Coffee growing in Asia

by on May 30, 2006

Since shade certification is not available for coffee grown outside of Latin America, it can be helpful to understand coffee cultivation practices in the Old World. (Click on the Coffee Regions category for other posts in this series.)  This can help consumers choose sustainable coffees.  Certified organic is a good choice where available, although in many Asian countries, it is grown organically by default because small farmers cannot afford chemicals and fertilizers (“passive organic”) and may not be certified.

The whole concept of “shade grown” and what it means to biodiversity is different in Asia (and other Old World countries) than it is in Latin America, in particular as it relates to birds.  But as always, coffee grown in situations amongst a diverse variety of other trees and shrubs will mean a higher diversity of other organisms, and a closer match to native ecosystems. If anybody has further information on biodiversity issues in Asian coffee plantations, drop me a line at coffeehabitat AT gmail.com.  Meanwhile, let’s look at coffee growing methods in some major Asian countries.

Sumatra – Sumatra grows a lot of robusta, but the arabicas grown in the mountainous regions are some of the most distinctive in the world.  The best are from northern Sumatra, and marketed as Lintong or Mandheling. They are often grown in the shade, and/or organically. The Gayo region in Aceh Province, in the far north, tends to be small-farm holdings, also often shade or organically grown.  On the other hand,  Sumberjaya is a coffee-farming area within Lampung Province in southern Sumatra, and is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.  About 60% of this once-forested area has been converted to coffee plantations.  Sun coffee is more common in the south, and state-run plantations tend to clear forest and create sun monocultures.

Smithsonian (certifiers of Bird-Friendly coffee in Latin America) is now doing research on biodiversity in Sumatra coffee farms.  You can read about it here. Info on the coffees from Coffee Review.

Papua New Guinea. PNG is the eastern half of this large island; the western half, Irian Jaya, is Indonesian. PNG is often considered one of the “last frontiers” of intact, biodiverse rainforest, with many endemic species. Coffee is an important export crop, and much of PNG coffee is rustically grown in the highlands, and organic beans are readily available.  Aim for these small-holding coffees if available from a specialty roaster.  Estate coffees may not be grown as sustainably.

Java – Most of Java grows robusta, after arabicas were wiped out by rust many years ago. Arabicas are grown in eastern  Java in a volcanic region where four farms originally established by the Dutch government (Kayumas, Blawan, Djampit, Pancoer) are part of the “government”  estate, which produces about 85% of Javan coffee, and which is considered superior to private estate coffee.  This volcanic valley is forested, and I have seen coffees from these estates marketed as shade grown.

Sulawesi (Celebes) – Best beans come from a mountainous region called Toraja, which is also marketed as Celebes Kalossi. Coffee in this area is frequently grown under shade.  A little background from the U-Roast-Em blog.

Timor/East Timor – Coffee is a critical crop in this very poor country, it is home to a cooperative that is one of the largest single source producers of certified organic coffee in the world (both arabicas and robustas are grown organically). Coffee grows under a tall canopy of shade on old plantations, and much is literally wild.  Recently disease has severely damaged or killed a common shade tree species in Timor, and alternatives will need to be planted; meanwhile, coffee yields are reduced. Purchasing specialty coffee from Timor supports struggling farmers after a battle for independence, and environmental restoration.

Vietnam – Vietnam is the epicenter of robusta production, funded at a furious pace by the big corporate coffee buyers, which helped create the “coffee crisis” (more background on the coffee crisis here, with many links). Forests are cleared for these sun coffee monocultures. More than 182,000 acres of forest have been cleared in Dac Lac province alone; water shortages and soil erosion have been problems in coffee-growing areas.

A small percentage of the crop is arabica, and there is some effort to increase that percentage.  It’s difficult to recommend Vietnam coffees if one is concerned about biodiversity, considering that forest may still be cleared for arabica coffee start-up plantations. It’s a tough call, because encouraging sustainable practices in this country facing difficult times could be beneficial.

IndiaIndian coffees are often grown on terraced mountainsides. Indian arabicas (about half the crop) are known as “plantation coffee,” while the robustas are “parchment coffee.” Most is grown in the Karnataka (Mysore) region, but Kerala and Tamil Nadu (Madras) are other main regions.  Most of India’s shade coffee comes from Karnataka, but the majority of India’s arabicas are shade grown.  Article on Indian eco-friendly coffee growing from INeedCoffee here and some reviews of Indian coffees from Coffee Review here.

One interesting type of coffee from India should be mentioned. Monsooned coffees are green beans left exposed to monsoon rains in open warehouses.  The beans turn tan colored, the acidity is reduced, and the beans are sweeter, according to the hype.  For the full story, read “Daddy’s socks or fancy cheese” at Coffee Review.

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Revised on September 21, 2013

Posted in Coffee regions

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