So why the sudden interest in coffee from Myanmar? While it is still more curiosity than serious demand, coffee from Myanmar is still something of an exotic export — despite Myanmar being overshadowed by its neighbors in China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia.
The country formerly known as Burma is just now opening up to the world much like Cuba is currently opening up to the U.S. Once a prosperous nation, Myanmar succumbed to a coup d’état in 1962 and it had been under military rule until only recently. Borders were closed, the economy stagnated, civil guerilla wars proliferated among Myanmar’s many tribal minorities, and multiple generations of Burmese citizens were lost to an oppressive regime stuck in the past.
That’s all changing today — and ridiculously fast. Last month, and for the first time in 17 years, a co-worker of mine and all-around cool guy — Anjo — recently returned to his Burmese birthplace. He witnessed a vastly different place with paved roads, modern construction, saturated trucking routes to and from China, the proliferation of smartphones and $1.50 SIM chips, and local Burmese wearing more Western clothes. In the three weeks he was there, he witnessed Myanmar swearing in its first democratically elected president in 50 years and the opening of a new Myanmar stock exchange.
At first Anjo hoped to pick up some coffee at origin near his original home in the Shan State, where much of Myanmar’s coffee has been grown ever since it was first introduced by missionaries in 1885. Instead, he picked some up at a City Mart, a popular supermarket in the former capital of Yangon.
This was even more interesting to me, as it represented what is consumed in the domestic coffee market — not just what’s shipped out for export. While the difference between domestic and export market coffee can be dramatic in many coffee-producing countries, Myanmar’s history of closed borders likely means the locals have become used to drinking “the good stuff” as its only market.
The first 200g bag of coffee I tried was simply labeled — in English — “Italian Coffee Myanmar” from Ananda Cocoa & Coffee Ltd. It was 100% organic, 100% Arabica coffee designed for “Italian espresso” shade grown in the Pyin Oo Lwin of the North Shan State at about 1200m. As for the coffee varietal, it claimed to be Kenyan — which coincides with the SL 6, SL 14, SL 28, and SL 34 cultivars introduced to Myanmar in 2004.
Purchased in mid-March 2016, I couldn’t help but notice the expiration date stamp of 28-Jan-2017 on the bottom of the decorative bag. Taking a wild guess, that was probably an annual stamp and thus the roast date was probably about 6 weeks prior to purchase. It’s also worth noting how much English labeling is on a package of coffee sold in a Yangon supermarket. (Thank you, British colonialism.)
Myanmar coffee is more typically Arabica (two-thirds of its production, the other third being robusta that was originally planted by tribesmen of the Karen minority) and tend to be higher elevation Catimor cultivars — known more for their body and earthiness. Which is why it was a little bit of a surprise — especially on a bag labelled “Italian espresso” — to find a more medium City/Full City roast that barely made the second crack. There was no visible signs of surface oils on the beans. Have Myanmar coffee roasters been following Third Wave hipster protocol all along?
Brewed as espresso, though not on my most meticulous espresso machine setup (a consumer-typical Saeco Syntia Focus), it produced a cup with a medium-to-blonde crema that was relatively slight (6+ weeks since roasting will do that to you). The body was pretty solid but not heavy. The flavor profile lacked sweetness but also that dense, roasted fullness — and thus centered more around the midrange of the palate. I suspect it wasn’t quite a single origin, but it was a close approximation for some relatively similar green stocks.
Overall, an impressive coffee if you compare it with anything you could get in a supermarket bag labeled “Italian espresso” in Vietnam, Thailand, or China.
The second 200g bag of Myanmar coffee I tried came from Shwe Yin Mar Coffee, a member organization of the Mandalay Coffee Group — and not to be confused its related auto parts, iron, and steel business.
The packaging appeared far more commercial and lacked any designation for coffee origin other than “Arabica from Shan State”. While not labelled “100% organic”, they claimed their beans were grown without chemical fertilizers. Plus an expiration date also showing January 2017 and what looks like an indicator that it was roasted January 2016.
As a bag labelled “Espresso – whole bean”, the roast was more of what I expected for SE Asia supermarket coffee: a dark roast with a sheen of oils. As with the Italian Coffee Myanmar, the beans are a healthy, Arabica-friendly size which you might not normally associate with coffee in this part of Asia.
Brewed as espresso on the same machine as before, it produced a cup with a slightly more blonde crema of weak thickness. The body was decent, not great, and the flavor profile dipped into that burn-the-crap-out-of-my-identity territory: not quite a watery cup of ash, but definitely heavier on the smoke and tobacco with only some midrange and no real brightness to speak of. Which is a shame, because it was essentially roasted to taste like coffee from anywhere else.
In conclusion, I can’t say I wasn’t fully convinced of the exotic magic of Myanmar coffee. But there was clearly something going on here that I wasn’t quite expecting — and that coffee from Myanmar clearly has the distinctive potential to be something that could stand on its own relative to other quality coffee producers around the world. So at a minimum, I’ve been put on notice for what’s to come from this rapidly evolving country.
As the local T-shirts put it, “New Mexico: It’s not new, and it’s not Mexico.”
Even the food here is its own thing. Between sopapillas, calabacitas, carne adovada, and Hatch Valley chiles (and ordering things “red”, “green”, or “Christmas”): it’s not Mexican, and it’s not Tex-Mex either.
New Mexico can probably even lay claim to its own state of mind, defining the term high desert. Anywhere you turn starts from at least 6,000 feet of altitude. The combination of the altitude and arid climate can leave you with mild headaches and nosebleeds for days after arriving. Any notable breeze will result in red dust and grit in your teeth.
I last visited this region one winter in the 1990s, passing through one bleary-eyed day in the high-desert driving across I-40 from Flagstaff, AZ to Oklahoma City as part of a marathon trek across the country. Even back then I found Albuquerque more than a little odd, with the entire stretch of the town littered with “experimental speed limit” caution road signs. Experiencing it close up two decades later, it’s far stranger than I could have imagined.
It seems rather apropos that humanity’s nuclear era started in the neighborhood, just up the road at Los Alamos. The town of Albuquerque strikes you as a post-apocalyptic world where someone entered a typo in their nuclear launch codes and accidentally overlooked this place. Add the many locals who convincingly impress you as veterans of earlier (and multiple) alien abductions, and to this day there is perhaps no better movie that captures the essence of Albuquerque than the 1984 cult film Repo Man:
Repo Man:This could easily have been set in Albuquerque, NM
Yes, even more than No Country for Old Men and the excellent TV series Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. While New Mexico may not directly feature in Repo Man, it’s the film’s origin story and its influence permeates throughout. (Sorry, L.A.)
The residential areas are typically a criss-cross of wide East-West-bound boulevards littered with strip malls, with North-South streets (like Washington St. NE) jaggedly intersecting like misfit puzzle pieces so there’s never a continuous line through the many lots of ranch homes, covered car ports, and gravel landscaping.
On the subject of food, simply eating here reminds you that Albuquerque is not your typical American city. The most exclusive restaurant in town — universally voted the biggest “splurge” restaurant in ABQ — is run by a three-time James Beard nominee. In true ABQ style, it resides in a local strip mall, next door to a hydroponics shop and across the street from a drive-thru emergency loan shark/cash station called Fastbucks. That’s how ABQ rolls.
Among friends I’m known for identifying the TV trope of the generic “fancy restaurant”: high-end dining establishments that have zero distinguishable interior design. Meanwhile, real-life restauranteurs often bleed ridiculous amounts of money to heavily brand their high-end dining room experiences so you always know exactly where you’re eating. For all that Better Call Saul gets right about the town, there was a scene in an episode last month where they dine at one such generic “fancy restaurant” in Albuquerque. If you spend any time in ABQ, you’d immediately recognize that no such place could exist in town.
Better Call Saul does, however, nail the region on lawyers. Albuquerque is overflowing with courthouses and law offices, with the billboards of personal injury attorneys lining Interstates 25 & 40 with come-ons such as, “Hurt? Call Bert”. Is it any wonder why Bugs Bunny should have turned left?
Downtown ABQ gets even stranger. There’s a vast sea of multi-story parking garages, largely filled with cars, scattered among the remains of aging U.S. Route 66 kitsch and the tinted glass monoliths of more modern-yet-nondescript bank and energy company towers. And yet walk the downtown streets on a weekday afternoon a couple hours before rush hour and it is eerily devoid of pedestrians or even traffic. Which gives downtown ABQ the feel of a giant long-term airport parking lot for alien abductions: nobody is here, and yet everyone has left their cars behind.
We’ve written before about Austin, TX and their “Keep Austin Weird” motto. But the people here, although very friendly, are simply just too weird for Austin. More to the point: they’re blissfully unaware of their weirdness, thriving as an amalgamation of teen and adult runaways, Native Americans, silver-toothed street urchins, and the progeny of prior vehicle breakdowns along U.S. Route 66 to California.
All of this makes Albuquerque a more than unusual base for developing a quality coffee culture, which most cities typically identify with urban hipsters. The bizarro culture of ABQ essentially renders a hipster’s raison d’être as pointless and irrelevant. If anybody from Portland, OR ever ended up here, I’d put them on a suicide watch.
Quality coffee is a relatively new thing in this town that normally celebrates commodities, down to its streets named after mining and minerals. Hence it is surprising to see a few $3 espresso shots here without the “moral outrage” you’d normally expect from most cities that love to gripe about the cost of a cup of coffee.
In Albuquerque, the espresso shots tended to run a bit thin on body and were often served in various presentation contraptions involving carved wooden blocks (or serving trays) and sparkling water on the side.
One of the local oddities I came across was piñon coffee. Much as New Orleans has been known for blending regular coffee with chicory for a unique local variation, piñon coffee is made by combining regular coffee with nuts of the piñon pine tree (the official state tree). Native Americans traditionally harvested these pine nuts. Once roasted and brewed, it exhibits a sweet, spiced smell like an amped up Arabic coffee, but it tastes more like regular coffee with an earthy, nutty edge to it.
An hour up I-25 from Albuquerque is the town of Santa Fe. Founded in 1610 by Spanish colonialists, the New Mexico state capital carries a lot more history — including one of the oldest houses and the oldest church in the U.S.
Very much unlike Albuquerque, Santa Fe is a deliberately preserved town. This makes the stark contrast between the two not unlike the city of Napa versus St. Helena in the Napa Valley: one grows through big-box-store sprawl and lower costs of living while the other prefers a controlled aesthetic gentrification that makes it attractive to tourists with money.
This means that Santa Fe, like New Orleans, is one of the few places in the U.S. where you know exactly where you are — i.e., not in some random urban center lined with all the same chain stores. Sure, there are many fancy restaurants and massive hotels and spas about town, but everything is harmoniously dressed up in Pueblo or Spanish style. Every building is some variation of an earthtone and the architecture is remarkably consistent.
Despite the million-dollar Pueblo homes near the old city center, there are still plenty of tourists parading through town in rumbling two-story pickup trucks with tinted windows, Oklahoma or Texas plates, and blasting some variation on death metal out their windows. Yet at the same time there’s an extensive arts community and even the relocation of many Tibetan expatriates in town.
Although Santa Fe is where locally roasted coffee was first introduced to New Mexico, the coffee culture here has generally been slow to evolve — with more options growing in just the past few years. Like Albuquerque, there’s often an unusual emphasis on an inventive rotation of specialty drinks. But here there is also a strange validation of the Paleo diet as something more than the snake oil fad that it is: a few places place their own buttered coffee knockoffs prominently on drink menus.
Synesso espresso machines can be found in uncommon locations — cart services, ice cream shops, etc. — which makes us suspect there’s a local distributor with service and influence in the area. If you’re going to cover this high desert service area, my advice — based on ample empirical evidence — is to listen to a lot of Guadalupe Plata on the car stereo:
Guadalupe Plata may be from Andalucía, Spain, but if it was good enough for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly…
I originally noted a lack of sweetness in the coffee of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, which I partly blamed on the altitude at first. But I eventually found examples that broke that stereotype, such as the excellent Iconik Coffee Roasters — easily one of my more favorite coffee house finds of the past couple of years.
In conclusion, fallout from the Manhattan Project and Trinity tests may have left behind one unusual place and its residents, but the global advance of good coffee has infiltrated even here in just the past few years. Though for the record: Los Alamos scientists still drink pretty crummy coffee for the most part.
|Name||Address||City||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]|
|Deep Space Coffee||504 Central Ave. SW||Albuquerque||8.10||7.50||7.800|
|Humble Coffee Company||4200 Lomas Blvd. NE, Ste C||Albuquerque||7.50||7.80||7.650|
|Zendo Coffee||413 2nd St. SW||Albuquerque||7.50||7.50||7.500|
|35° North Coffee||60 E. San Francisco St.||Santa Fe||7.40||5.50||6.450|
|Holy Spirit Espresso||225 W San Francisco St.||Santa Fe||7.10||6.50||6.800|
|Iconik Coffee Roasters||1600 Lena St., Ste A2||Santa Fe||8.10||8.20||8.150|
|Ohori’s Coffee Roasters||505 Cerrillos Rd., Ste B103||Santa Fe||5.80||5.50||5.650|
|Santa Fe Espresso Co.||56 E. San Francisco St.||Santa Fe||7.30||7.00||7.150|
This art café is located where downtown Albuquerque gets more industrial the further south you get. Opened by Trevor Lucero, a self-proclaimed “coffee guy”, in June 2013, this 1,000-sq-ft space and 600-sq-ft outdoor covered patio serves as much as a community gathering space as it does a coffee bar or art space. Third places are apparently a more natural setting in Albuquerque than they are in Santa Fe.
There’s a short, wooden high counter with stools at the front windows. The white-painted brick wall in the rear is adorned with color photographs. Larger wooden block tables and a bench scatter about in the in-between spaces for contemplating with headphones or laptops under a white-painted wood ceiling. The laptop zombie quotient being higher as it is in ABQ.
The Zendo name apparently refers to an international feng-shui-like term for the supposed spacial zen-like state of the joint. Or so we’re told.
Whatever you call it, the place is packed with locals. It seems heavily frequented by a younger, more female clientele who take to eating take-out lunches at the bar stools and conversing with friends for the day. Rather than mistaking them for UNM students from the campus across the I-25 freeway, like much of downtown Albuquerque there’s little indication that the folks hanging out here do much of anything professionally besides, well, hanging out here.
Señor Lucero bought a three-group manual Victoria Arduino Athena Classic for $6k that’s used at the bar. They originally relied on independent roasters but have since started roasting their own at a facility further down 2nd Street, though they do feature a rotation of guest roasters Denver’s Boxcar was featured on my visit.
Using the Zendo Espresso blend, they pulled a shot with an medium brown, even crema with lighter heat spots from the spouts. It tastes of an edge of tobacco over more spices and herbal pungency. Good, but there are noticeable flaws.
Served on a custom wooden block with even a spoon holder as well as sparkling water — like you do in ABQ — in a World Market China cup with no saucer. Cheap at $2 though.
And like a number of ABQ coffee shops, they offer their own inventive specialty coffee drinks — except here they go a bit crazy with it: the London Fog, the Sweet Bonnie, the Maroccino, the Golden, the Regis, Red Cappuccino, Lapsang Latte, etc. Mixologists Gone Wild.
Read the review of Zendo Coffee in Albuquerque, NM.
This is a coffee shop fitting for downtown Albuquerque, which feels like it’s at the fringes of the known universe. (More on that in a later post.)
Its interior is stark black and white, frequently adorned in stripes, with cement or brick walls, scuffed square tile floors, and a worn wooden service counter littered with woodcut puzzle pieces of their logo (aka, their “business card”). There are several tables inside, often attended by students and/or laptop zombies, with window counter seating in front beneath glass block windows.
They work closely with Chad Morris, roastmaster at the Las Cruces, NM Picacho Coffee Roasters – one of the best roasters in the state. They serve V60 pour-overs in addition to espresso drinks.
Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the back of the rectangular space they pulled shots of Picacho’s Sidami Ardi Natural to produce a cup with a mottled medium-to-darker brown crema. As a single origin Ethiopian, it exhibits a broader flavor profile than you might expect — with some bright fruit balanced with body and darker herbal elements with more spice and warming elements at its core. Served in a cheap Tuxton cup with a glass of sparkling water on the side.
It’s a pretty solid espresso shot: not exceptional, but worthy in a town ruled by the odd and bizarre — albeit pricey at $3.
Read the review of Deep Space Coffee in Albuquerque, NM.