June 25, 2019

The Coffees of Asia

Asia is massive, and any article covering any aspect of Asian culture in its totality is going to be missing a ton of information. For context, Asia as a continent accounts for roughly a third of the planet’s land mass and is home to nearly half of all the people on Earth. That’s an unbelievable amount of people, split between roughly 48 countries, and countless different tribes, ethnicities, and languages.

Yet there are a few things all Asians have in common, alongside the rest of the world – one of those things is a love for food, and the tendency to develop unique and evolving cuisines and tastes. One of the emerging trends in the region for the past few years is the coffee trend, which has exploded particularly in response to the global popularity of coffee shop chains like Starbucks. However, Asia’s coffee history can be traced back long before the start of any global coffee shop chain, to the late Age of Discovery.

How Coffee Got to Asia

Coffee’s origins in the continent of Asia begin in Yemen, through a trading partnership between Yemen and its neighbor across the Red Sea, Ethiopia, sometime in the 15th century. While stories of the origin of coffee date back to the 9th century, historians aren’t sure exactly when Africa first began cultivating and consuming coffee. By the 1500s, much of the Arabic world was enjoying the beverage, as it had spread from Yemen to Cairo, Mecca, and Constantinople (Istanbul), among other locations.

Coffee first reached Europe through trade between the Middle East and Italy, and it was the Europeans – particularly the Dutch – who brought the plant back to Asia during the later stages of the Age of Discovery, as an effort to produce coffee as a cash crop on colonized soil (as most of Europe’s coffee supply at the time came from Yemen). Meanwhile, an Islamic mystic from India brought the plant back to his home region sometime in the late 17th century, kickstarting the production and planting of coffee in the Indian subcontinent (particularly in the hilly regions of South India). While India is predominantly a tea country, it does possess an old and prosperous coffee culture.

Around the same time, Dutch businessmen at the Dutch East India Company began using their colonies in Indonesia – particularly Sumatra and Java – to produce coffee. Dutch-imported coffee from Indonesia became Europe’s supply for much of the 17th and 18th century. Since then, coffee spread throughout the rest of Asia, gaining a foothold as a profitable cash crop everywhere within the Asian coffee belt, from Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and the Philippines, to prominent coffee consumers outside of the belt such as Korea, Japan, China, and more.

Coffee in Indonesia

When the Dutch colonized Indonesia, they planned to break the Arab monopoly on coffee by planting it in Indonesian soil, with the hypothesis that Indonesia’s climates and higher, hilly regions adequately emulated the growing conditions in which coffee typically thrives in the Middle East and Africa. The colonial government first organized plantations in Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi, clearing large tracts of forest for the development of these plantations. The profitability of growing coffee in Indonesia became very apparent very quickly, and much of the surrounding region was developed for the growth and transport of coffee beans. It was Javanese coffee that first inspired the world’s premier coffee blend, the Mocha Java – combining coffee from Yemen with coffee from Indonesia.

Parts of East Indonesia were under Portuguese control at the time, and the Portuguese had begun planting Arabica plants in their parts of the region. Coffee had spread, at this time, to the surrounding regions of Malaysia, and further up in the island of Sri Lanka.

Then, in the 19th century, coffee rust hit the world. South America and Asia suffered extensively, losing entire crops, especially in major coffee countries like Brazil and Indonesia. The Philippines picked up the slack, becoming the world’s fourth largest producer at the time, until the fungus hit Philippine shores as well. Entire plantations were wiped out across Indonesia, forcing the Dutch to consider alternative methods for producing more coffee. They began by switching to other cultivars, switching from the beloved and aromatic Arabica coffee to the stronger, more resilient Liberica and Robusta varietals, much like the rest of the region. Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines alike still largely produce Robusta coffee.

While the Dutch brutally drove countless indigenous Indonesians to work themselves to death for their profit, more than 90 percent of all coffee production in Indonesia today is in the hands of farmers, families, and local cooperatives. Indonesia maintains a nationwide standard for coffee production, and the Specialty Coffee Association of Indonesia represents the people involved in the production, distribution, processing, and sale of the remaining Arabica coffee crops in the country.

Coffee in Vietnam

First imported through the French in 1857, coffee plays a significant role in Vietnam’s current export industry and has turned out to be a major cash crop for the country, both for better and for worse. Despite its size and population, Vietnam produces a sky-high 20 percent of all coffee traded in the world, being the second largest global producer of coffee behind Brazil. What’s even more surprising is Vietnam’s sudden and explosive jump to the front of the leaderboards, producing only about 0.1 percent of the coffee in the world three decades ago.

Vietnam’s troubled history with coffee goes back to years of oppression and degradation, as well as environmental concerns, government incompetence, and boatloads of foreign cash. While Vietnam is traditionally a tea country, much like China, coffee’s popularity as a source of income for many Vietnamese has also contributed to its popularity at home, where local recipes such as classic Vietnamese iced coffee and coffee with egg (that’s right) have become widely enjoyed by swathes of the population. The younger generation also seems to enjoy coffee shops and free WiFi as much as the rest of the world, and Vietnam is no stranger to international trends.

Yet before you picture Vietnamese coffee as on the same level as the crops produced in Ethiopia, Columbia, and other well-known coffee countries, know that roughly 97 percent of all coffee produced in the country is Robusta coffee, used almost exclusively for the brewing and processing of instant coffee. Vietnam does not produce bad coffee, by any means, and there are plenty of local farmers who pride themselves on handpicking and producing the best coffee their land has to offer. Nevertheless, due to the focus on Robusta beans and the difference in environments, Vietnamese coffee is very different in flavor and taste from the Arabica coffees produced in Africa and South America.

Collectivized after the Vietnam War, much of Vietnam’s coffee success is quite recent, as collectivism led to stagnation, and it took certain reforms to revitalize the industry and give it a much-needed surge in 1986.

Today’s modern struggles with coffee in Vietnam center around how much of the country relies on the crop, and how volatile the market can be. An overabundance of beans on the market can crash prices, leaving millions penniless and practically starving. A good year for export and sales, on the other hand, has led to much financial growth and a thriving private sector. But because these booms and busts can make or break the lives of countless farmers, there are many fears surrounding the future of the coffee industry in Vietnam, especially given the potential bursting of a loan bubble that has come into existence as a result of the past few years. Coupled with social inequality, rapid climate change, and loss of biodiversity, Vietnam’s successes may be stopped short in the near future.

Coffee in Malaysia

Malaysia is unique in that it largely produces a species of coffee that is mostly unknown in the world: coffee Liberica, which accounts for roughly 1 percent of the world’s coffee, in comparison to the approximate 60/40 split between Arabica and Robusta coffee. Liberica coffee is larger than Arabica coffee and offers a unique and powerful taste, less acidic and fruity than its Arabica counterpart, but less economically viable than Robusta due to a generally lower yield and larger coffee trees.

Nevertheless, it contributes to the uniqueness of Malaysian coffee, which is much rarer on the global market than many other coffees in the region. Malaysia’s history with the coffee plant dates back to British colonialization, and their coffee culture began with ‘kopi’, sold in ‘kopitiams’ (coffee shops), double-roasted with butter and sugar before brewing. Often served with condensed milk and/or sugar, kopi continues to be an essential part of Malaysian food and beverage culture.

Coffee in the Philippines

The earliest known instance of coffee production in the Philippines began in 1730 when a Spanish friar planted a coffee tree in the largely mountainous area of Batangas. Because of its many mountains, easy trade routes, and ideal location within the coffee belt, the Philippines became a great location to produce coffee. However, most of the coffee produced in the region was produced in the Batangas region. This handicapped the growth of the crop, until the mid-19th century when coffee rust affected much of Africa, Latin America, and the rest of Asia. Largely unaffected at first, the Philippines became the fourth-largest producer of coffee in the world. When coffee rust did hit, the damage done was severe enough to permanently displace the Philippines from the top list.

With most farms rendered useless by infestation and rot, the revitalization of coffee only began later in the early 20th century with the introduction of Robusta coffee beans, and the building of new farms both in Batangas and Cavite. Today, Philippine coffee production largely centers around the production of Robusta beans, although some farms do cultivate Arabica beans (Sagada coffee, for example, is Arabica coffee grown in the Cordillera highlands).

But what makes Filipino coffee special is a local breed of coffee that isn’t actively cultivated anywhere else in the world, known locally as ‘Barako’ coffee (stud coffee). A local variety of Liberica coffee, Barako coffee is much stronger than Arabica coffee and has a distinct anise flavor. Barako coffee is rarely cultivated nowadays due to its distinct and powerful flavor, as well as the challenges surrounding both its sale and its cultivation. To keep up with demand, the Philippines imports dried beans from Indonesia and Vietnam but continues to provide specialty coffees. Growing concerns in the industry center around frequent and powerful typhoons (and super typhoons), soil erosion, as well as increased periods of drought.

Coffee in Japan

When coffee first arrived in Japan sometime during the early days of Japanese-Dutch trading, the results were mixed. Most Japanese people didn’t seem enthused by the drink, records show, and coffee didn’t get much of a foothold in the country. For those who did like it, however, some accommodations were made to begin serving it in a similar capacity to tea, providing a ‘third place’ for many Japanese to lounge around and relax with some coffee.

While not grown or cultivated in Japan, coffee’s meteoric rise in popularity in Japan is an excellent example and testament to the general growth of coffee culture throughout the world. Japan’s love story with coffee truly begins later on towards the Meiji period, when Japan began to drop isolationist policies and started a love affair with Western culture. The old traditions of the Edo period were falling apart, the class system of the warring state days was disappearing, and many European traditions were beginning to bleed over to Japan, from European language and fashion to the popularity of the café.

However, it wasn’t until the trade embargo ended after the Second World War that Japan’s consumption of coffee soared. Cafés had already existed in a limited capacity, growing in both size and frequency throughout the country’s growing train lines, providing a place for people waiting for their next ride. From the 1960s to today, Japan’s import of coffee exploded by roughly 3000%, owed mostly to the popularity of coffee chains like Tully’s, Doutor, Starbucks, and even McDonalds. The invention and proliferation of the vending machine also heavily contributed, as much of Japan’s casual coffee consumption comes in the form of canned instant coffee, sold in a variety of flavors and by a variety of brands (including local tobacco companies). Despite its size, Japan is one of the world’s biggest importers of coffee, importing roughly 7 percent of the global supply. And this from a country that didn’t take to the drink, to begin with. Today, coffee in a can is as emblematic of Japan as the cherry blossom and the yukata.

Asia is Massive

More than anything, the aim of this article was to pique your interest on the versatility and popularity of coffee in Asia, a predominantly tea-drinking continent, and to open your eyes to completely different perspectives on the beverage. Coffee is enjoyed throughout the globe in many different forms, and this was by no means a comprehensive showing of all Asia has to offer in the way of coffee, with several regions such as the Himalayans, India, Korea, and New Guinea offering genuinely unique histories and coffees.

Much like some great unifier, coffee can be a way to help explore the world and engage with different cultures. Despite decades and centuries of oppression, the way forward lies in recognizing and embracing cultural differences and seeking common threads, with reverence and respect from one side to the other. The whole world drinks coffee, and everyone’s got their own traditions and preferences.