”
The Partnership for Gender Equity
As CQI sees it, business is key to resolving the struggle for more egalitarian families, farming, and finances all over the world. “Gender equity is linked to business outcomes,” explains Kimberly Eason, CQI's Gender Advisor. According to the PGE website: “It has been estimated that if women farmers across the developing world had the same access to productive inputs as male farmers... yields would increase by as much as 30 percent per household.”
This is why giving Burmese farmers the tools to thrive economically goes hand-in-hand with coffee education, and CQI hopes that these tools will spread throughout the community. Prior to the first PGE workshop in Myanmar, they held a successful series in Uganda; as for the farmers who attended this workshop, they themselves will be holding it again—this time as its facilitators.
“The final day of the workshop is called Community Day,” says Kimberly. “The participants invite their community to come and share sharing the tools and new perspectives they have. The first batch of attendees goes on to train other attendees, and it’s our hope that it will keep spreading."