Written by Eli Ramirez
Just a month ago, I left the country embarking on a week long journey through rural China in preparation for the United States Barista Championship. I would spend my trip touring the coffee farms of China, meeting the farmer responsible for growing the coffee I was using, and soaking up every bit of culture that I could. Going into this, I had very little knowledge of China; I don’t speak the language, and I was not very familiar with the geography, or the culture and customs.
During my preparation for the trip, I couldn’t really wrap my mind around the fact that I’d actually be in China. I had a million questions running through my head. What if one of my three flights doesn’t connect? What if I somehow get completely lost and have no way to communicate with anyone? What if one of the vaccination shots I got before going doesn’t work and I get sick? This was my first trip to origin as well as the farthest away from home I’d ever been. I couldn’t fathom what it would be like to actually be there until I stepped off my final plane in Pu’er and met Tim, my partner for the entirety of the trip. The moment I stepped out of the plane (because yes, I only got mildly lost and I did find my gates) was the moment everything seemed to come together. I was immediately surrounded by endless forest-covered mountains and beautiful, ornately decorated buildings. The air seemed different and the sun seemed brighter. I was completely immersed into a new world of culture, food, coffee and people, and I was so excited to take in everything I could.
Landing in Pu’er was step one to getting to the farm I’d be staying at, step two being the five hour drive southwest to a town called Menglian, about ten miles east of the Myanmar border. During every part of the drive, it seemed like we were at the top of a mountain, and in every direction were endless hills, mountains, tea fields, rice terraces, and massive plantations. It looked like a patchwork quilt was laid over every surface - each new thing growing was segmented into square fields, bunched up right next to each other. I knew that I was heading to rural south China but I had always imagined China as a bustling, cosmopolitan, big city focused place with big businesses and even bigger skyscrapers. The China that I was experiencing seemed so small and intimate. The food we were eating with so fresh and thoughtfully prepared but best of all, the people that I was meeting were so generous and warm. I had to remember that my job here was to learn as much about their coffee as possible, while also having the trip of a lifetime.
Chinese coffee has an interesting story. Since the 50’s, Nestle has been opening plants all around the Yunnan area, which is basically all of southern China. A huge majority of tea and rice farmers are also growing coffee, to be sold to Nestle. Nestle will strike agreements with these farmers to buy their entire lot of coffee for a lump sum, regardless of quality, to be turned straight into instant coffee. In the mid 90’s, the Chinese government realized that they were missing out on huge profits from coffee growing, so they decided to put a larger emphasis on growing coffee but then selling it internally to stimulate their own economy. In 2000, a man named Mr. Hu was hired to consult multiple coffee cooperatives in the area on how to run efficiently but also how to grow healthy, delicious coffee. I had the honor of staying with him at his house, on one of his farms. Mr. Hu has been farming in China for almost 40 years, starting out as a tea growing consultant before making his way to coffee growing. In 2003, after an intense frost hit his region and wiped out the coffee cooperative that he was working for, he decided to start his own.
Today, Mr. Hu owns and runs seven farms in Menglian, four that produce commercial grade coffee and three that produce specialty grade. Mr. Hu, a botanist at heart, is someone who fully understands the hardships of being a farmer and how to run a successful business. Over the years, he has formed an incredibly efficient chain of command to run this complex operation, with himself at the top. He employs seven different farm managers, each one living on their respective farm and overseeing the day to day operations. Each of these managers then hire and employ pickers and processors, people whose job it is to specifically make sure only the ripest coffee cherries are being picked every day while also ensuring that the processing conditions are clean and organized. With this chain of command, Mr. Hu is able to have a hand in everything that happens at each of his farms, while also letting his employees know that he trusts them enough to act and work independently. However, it is not uncommon for him to get involved in the personal issues of the pickers that work multiple levels under him. He makes it known that he is there to help with work and personal issues at anytime, because the well-being of his employees mean business will run smoothly.
Being able to live at Mr. Hu’s house for five days allowed me to get an amazing view into the life of Mr. Hu and his business. Every morning at sunrise we would sit on his porch and chat while Mr. Hu made multiple V60’s of coffee from his various farms. We would walk around his property while he watered his plants and fed his flocks of animals. He would inspect his coffee trees to see how they were doing while checking in on his coffee tree nursery, another army of coffee tree babies waiting to be planted in his fields. Taking the day in one step at a time allowed him to divide and conquer, ensuring that every cog in his business ran smoothly. Throughout the trip we tasted coffee, picked coffee cherries, processed coffee, toured his coffee farms, roasted coffee, cupped coffee, and lived within the rhythm of his life. Though our days were consistently filled with activity, I found myself taking pauses just to marvel at and contemplate how complex this chain of events is. Before this trip it was difficult to conceptualize how many hands it really took for coffee to grow, get processed, get shipped, and get to Chicago.
While overwhelming to experience coffee in a new way, I found the process of gaining insight into this end of the coffee chain exhilarating. It is easy to assume that I knew how processing works and that I knew how coffee gets all the way to us, but this trip taught me that I, in reality, didn’t know anything about that. As I walked through the chain of coffee growing and processing, I was relearning what coffee is and what coffee means to hundreds of families in the Yunnan Province. Being able to see the amount of time and care Mr. Hu put into this coffee was priceless because every hour seemed to include another eye-opening experience. This came in the form of tasting a coffee cherry for the first time, or hand sorting cherry shells during the dry milling phase of processing. I was finally realizing just how much effort gets poured into growing coffee. The amount of effort is rivaled only by the sheer amount of time this takes, literal decades spent building this empire of coffee, all run by Mr. Hu. These years were spent building a community of coffee farmers, all looking towards him for farm advice and how to run a successful business.
I spent my week in China absorbing everything around me that I was experiencing for the very first time. This trip was seven days full of new adventures that fundamentally changed who I am and how I see my industry. I went into this not knowing what was going to happen and I came out with a renewed sense of being and belonging, feeling more grounded and attached to this profession than ever. All the incredible elements of this trip have changed the way I see coffee.
In the next installment of this blog series, I will go in depth into the processing methods at one of Mr. Hu’s and how they change the flavor of his coffee.