‘More than a cup’: Yunnan coffee is culmination of years of partnership

The first time Alan Tong tasted Starbucks’ Yunnan Single Origin coffee, he cried.

“It was more than a cup of coffee,” he said.

For Tong, contained in each cup are the memories of the coffee farmers in China’s Yunnan Province, of walking among the coffee trees, of seeing the faces of those who pick the coffee cherrie and of all the care and precision that led to that moment.

“There is so much hard work (in that cup),” said Tong, the director of the Starbucks China Farmer Support Center. “Every slurp reminds me of unforgettable scenes and stories.”

Starbucks Yunnan Single Origin coffee is known for its rich flavor, herbal notes and smooth feel and is now sold across China in the nearly 130 Starbucks stores serving premiere Starbucks Reserve coffees. Starting this week, it's also being roasted for the first time in China at the new Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Shanghai. 

But when Tong takes a sip, it’s the taste of everything he’s worked for over the last five years.

‘Connected by coffee’

It started with just 25 coffee growers. It was 2012 and Tong was driving around the mountainous region of Pu’er, known as the capital of Chinese coffee. Starbucks had purchased its first coffee from the country here in 2009, and was working to promote the region’s coffee as it grew its retail business in China. Now, Tong was visiting farms and inviting farmers to a training in Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices, which Starbucks uses to ensure that coffee is grown in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.

Starbucks, working with local government authorities and with the support of the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Science, had just opened its sixth Farmer Support Center, and its first in Asia, to offer coffee growing guidance, soil testing and more to local growers. Come learn, he invited the farmers.

Tong also talked to the farmers about quality standards for Starbucks. There hadn’t been a market leader to show them how to grow better quality coffee, he said. Now there was.

While he was the sole Starbucks agronomist working at the Farmer Support Center that first year (others would be hired in 2013), he envisioned the possible: to work with a group of farmers who would grow the very best coffee in the region.

“I made up my mind, someday, Starbucks will be the benchmark for Yunnan coffee,” he said. 

Today, the Pu’er Farmer Support Center has trained nearly 10,000 farmers in sustainable farming practices. And 1,200 farms are now verified through C.A.F.E. Practices.

All of the original group of 25 are still involved and growing Yunnan coffee for Starbucks. While Tong has met thousands of farmers, that core group is especially meaningful, he said. He knows their families and their stories. He runs into them at the grocery store.

Tong, who describes himself as a city boy, having been born in Tianjin, near Beijing, now calls Pu’er home. He knew he needed to live with the farmers to gain their trust. Along the way, the area became his passion. The farmers aren’t just his suppliers and partners, they are his neighbors and friends. That’s one reason he’s committed to helping them be successful.

Before the Farmer Support Center, coffee grown in Yunnan could sometimes have uneven quality, he said. And if farmers couldn’t sell it, they suffered financially, some living in impoverished conditions.

“I realized this is more than a job. I realized I need to do something to help them,” he said. “One of the worst things is not knowing what you want and living with no clear objective.  I tell them, ‘know what you want.’ I know what I want: a good coffee. If they want that too, then we are connected by coffee.”

‘Anything is possible’

Jeff Miller, vice president for coffee and partner engagement in China and Asia Pacific for Starbucks, has called China home for nearly two decades. “China has always been a part of me,” he said. “I fell in love with the people and the culture from the first time I lived here.”

In his then-role as operations consultant, he was part of opening the first Starbucks in Shanghai in 2000. Now there are nearly 600 in Shanghai, more stores than in any other city in the world.

“One thing I love about China is that anything is possible,” he said.

He’s seen that come to life with the Yunnan coffee growers since the Farmer Support Center opened, something he credits Tong and his team with.

“I admire what he and his team have been able to achieve in such a short amount of time,” he said. “The relationships they’ve established with the farmers in Yunnan and the collaborative partnerships embody the vision behind the Farmer Support Centers. His outgoing personality and demonstration of results have contributed considerably to the way he’s built trust and the reputation of Starbucks in the local community.”

Whenever Miller visits Pu’er and walks among the coffee trees, he has a tradition: He plucks a red coffee cherry off a tree, pops it into his mouth and savors the sweet, fruity flavor. Like Tong, coffee is deeply personal for him.

It starts with that bean and ends with seeing a Starbucks customer cup, something Miller and many at Starbucks call “the first 10 feet and the last 10 feet” in coffee’s journey.

But, while he sees that whole arc, he knows that many who grow coffee don’t get a chance to. So, recently, he and Tong set out to change that. They held a coffee tasting for 4,000 Yunnan coffee growers, largest Starbucks tasting ever in China, he said.

“We wanted them to understand … how much care and love we take with their product,” Miller said. “We felt such pride in serving them their coffee.”

Tong said as he watched the tasting, remembering the 25 farmers he started with, now grown into thousands, his feeling of pride was too big and complicated to contain in words. Those who were once strangers are now trusted friends, creating a top-quality product shared with all of China.

He still has bigger goals though – for the coffee and those who grow it.

“My goal is that our coffee will keep getting better and better and that in (a few years) the world will recognize its consistent quality,” he said. “Time matters and persistence matters. I do feel responsibility on my shoulders. There is no way to let (the farmers) down.”

Marianne Duong contributed to this report.

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