Chinese Coffee: The Next Big Thing?
Do you like to be on the cutting edge of the coffee industry? Then keep reading because we’re here to declare that specialty Chinese is poised to be the next big thing. Beans from the region of Yunnan are making waves, thanks to sweet, fruity flavors and a unique creamy mouthfeel.
In this article, we have everything you need to know about China’s emerging specialty coffee market, including four great coffees for you to try. Each is entirely different and amazing in its own way. Act now to stay ahead of the curve!
At A Glance:
The 4 Best Coffees from China in 2023
In recent years, Chinese coffee has improved dramatically. To the point where some of it deserves to join these beans. Yes, on our list of the best in the world.
|Rabbit Hole Guiben Natural||
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|Rabbit Hole Foret Noir||
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|La Colombe China Yunnan||
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|Hani Coffee Fuyan Espresso Blend||
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Here are four great options for you to try. With different roast levels, each has its own unique character. But you can count on sweet fruit flavors and a rich body in all cases.
Based in Montreal, Canada, Rabbit Hole Roasters is one of the most prominent brands specializing in specialty coffee in China. Their Guiben Natural beans, a single-origin coffee from China’s Yunnan province, are our favorite Chinese coffee beans this year.
This light-medium roast offers a delicious combination of fruit flavors that helps you understand what people mean when describing a coffee as “juicy.” Its tastes and aromas sing with pineapple, pomegranate, and pear, backed by a delicious brown sugar sweetness. They process the beans naturally, a drying method that is difficult to perfect. But when done well, as it is here, it further enhances the inherent sweetness.
Like most grown in Yunnan, the beans are the Catimor varietal, grown at high altitude in the Guiben region. While Catimor is not the most prestigious varietal, it fares particularly well in southern China, according to experts like David Lalonde of Rabbit Hole Roasters (1).
The varietal scores the highest on average in Yunnan province. All over the world, it’s there that you can find the highest-scoring Catimor in general.
Amazingly, just five years ago, farmers in this region had never even tasted coffee, other than instant. This delicious brew is a testament to what a bit of education, training, and a lot of hard work can accomplish! We’re expecting even bigger things from Guiben in the years to come.
This coffee is excellent brewed using any pour over method, like a V60 or Chemex. But in warmer weather, we highly recommend it as a unique and fruit-forward cold brew.
Our favorite Chinese dark roast is another option from Rabbit Hole Roasters, which is no surprise as they are certainly at the forefront of Chinese specialty coffee. This one also comes from Yunnan, but the slightly higher elevation Menglian region of the province.
Again, this coffee is of the Catimor varietal. But the different growing conditions, much darker roast, and washed processing give it a different set of flavors. It is a much richer and more full-bodied coffee with toasted marshmallow, chocolate, and black cherry.
Its creamy mouthfeel, a common trait of Yunnan coffees, makes for an incredible espresso or French press brew.
Many roasters don’t pay enough attention to their dark roasts, letting them develop bitter or muddied flavors. But that is definitely not the case here. Rabbit Hole treats these beans with the same respect afforded their light roasts. They’re aided by the inherent sweetness of the Yunnan beans, which is enhanced rather than masked by the longer roasting time.
The fact that major American coffee roaster La Colombe now has Chinese specialty beans on offer is a sure sign that the growing region is hitting the big time.
The La Colombe China Yunnan coffee is a wet-processed Catimor varietal grown in the Fuyan region of Yunnan. It’s given a light roast, perfect for highlighting its bright flavors of honey, quince, and black tea. It’s almost reminiscent of the excellent washed coffee from Ethiopia and Kenya.
This coffee is produced by a husband and wife team who use strict quality control measures to garner these exceptional beans worthy of export to specialty markets. They ensure only the ripest cherries make the grade, and the results are evident in the cup. Brew this one as a pour-over to enjoy a light-bodied drink that captures the subtle complexity of the flavors.
Hani is one of few Chinese coffee roasters marketing their local beans to buyers around the world. Many of their products are so far confined to Chinese customers, but as they expand, the rest of us are lucky enough to have access to some of these incredible coffees, including this one.
The Fuyan coffee, so named for the region where it is grown, is available at any roast level, but we’re big fans of the espresso blend, which pairs one part medium roast with two dark roasts. Combine this with the naturally sweet and creamy nature of Yunnan coffee, almost similar to Sumatra coffee, and you’ve got an espresso worth writing home about.
Hani Coffee is worth supporting for more than just their delicious beans. They are also working actively to improve conditions at origin through education and sustainable community development. They provide financial assistance to farmers, set up medical clinics and clean water strategies, and commit to best practices for environmental and economic sustainability.
How to Choose the Best China Coffee
The coffee industry is expanding at a crazy rate in China, both domestic consumption and production. This buyer’s guide has all you need to understand both aspects. With this well-rounded picture of the Chinese coffee market, you’re perfectly poised to purchase the best Chinese coffee beans.
Coffee in China
China isn’t just an emerging coffee grower; it’s also an emerging coffee consumer. Until recently, China had one of the lowest coffee consumption rates on Earth. It was averaging just one cup per person each year! But that is starting to change, and it’s changing fast. Rates are growing at 30% a year, compared with the global average of 2%. With China’s population of well over a billion people, that means a lot of coffee consumption and a lot of potential for big business.
Up until 2012, people in China consumed only instant coffee. But that too is now changing. Citizens are increasingly opting for higher-quality ground coffee, either prepared at home or enjoyed at coffee shops.
What pushed the wagon?
Large international chains saw the potential and are quickly jumped on board. Second-wave coffee companies like Starbucks, Costa Coffee, and Chinese brand Luckin Coffee are all driving further changes and reaping huge profits as a result.
American brand Starbucks opened their first Chinese store in 1999 and now have over 5,000 outposts throughout China. UK-based Costa Coffee opened its first store in Shanghai in 2006, with huge plans for expansion. Though they currently have only about 400 cafes, as they had to close many. The reason for this is large competition from domestic brand Luckin Coffee. Luckin was founded in Beijing in 2017, less than five years ago. They began opening stores at an incredible pace, a rate of one every 15 hours (2)!
Luckin focuses on smaller stores, more advanced technology, and faster service — all designed to cater to the younger generation. They are also able to undercut Starbucks’ prices by 20%. There are currently about as many Luckin stores in China as Starbucks, though Luckin has considerably more ambitious goals for growth.
No matter which chain reigns supreme, it’s clear that the Chinese coffee market is open for business (3).
Growing Specialty Coffee in China
The second-wave coffee market in China is firmly established. The growth of international coffee shops like Starbucks, Luckin, and Costa Coffee speaks to that. But what about third-wave specialty coffee? Are Chinese coffee consumers drinking it, and are growers growing it?
If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you’re more interested in these high-end crops. So you’ll be happy to hear that southern China is potentially one of the following great untapped growing regions.
China began growing coffee commercially in 1988, and the industry has been expanding precociously ever since. Coffee production in China grew by over 40% in the following two decades, and in 2016 China produced 140,000 tons of coffee, about 1.5% of the global supply. So far, not a lot of that is a specialty grade, but that sector is expanding rapidly as farmers gain experience and skills.
So, how did it start?
In just the last five years, organizations like the Specialty Coffee Association and the Coffee Quality Institute have been opening coffee schools and advising farmers on best practices for growing and processing in the interest of increasing the quality of China’s coffee market. For their part, farmers are keen students, enticed by the possibility of earning far more per pound for higher quality beans.
In the early days, Chinese producers used Yunnan coffee as a component in blends, a wise marketing decision in recruiting skeptics. But these days, as coffee from the region is really coming into its own, it is becoming a single-origin coffee brand. And the region already has some distinct flavor profiles for which it is becoming known.
Some coffees are now consistently cupping at 85+, well over the 82 usually used as a standard for specialty coffee. And most importantly, according to Yunnan Coffee Traders co-founder Joshua Jagelman, farmers can produce these spectacular coffees reliably (4).
However, the real evidence that things are changing is in the significant improvements in consistency. The same flavour profiles are now being delivered year-on-year, even at large volumes.
This is a sure sign of even bigger things to come in the future of China’s coffee market.
The main growing regions in China are Yunnan, Fujian, and Hainan Island. But of the three, only Yunnan is growing high-end Arabica beans destined for specialty coffee lovers. It produces about 95% of the country’s coffee beans.
The most common varietal grown in Yunnan is Catimor, a hybrid of Timor and Caturra that includes a bit of Robusta in its genetic makeup. Thanks to the Robusta genes, Catimor is a high-yielding and hardy variety with, crucially, good resistance to leaf rust.
Leaf rust is a primary concern for Chinese growers and has thwarted the introduction of more famous Arabica varietals like Typica and Bourbon.
In many regions, Catimor is considered a lower quality varietal, thanks to its Robusta heritage, but so far, that appears not to be the case in China. The unique growing conditions in the area yield Catimor beans that are every bit as delicious and high scoring as Arabica beans worldwide.
There are several different growing regions within Yunnan, all located in the southern half of the state. The most prominent of these is Pu’er Province, which yields about half the country’s total production.
As I already mentioned, the vast majority of coffee grown in Yunnan is the Catimor varietal. And it grows a particularly impressive version of Catimor.
In general, these Chinese coffees tend to be very fruit-forward in their flavor profiles. They have notes of pomegranate, pear, pineapple, and quince in the lighter roasts and darker red fruit like black cherries in the darker roasts. They generally tend to be more sweet than acidic, with notes of honey and brown sugar.
The beans are relatively mild in flavor, which makes them valuable additions to blends and delicious single origins. Yunnan coffees are also renowned for their unusually creamy mouthfeel, even the lighter roasts, with tasters frequently noting “strawberries and cream” as a tasting note. How delicious does that sound?
Processing methods vary in China, as you can see from our top picks above, including a natural and a washed coffee. Honey processing is used in the country as well. Washed coffees from the region tend to have very clean flavors, with a mild sweetness, whereas the naturals have a more pronounced syrupy sweetness. Both are delicious in their own right.
If you’re looking to get in on the ground floor of an exciting emerging coffee-growing region, don’t sleep on Yunnan, China.
So far, only a few roasters are taking advantage of the latest crops of specialty beans, but they’re delivering some incredible coffees. Our favorite this year is the sweet and creamy Rabbit Hole Roasters Guiben Natural. We expect only to see bigger and better things from the region soon.
The kind of coffee Chinese people enjoy varies by generation, which is true of many nations where coffee is just becoming popular. The older population prefers mild coffee with a bigger body, like Sumatra coffee or coffee from India. The younger generations are trending toward more brightly acidic third-wave coffees, as you’d expect from Ethiopia (5).
There are coffee roasters in China, but the industry is not yet well established. The large commercial roasters are mostly preparing Robusta beans for instant coffee. There are a few specialty coffee roasters, but for the moment, they are very small scale. Given the emerging Chinese coffee market, however, we expect to see this sector grow.
Starbucks is so expensive in China because the transportation infrastructure in the country is poorly established and, thanks to taxes and fees, expensive to use (6). If you account for per capita annual incomes, the cost of a large latte in China is the equivalent of a U.S. consumer paying $27!
Yes, there are coffee beans grown in Taiwan. While it’s not a popular coffee region, the volcanic lands of Yunlin County and dense forests in high mountains of Pingtung County are great locations for growing coffee.
- The Roasters Pack. (2020, August 11). Does China Grow Coffee? Here’s What You Need To Know. Retrieved from https://theroasterspack.com/blogs/news/china-grows-coffee-yep-heres-what-you-need-to-know
- Mourdoukoutas, P. (2019, January 21). Starbucks’ Worst Nightmare in China is Coming True. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/panosmourdoukoutas/2019/01/21/starbucks-worst-nightmare-in-china-is-coming-true/?sh=54deaec17ec1
- Grant, T. (2020, February 13). Entering China’s Emerging Coffee Market. Retrieved from https://perfectdailygrind.com/2020/02/entering-chinas-emerging-coffee-market/
- Grant, T. (2020, September 11). The Increasing Quality of Chinese-Grown Coffee. Retrieved from https://perfectdailygrind.com/2020/09/the-increasing-quality-of-chinese-grown-coffee/
- Tark, S. (2018, November 28). Exploring The Chinese Coffee Industry, From Roasters to Consumers. Retrieved from https://perfectdailygrind.com/2018/11/exploring-the-chinese-coffee-industry-from-roasters-to-consumers/
- Schiavenza, M. (2013, September 6). Why is Starbucks so Expensive in China? Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/09/why-is-starbucks-so-expensive-in-china/279394/