Sawbwa Coffee in Shan State: from Poppy to Coffee

6 June 2018

Myanmar: a nation of abundant natural resources. Rubies, oil and gas, and teak all spring to mind when the Southeast Asian country is mentioned. But in recent years, Myanmar has been producing a significant amount of arabica coffee, driven by newcomers like Sawbwa Coffee.

Learn more about the Arabica, Liberica, and Robusta beans.

Made in Myanmar

Unlike other coffee businesses in Myanmar and even the region, Sawbwa wants to be one of the few ventures that promote 100% Myanmar blends to those residing in the country.

The company was founded in 2018 by Jason Brown and Samuel Foot, a pair of coffee-loving “borderline hipsters” (in Foot’s words) who hail from the UK. With Sawbwa, the duo is trying to avoid relying on blends that use imported beans from South America or Africa.

Instead, they aim to put an emphasis on the flavour profiles of particular communities by offering the finest and most interesting choices that are very obviously from Myanmar, yet have the body of darker international coffees.

Most of Sawbwa’s beans are grown in the fertile, hilly region of Shan State. Their focus is on single-origin beans, and their coffee consists entirely of specialty grade (84+) arabica.

two coffee farmers spreading coffee beans to dry them under the sun
Sawbwa works with farmers in the hilly region of Shan State in Myanmar. Photo by Sawbwa Coffee.

Co-founder Foot explains: “Coffee has been brought to Myanmar in multiple historical transactions and waves, and this is particularly true of Shan State. Every grower that enters the field has favoured different strains. This means that there are all kinds of cherries being harvested – Catuai, Caturra, S-795 (Liberica), a few catimors, and so on. Our communities are at least 80% Catuai, the fine Arabica, and our premier brand, Bant Sawk, is 100% Catuai – a necessity based on the high elevation of the farm.”

Sawbwa also takes delivery of green beans direct from the farms it works with. It currently has four retail products: two single-origin dry naturals, and two darker blends for French press and espresso use.

On top of all that, Sawbwa also supplies bespoke blends to hotels, restaurants, and bars in Myanmar.

Addressing the gap

Even though Myanmar’s coffee scene is evolving, it’s no surprise that it’s moving relatively slowly. “The coffee scene here grows at a steady pace every year, in terms of both sales and fashions, yet lags significantly behind its neighbours,” admits Foot.

A picture of the front of a cafe's counter
In Myanmar, there’s a strong preference for tea over coffee, and good specialty coffee stores are hard to find. Clem Onojeghuo

Why is this so? For starters, it could be the country’s general preference for tea. Foot says the coffee culture and scene in Myanmar is limited, with few noteworthy specialty firms or coffee stores – making what Sawbwa does and offers particularly exciting.

Together with his business partner, Foot wants to try and address the gap.

“We are not here to cut corners, flood the market with cheap arabica, or export beans for three-in-one to China. We want to create a niche market that equates coffee drinking with the ancient traditions of tea drinking that predominate in East Asia. To achieve this, we have to play a didactic role in educating people about the joys of coffee beyond the quick, milky variant,” says Foot.

In more recent news, American franchise Starbucks will soon open its first outlet in Myanmar. The coffee giant has apparently been eyeing the Myanmar market since 2013.

This, in Foot’s opinion, is a good thing. “[Starbucks] has the size and scalability to popularise coffee as an essential consumer good [in Myanmar]. We can’t wait to see Yangon’s citizens collecting their morning take-out coffees!”

From poppy to coffee

What Brown and Foot do goes beyond chasing their passions and building a coffee culture in a developing country.

Decades of conflict in Myanmar have resulted in many upland farmers growing opium, and as peace efforts gather momentum they are being encouraged to switch production to high-value, specialty coffee.

Poppy farmers tending to their poppy plants in a field.
From opium to java: Some farmers in Myanmar are making the switch. Photo by Sawbwa Coffee

Sawbwa Coffee’s highest-quality beans come from a community named Bant Sawk, high in the Shan hills – over 1,600 metres above sea level. Until recently the area was mostly off-limits to foreigners, as it is close to territory controlled by ethnic Pa-O and Shan armies.

“Traditionally, the farm has made the majority of its income from the farming of poppies for the illicit trade in opiates that still characterises this part of the ‘Golden Triangle.’ A significant amount of the payment that the community receives for poppy production comes in the form of methamphetamine – and community leaders are committed to moving away from this exchange to break free from a market which is illegal and unstable, and which stigmatises and limits the futures of their families. We call it ‘From Poppy to Coffee’.”

As part of a UN Office on Drugs and Crime initiative, the region began planting coffee in 2014. But farmers needed to learn how to process the beans in line with proper specialty coffee standards. So, USAID contracted a non-profit named Winrock International, which had worked with community coffee farms in the neighbouring township of Ywangan, to implement value chains for rural development in Myanmar.

This gave farmers the chance to learn about and observe specialty production processes. After returning to Bant Sawk, they put in place the infrastructure that was needed to grow small-batch specialty coffee beans for 2017. The harvest turned out to be a wild success, and the small amount they produced sold out.

a person using his hand to scoop up coffee beans from a pot filled with beans.
Sawbwa is the only company selling Bant Sawk beans in the Asian region. Photo by Milo Miloezger

“[For 2018], Jason and I invested in the loan granted to the Bant Sawk farmers, allowing them to grow output and giving us a guaranteed amount of the incredible dry-natural coffee processed. We are therefore the only national company in direct contact with the farmers… We are the only company selling Bant Sawk beans in Asia – an absolute privilege as, in March 2018, the SCAA judges awarded the bean the second-highest score in the whole of Myanmar in the annual cupping competition,” says Foot.

Looking forward

For a business so new to the scene, Sawbwa is doing exceptionally well. Asked about future plans, Foot reveals that both he and Brown are preparing to do the Coffee Quality Institute’s Q grader course. They hope to become two of around 20 people in the entire country with the qualification.

Foot says the company’s coffee plans are diverse.

“Our first goal is to make a top-class range of products at varying price-points. Jason and I are in the lab working on blends that use a range of regional beans – from Shan, Chin, Kachin states – and, also, with arabicas from Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

We have begun making good contacts amongst the Southeast Asia specialty coffee community and have met people with extremely innovative ideas for new products; we particularly like the idea of using the coffee cherry, cascara, and bean in various other forms.

We have also begun talks aimed at exporting to countries such as the USA, the UK, and Malaysia, helping specialty coffee shops source Myanmar’s fantastic community green beans, whilst working towards gaining our own FDA export licence to send Sawbwa all over the world.

Aside from that, it’s all very top secret stuff!”

We guess everyone will have to follow Sawbwa’s Facebook to stay up to date on what’s next.

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