Good Earth

What sustainable coffee yields really mean

10:27 SGT June 12, 2017
In the entire South-east Asian region, coffee consumption is on the rise, growing anywhere from 10%-20%

With coffee consumption in the South-east Asian region on the rise, what are the key issues and challenges that face this region’s coffee industry? FoodBiz Asia’s Millette Manalo-Burgos interviews Victor Mah, president of the ASEAN Coffee Federation, for an update.

Coffee consumption in South-east Asia is fast rising with the rapidly growing middle class and the millenials coming into the market with their hipster dollars. They, however, have little concept of the arduous process that went into the cup of aromatic brew. The seasonal weather, the tough farming, the volatile global market, even the intermediaries, play a part in the production and sustainability of coffee growing.

To that end, a group of passionate ASEAN coffee industry players has come together to form the ASEAN Coffee Federation (ACF) to look into improving and developing the quality of coffee beans in South-east Asia so as to compete globally.

Aiming to be a key industry representative of ASEAN’s coffee industry, the federation’s missions include establishing a platform for common dialogue through regular meetings, educating farmers in productivity improvements, and sharing information about coffee on a global scale.

Above all this, the group is promoting a pillar of ACF sustainability strategy. ACF’s president, Victor Mah, said the federation is working on a sustainability programme that would suit the entire ASEAN region.

“We have two big coffee producers in the region — Indonesia and the Philippines. And with all the current climate issues surfacing, I think we need to really look and study very carefully how to achieve sustainability,” he said.

ACF looks at the ASEAN coffee industry from three angles: The first is education. From the front end, that would mean training people how to properly prepare coffee-based drinks. ACF is thus in the midst of preparing “train-the-trainer” programmes with curriculums designed by well-known barista champions in the region.

It has taken us almost two years to set up the training programme,” said Mah. “And the result is very much an ASEAN-based programme because the information, the education material that was put together by expert baristas from ASEAN member countries such as Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand.

The knowledge from these experts was distilled into a series of training modules, with all pertinent data for this programme compiled by Justin Metcalf, a well-known barista educator.

“We will issue certification that it is an ASEAN coffee training programme for baristas,” explained Mah. “To kickstart this programme, we will ask all the ACF members to send to us their champion baristas so we can train them and afterwards they can transfer the knowledge gained from this programme to other baristas in their own countries.”

ACF is making sure that the programme fees are affordable. “We want to entice young people to become baristas, because coffee is a wonderful career to get into,” enthused Mah.

Aside from the front end, ACF is also focusing on educating coffee farmers on how to properly handle their coffee crops, how to grade coffee quality, and then educate them back down to the farms where ACF is concentrating on implementing its sustainability efforts.

How will ACF promote its sustainability efforts?

Mah said: “You need to teach or show the farmers certain techniques of husbandry, for instance, because a lot of coffee farmers gained their knowledge through one generation passing on whatever they know to the next.”
He explained that as most farmers in South-east Asia gained their knowledge handed down from father to son, “they follow certain techniques that they have in their minds for a long time”.

“They are very set in their ways; if you want to teach them something new, you need to show them how to do it, and how these methods can be more successful. So you need to start a basic programme, and then you need to have facilities near their farms to show them how it is done,” Mah pointed out.
“Let’s take Starbucks, for example, as I worked closely with them,” shared Mah. “They now come down to work closely with farmers in some parts of Asia. They open café practice centres, and, they have one in Sumatra (in Indonesia). The purpose of the café practice is to teach and show farmers proper agricultural practices, and at the same time improve quality production.”

Teaching them how to handle coffee properly is key, explained Mah. The coffee bean variety Arabica, for example, is very sensitive to handling, and the exact opposite of another coffee bean variety, Robusta, which as the name implies, can take the roughest handling.

Arabica beans are more susceptible to disease, drought and other forms of climate change. “The main problem that we face with Arabica is coffee rust which will destroy your plants in a very rapid way. So this is why we have to come up with a new Arabica species that is more rust-resistant, more sturdy.”
But while scientists may come up with more rust-resistant coffee species, planting these species may not produce the same yield, or the taste of the coffee may change.

“That is why we are going through this process. The two things you’ve got to look at — the production of the beans, where and how much you can have; and when you bring in new species, how well are these plants going to adapt in the new environment,” Mah explained.

“You think because the altitude is the same, the soil is the same, when you plant, will the yield come out the same?

“The first time you put in your seedlings, it will take three years before you have any yield; so you have to take care of the plants for three years. It is a very long process.”

Harvesting? Mah asked: “How do you harvest your beans? Do you pluck the cherries, or you just strip the branches? For Robusta, farmers are more likely to just strip the whole branch, “as the yield is pretty high”.
“So they have red cherries and unripened cherries all together when they harvest,” said Mah.

Next, the quality process — do you do a wash or a semi-wash process, or a natural? How you dry cherries is also important, because when you do the fermentation, you need to watch the process every step of the way, he added. If you are sun drying the beans and then it rains, you need to quickly cover the beans.

“Looking after coffee is a very intensive job,” Mah noted. Thus, proper growing and handling the crops is another main pillar of sustainability for ACF.

“We now have to take in mind climate changes,” he revealed. “Water is a big issue, as you can see from the past few years there have been a lot of droughts in this region, threatening other food crops as well.”

In certain areas, the water level is dropping, so it is going to affect the soil conditions. If there is not enough water, the soil might become more acidic.

Basically, ACF is concerned with the whole coffee production cycle. “We try to, we need to, because it is such a big thing. Getting everyone together is difficult because of the politics; it is like the ASEAN — everybody has their own interests, but we try to find a common ground where we can work together,” Mah said.

“One of the common goals is to promote ASEAN coffee to the rest of the world, and at the same time produce coffee for the domestic market — and there are millions of coffee drinkers in South-east Asia alone.”

Currently, Mah said Vietnam has been getting “fantastic yields” from the country’s intensive Robusta farming. “Their yields are fantastic because the farmers are very diligent. The yield is around five tonnes per hectare.”
But while Vietnam is scoring high yields, Indonesia is producing around half of what Vietnam produces.

In the entire South-east Asian region, coffee consumption is on the rise, growing anywhere from 10%-20%, said Mah. And while Indonesia is becoming the fastest-growing coffee consumers in the domestic consumption market, the country’s production of coffee may not be even enough to satisfy domestic demands.

The reason is, Indonesian farmers are planting more oil palm trees, which produce more “cash-availability” products such as palm oil. That is why ACF is urging the Indonesian government to focus more on coffee growing.
According to Mah, some 20 years ago, Indonesia was one of the largest producers of Robusta coffee beans.

Oil palm is not a very friendly crop, he said. “You cannot grow anything else on the same ground, just palm. While with coffee, you can grow pineapples, legumes, shade trees (fruit trees, pulp trees). Leafy trees provide shade to your coffee trees, and at the same time, if you have a lot of shade trees, your farm would become bird-friendly. And you need the birds and the bees to pollinate your trees.”

Palm oil has overtaken everything else, including rubber and pepper; “all have been affected by palm oil”, he lamented.

As a result, ACF plans to focus more on the plight of the coffee producers, making sure that they get all the knowledge and support to ensure sustainable coffee yields in the years to come. “Being a farmer is a very, very tough life,” said Mah. “You are at the mercy not only of the weather but the middle men as well.”

Editor’s note: Indonesia is into sustainability and coffee production advocates are slowly turning illegal loggers into coffee growers, thereby saving its rainforests and exporting top-grade organic coffee. Read the cover story in FBA’s March edition.

With the popularity of coffee-based beverages increasing in Asia, trade shows such as last month’s Thaifex World of Food Asia 2016 have attracted heavy footfalls not only for its food exhibits but also for its Celebrity Coffee Bar featuring champion baristas from around the region. One such well-known barista is Justin Metcalf, who revealed why the region should continue to develop talented baristas while preparing an exquisite latte for FoodBiz Asia’s Millette Manalo-Burgos.

When it comes to coffee pedigree, Justin Metcalf holds one of the most reputable in the world of coffee. He is known as a World Barista Judge, a title that he trademarked.

Metcalf is also one of Australia’s most recognised Coffee & Café consultants. His business was developed to provide café training and to promote the specialty coffee industry in Australia and throughout the world.

Concentrating initially on perfecting the skills of a barista, his passion then led to an active involvement in the specialty coffee roasting business, where he has established a reputation as a Master Roaster.

And now he is using his extensive knowledge to help the ASEAN Coffee Federation (ACF) in developing training programmes for Champion Baristas, who in turn, will pass down what they learn to others who are hoping to get into a career in coffee preparation.

“One of the key factors that we are really starting to look at is the barista as a profession, not just a person working in a café,” Metcalf said. In Melbourne, where he is based, the café scene is a sophisticated one. “Melbourne is certainly at the forefront in putting the barista and the coffee on a higher platform,” he noted.

“As a member of the ACF board, my role has been to assist in the development of the barista basic training programmes for this region.”

Based on what he learnt from studying the coffee markets for more than 20 years, he told the ACF that coffee would make a great vehicle for education — if we could lift the present level of people’s excitement for the coffee itself, he said.

“Why not we use ACF as a platform to develop a level-one programme designed to assist young people in developing barista skills?” Metcalf pondered.The objective of the ACF training programme is to make sure young people in the region gain enough knowledge and training as to be employable as baristas. Being employable gives these young people some self-respect, and gives them confidence to develop themselves into young adults moving up the career ladder.

“If we can excite people at that young age to persist in a career such as coffee preparation, then we believe that as an association we can lift the coffee culture in the region,” Metcalf said.

He added that there are already plenty of talented baristas in Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, South Korea and Japan, so the ACF is now focusing on developing talents in Myanmar and Cambodia.

Metcalf also revealed that he has set up a coffee training centre in Singapore, which also provides training to both local and international participants — in conjunction with the ACF’s projects.

ACF president Victor Mah: “We have two big coffee producers in the region — Indonesia and the Philippines. And with all the current climate issues surfacing, I think we need to really look and study very carefully how to achieve sustainability.”

You need to teach or show the farmers certain techniques of husbandry, for instance, because a lot of coffee farmers gained their knowledge through one generation passing on whatever they know to the next.

“I am at the stage in my life where I am fortunate enough not to chase money. That is why I am more than happy to pass on my experience, as coffee has been good to me,” he said. “So my mantra now is to help develop the coffee industry in this region, because it is close to where I live and I think it will have a major impact on what we are doing at ACF.”