The Rise of Premium Chinese Coffee

The Rise of Premium Chinese Coffee

If we can develop coffee sustainably in Yunnan, the farmers will benefit
— Bryan Rakphongphairoj, Founder of Lanna Coffee

Calling all coffee lovers! Calling all coffee lovers! If you thought we would neglect you, then you need a bit more self-esteem. One of the best-kept secrets (that shouldn’t be a secret at all) is the growing trend of Chinese coffee and the culture that surrounds it. In Yunnan, China-- the premier coffee-growing area of the entire country-- there are some fabulous coffees being grown and distributed within the area. The founder of Lanna Coffee-- Bryan Rakphongphairoj-- has come here and talked us through all the fabulous things having to do with coffee, including why he dropped everything to move to Yunnan.

Even though Bryan hails from the States, he has lived all over the world and worked in some of the finest coffee capitals Earth has to offer. His family moved to Turkey when he was two years old, then at the age of ten, they whisked away to Indonesia. Bryan returned back to the States in order to go to school, worked for a little while in Thailand, then found himself making the bold, brave move to abandon everything for Yunnan, China!

He admits he wasn’t into coffee when he was younger, but because he was immersed in the coffee culture, it simply stuck. Now, his passion lies in the sustainable coffee industry as well as being at the helm of the growing ‘coffee shop’ culture in China.

When Bryan Rakphongphairoj first got to China, he realized the entire country didn’t have its own ‘coffee culture’. As in, there was no country-wide recognized or accepted coffee that the locals adored. There were coffee farms all around Yunnan, but none were held to the standard they needed to be held to, so the yields were not consistent and the product was always different. This bred a mistrust within the community, and Rakphongphairoj felt he was the perfect person to right this wrong.

Lanna Coffee first began working with only two farms to stabilize their crop and educate the farmers on how the crop should be grown, and now the company works with ten. As the education and passion of the farmers grow, Lanna Coffee takes on more local cooperation, and this is what initially boosted the coffee culture Bryan and Lanna Coffee would come to build.

Coffee, like wine, varies with the environments and regions it is grown in. This is why the coffee that is grown in Yunnan, China tastes like home to its local drinkers. This was why it was so important to fuse the farms into one entire mechanism, and this is what gave Lanna Coffee its start.

But, Bryan does credit some of his venture to the bigger players in the area. He believes that the bigger players like Starbucks, gets people through the doors to expose them to coffee, and then smaller corporations-- like Lanna coffee-- can then expose them to different ranges of coffee the locals otherwise would not have experienced.

In the beginning, the locals didn’t enjoy the idea of a coffee culture because they saw coffee as a foreign product. However, the people of China are resilient and can adapt to their surroundings, so now those same individuals have become more accepting and supporting of the thematic ideas that are so important to Bryan, such as local growing and sustainable farming of coffee beans.

While there isn’t much international talk of Yunnan coffee yet, there are still some incredible leaps and bounds Lanna Coffee has had to make. For instance, because they regulate their own growing practices and factory facilities, they operate under strict Chinese regulations. However, this control over their own facilities also allows them to have more control over the quality and roasting techniques of their beans. This means a more consistent product the locals can trust, which further builds their reputation with those Rakphongphairoj loves most.

How does Bryan keep the farms he works with regulated? Well, it all comes down to growing practices: Yunnan lies between the sunbelts, which gives coffee the ideal heat it needs to grow. However, coffee also requires growth in the coolest part of that hot area. Mountaintops, for example, would be a prime area for coffee growth, especially since mountain tops get good spurts of clear rainfall instead of low-lying drizzles that happen all day.

In many respects, coffee is more complex than wine. The sheer number of processes coffee has to go through in order to deliver someone that perfect cup of coffee is less than the number of processes (and people) coffee has to pass. There are the farmers-- whose practices have to be regulated; then there are the processors-- whose standards are regulated by the Chinese government. After that, there are the roasters-- whose temperatures have to be stabilized and checked regularly; and then there are the baristas-- who are in control of the cup of coffee that eventually ends up in your hand.

And Bryan is at the helm of this entire process.

In China, younger generations are at the forefront of enjoying an espresso while the older generations are still indulging in milk coffees because of the milk tea they were used to. For Lanna Coffee, building this culture isn’t just about keeping it fresh and hip, however. It is also about reducing their carbon footprint, supporting the local community, and finding sustainable ways to farm that will provide the masses with non-GMO foods.

For Bryan Rakphongphairoj, the future of coffee in China is more about technological advancement than it is about craft because he understands the need to feed the growing masses of the planet with sustainable technology. He believes in the middle road-- acceptable non-GMO foods at prices everyone can afford.

But for now, Bryan Rakphongphairoj is just fine with beginning his work in China.

After all, every great world changer had to start somewhere.

Rebecca Travis

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Mixing Success & Passion

Mixing Success & Passion