It's 4:00pm and we're on the road to Ywangan, the second of three coffee producing areas we'll visit during our trip.
This morning we went back to Behind the Leaf Coffee for a second day with Melanie and U-Khine. We have more samples to cup. We promised Melanie we'd roast some coffee with her to help her learn, as she's new to roasting. We also planned to visit Thong Lo, a community nearby that sells their cherries to Behind the Leaf.
It was a cold morning. Enough for us to be wearing layers - shirt, sweater and jacket. It must have been below 10°C. We're told this is common during this time of year. That means there's a significant swing of 15-20 degrees between the day and night, which is important to consider in agriculture. We call this the diurnal range - the difference between day time and night time temperatures.
In the world of coffee, warm sunny days are key to a plant's development. Reaping the energy from the sun allows the plant to thrive and grow through photosynthesis. It cant handle that all the time as it needs some time to rest, storing and strategizing where to use that energy. Similar to how you and I need to sleep for muscle development and recovery. So, cool nights give time for the plant to slow down and utilize the energy it's taken in through the day. This is very important for sugar development in the coffee cherry. It elongates the time it takes for full maturation, leaving potential for more sugars to form, ultimately leading to flavour in the cup.
We arrived at 7:00am, cold and bundled, and soon found out it was Melanie's birthday. She was keen to get going with the samples we needed to cup and roast, as she had two planned celebrations through the day. The first was a pancake breakfast being put together by a group from a Christian church in Mississippi, who was spending a week helping out around the mill. The second, was a lunch feast with a group of ex-pats living in towns within a few hours driving distance. Lucky for us, we were able to enjoy both meals and some very unexpected visits with some friendly American folks.
On our way out of Behind the Leaf, shortly after we had birthday cake, we stopped in at the closest community, Thong Lo. We had cupped a few really nice coffee samples from them previously. Melanie and U-Khine were with us to introduce us to some of the community members and to show us their coffee. The harvest had more or less finished in Pinlaung, so we only saw a scattering of cherries on the trees.
The community sprawls the hills surrounding Behind the Leaf, and the coffee is scattered throughout homes in what was referred to as 'backyard gardens'. The amazing thing about these gardens is they use no pesticides or fertilizer and they, ultimately, just let different crops grow in harmony. This style of farming is generally known as agro-forestry, where all the crops work in a symbiotic manner, providing different nutrients for the soils and for one another. Think of a jungle or a forest but less dense. Now picture houses scattered throughout. That's what the community of Thong Lo is like. A scattering of coffee varietals planted amongst tea shrubs, mangos, avocado, citrus fruits, peppers, squash and more. Organic farming at it's finest, and for these communities, it always has been.
To put in context, the community of Thong Lo has just recently received electricity; something that Behind the Leaf hasn't had the luxury of receiving just yet, a mile further down the road. They run the operation off of a generator - how crazy. Melanie said that will change within the next few weeks as the government is trying to improve the entire country's infrastructure. She also mentioned that as recent as two years ago, this region was blacklisted for foreigners, and she was the first allowed to travel within this area in early 2016. Every 10 weeks she has to leave Myanmar for Thailand and renew her Visa. She's been doing so for 16 years.
a coffee sample with five bowls nearing ready for evaluation
We tasted 18 more samples today and managed to agree on some lots that we really enjoyed. We think Thong Lo will be included in our offerings list this season. We also spoke with Melanie about creating a project that fuses her water filtration project in with the coffee we purchase. We proposed that a dollar per retail bag of coffee sold would go back to fund the purchase of these ceramic water filters, which would be distributed amongst the community involved. Water is such a crucial component in the production of coffee, from brewing all the way down to the health of the tree. It would be amazing to supply the means to clean, accessible water for these underserved communities. This would officially be our first RossoProject. Stay tuned for more information.
Also note: there are two items that are included in the day to day apparel for the majority of locals - longyi and thanaka. A longyi is a piece of clothing worn instead of pants. In simplest terms, it's a dress that both men and women wrap around their waists. These supposedly work wonders for the hot and humid days they have in Myanmar. Thanaka is a paste that's made from sandalwood and applied as a protection from the sun. It's a very old tradition and, nowadays, is more so used as a fashion piece. Or so we've been told.
an example of a coffee nursery in the Pa-o villages