Most of China's arabica is the catimor variety, with a relatively light body, medium acidity and potential for high sweetness. Flavours tend to be cream, chocolate and fruits with light-coloured flesh.
Coffee grown in Hainan and Fujian is typically robusta.
Coffee in Mandarin: Ka fei
Population: 1.4 billion (2016)
Tons Produced: 116820 (2014)
Main Varieties: Catimor, Typica, Bourbon
Main Coffee Growing Regions
Coffee in China
As of 2017, the coffee industry in China feels like it's about to explode - but it has felt that way for many years now. Since 2009 coffee production has soared and since 2013 more has been staying for in-country consumption. Most is exported to Hamburg, Germany. Starbucks are opening at least one shop a day. This year too, saw specialty Chinese coffee shops bidding high for the best lots of in Panama for 2016. There's certainly a lot of excitement and the country is still ripe for growth and further development.
French missionaries brought coffee to China but it took a good hundred years for it to be grown on any scale. Today, Starbucks and Nestle overlook a lot of the industry, in some ways keeping a large portion at the commercial grade.
Chinese coffees are not yet at the highest standard, although it's getting easier to find good single origins. Farmers are experimenting more with different processing methods, with many now adopting the honey process to add variation to what was mostly washed.
In 2016, as much as 50% of the harvest was wasted through poor practices but now companies like Torch House, Hani, the Yunnan Coffee Traders and the Coffee Association of Yunnan are helping the local communities massively in their processing.
Most coffee is grown in Yunnan, the south western region of China rich in minority groups. Coffee is also grown in Hainan and Fujian but this 5% of overall production tends to be low quality robusta. Rubber, pineapple and jackfruit trees are used as shade.
As with coffee producing countries around the world, climate change is having an impact. Farmers are seeing wilder swings in temperatures with frost sometimes killing crops and exceptionally hot days decreasing yields. Although Yunnan has an unusual climate for its latitude due to the great rifts of the Himalayas and air currents, it too is not safe from the rapidly changing climate.
The majority is Catimor - the Caturra-Timor hybrid. Before it had been Typica and Bourbon but this changed because, with the encouragement of large multinationals, it has good rust-resistance and yields high. One farmer I spoke with told me some are finding natural mutations of the Catimor, with one they called purple for its colour. She said it tasted sweeter than other Catimors but yield was lower and the trees also died more easily.
More recently farmers have been experimenting with specialty varieties like Pacamara, Maragogype and even Geisha, a variety becoming incredibly famous in China for its delicate tea-like flavours. With much focus on soil enrichment too there should be some exciting, if not expensive, Chinese coffees appearing in the next few years.
Chinese Coffee Culture
What was very fringe is now a fast-growing coffee culture. The young, middle class are curious and culturally quite separate from the elder tea-drinking generations. But this is only for the larger, more prominent metropolises such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Wuhan, Nanjing and a handful more. 15% of China's coffee shops are found in the first four cities in that list.
The majority of China's coffee drinkers consume instant but there was a big increase in specialty coffee shops in 2016. Single origin, pour over coffees have become particularly popular, especially from Panama and Ethiopia (tax-free imports to China), because of the more tea-like flavours and the showy price tag of Geishas. Wet-hulled Mandhelings are also highly consumed, the tastes and flavours representing the Chinese idea of traditional coffee.
Many independent coffee shops are minimalist in style, with colours of concrete and brown. Most offer a good selection of specialty coffees and well-made deserts. They look set to follow western and northern European coffee cultures. Local commercial coffee chains are large and look more rustic, serving Chinese-style western food. Coffee and food quality is generally low here. For these commercial coffee companies, you'd be forgiven for thinking they're all the same.
In Pu'er, southern Yunnan, there are some who drink Pu'er tea mixed with whole coffee beans Pu'er tea is very famous throughout China for its distinctive taste and unique processing method. It has overripe fruit and earthy flavours, a heavy body and balanced sweetness. With coffee it can mix well, adding a complimenting bitter-sweet taste.