Myanmar has been in the news a lot lately, and that includes news about its coffee. For example, earlier this month Myanmar coffee made its first-ever appearance at the annual SCAA Conference.
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.
Italian Coffee Myanmar
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.
Shwe Yin Mar
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.