Behind every delicious cup of coffee is an extraordinary story of hard work and dedication to quality. We sent our head of coffee program, Courtney, to Myanmar in March to experience firsthand the story behind farm to cup, and to bring back these experiences to share with guests at our coffee studio.
The specialty coffee industry in Myanmar has experienced vast improvements over the past few years, generating buzz with coffees that range from mid-80s to 90 points on the Specialty Coffee Association grading scale. This is definitely a remarkable feat for a country which has been producing commercial grade Robusta coffees for decades.
One of the biggest reasons for this rapid improvement in Myanmar specialty coffee is due to organisations and producers who believe in providing opportunities and hope for coffee farmers in Myanmar who previously had no access to sustainable income and fair wages, and believed in the ability of coffee farmers to harvest amazing quality coffees to be shared with the world. We had the privilege to encounter several of these like-minded organisations and individuals throughout the trip.
One of these organisations is Behind The Leaf Coffee.
Behind the Leaf was established in 2006 by Melanie Edwards and her dedicated team to provide business solutions to benefit the community of Pa-O, an ethnic group in Shan State, Myanmar, who have been hidden from the outside world for many years. Behind The Leaf works closely with individual Pa-O farmers to resurrect their coffee farms and harvest at peak periods. They train these coffee farmers on how to manage their coffee trees and instil a sense of pride in them by introducing their coffees to the world.
We visited one of Behind The Leaf's community farms called War Lee, a small community in Shan State.
Coffee blossoms in full bloom
The farmers of War Lee community warmly welcomed us with a tour of their farm, and prepared a lovely dinner a campfire with traditional song and dance. These kind gestures were carried out with the same joy in which they pick and harvest their coffees, which was reflected in the outstanding coffees on the cupping table we tasted the next day.
We had the opportunity to spend the next morning at Behind The Leaf's processing facility to cup coffees from various Pa-O villages and take a tour of their grounds.
The coffees on the cupping table were generally sweet, juicy, fruit-forward and floral, and each cup had its own unique character. These coffees were a true reflection of the passion and dedication to quality, and also the support the farmers have received from Behind the Leaf.
Behind The Leaf constantly innovates with different processing methods with the same crop of coffee, so as to continuously push the quality of coffees at each Pa-O village. One of the highlights was the opportunity to taste a series of four of the same coffees that was processed with four different processing methods, such as dried natural anaerobic, semi-washed, black honey and pulped natural anaerobic honey processes. These innovative methods have resulted in multiple awards at the Myanmar Coffee Competitions, and achieved outstanding SCA grading scores of nearly 90 points.
Cupping at the lab
After a fruitful visit at Behind The Leaf, we travelled to the Ywangan region, home of the Shwe Taung Thu Coffee group. Shwe Taung Thu is a cooperative formed by 18 member villages in Ywangan, Shan State, and its collective efforts to push for quality is another huge contributing factor to the rise of specialty coffee in Myanmar. Shwe Taung Thu aims to provide financial and technical support to its group of 300 farmers, and connections to domestic and international specialty coffee markets.
One of the Shwe Taung Thu cooperative's villages we visited was Min Kya Doe, a small processing area where 30 families in the village bring around 600kg of coffee cherries per week to be sorted and dried.
Coffee farmers at Min Kya Doe turning the cherries for optimal drying
Coffee cherries are floated in buckets of water to remove under-ripe cherries that float on the surface
We had the privilege to meet with the representatives of the 18 Shwe Taung Thu villages at their headquarters, and witness firsthand how these members are driven by a strong collective mission to provide trainings, market access and business skills to smallholder farms in Shan State, so as to improve their livelihoods and instil a sense of pride in their craft.
The next day we had the opportunity to meet with Su Su Aung, an inspiring woman who founded Amayar, a milling and export company that is solely operated by women. Su Su Aung was motivated by how producing good quality coffee could strengthen her community, hence she organized groups of women coffee producers and formed Amayar, which means 'noble lady,' where these women could hone their craft.
We first started out with cupping 35 samples of coffee from various producers, including Amayar, Shwe Taung Thu, and Mandalay Coffee Group, one of Myanmar's largest specialty coffee producer and exporter. Once again, each coffee on the table was delicious with its own unique characteristics, and it was an enriching experience to be able to cup and share notes alongside international coffee buyers as well.
Cupping 35 samples from different Myanmar specialty coffee producers
We took a tour around Amayar's processing facility to get a glimpse of the hard work that these women producers carry out daily.
First task of the morning: unwrapping cherries covered overnight to continue the drying process
Underneath the depulper: a pile of coffee cherry skins, also known as Cascara
Dried coffee beans of different processing methods
Sorting cherries for different ripeness and grades
In the span of merely three years, Amayar has grown into a milling and processing facility as well as a cupping lab, and has become a source of pride for the communities in Ywangan. Su Su Aung also gives back to the community by offering 10% of profits to providing pre- and post-natal training for young mothers and food safety courses for families. It was inspiring to witness her generous and passionate efforts to contributing to the growth of her community and the specialty coffee industry at large.
For our final day, we were given an opportunity to put ourselves in the shoes of a coffee farmer, at 1800 metres above sea level on Ban Sawk farm, in the region of Hopong. Historically, the predominant crop grown in Ban Sawk was poppy, which is used to produce opium, as it was more profitable than growing coffee. However, in 2014, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime initiated a crop replacement program to replace poppy crops with coffee crops as an alternative and legal income source, and it has shown gradual but steady success ever since.
The remainder of poppy flowers growing in Ban Sawk farm, which will gradually be cleared out to plant coffee crops
At 1800 metres above sea level, the weather was cool and dry, providing the perfect conditions for coffee to grow. It was a slight challenge for us to hike up a few hundred metres on a narrow path with gravel and sand, but to witness elderly coffee farmers breeze past us on these winding roads with a straw basket on their backs and a smile on their faces was truly eye-opening and encouraging.
At the base of the coffee plantation of 1700 metres above sea level before hiking up another 100 metres
It was a truly memorable experience to meet game-changers who are passionate about pushing boundaries in Myanmar's specialty coffee scene and tasting the fruits of their labour. We are thrilled to see what these talented producers bring to the world's specialty coffee markets next, but for now, watch this space as we bring in a couple of amazing Myanmar coffees to share with you at our coffee studio soon.