Now Available in Burma: Coffee With a Conscience

By Dani Patteran 4 October 2014

Genius Coffee is producing Burma’s first international-standard specialty coffee, with an eye toward ethical standards and ensuring minimal negative environmental impacts.

In a country known for its tea and dominated by powdered coffee substitutes, decent coffee is in lamentably short supply.

Enter Burma’s first specialty coffee producer, Ngwe Tun. Together with his wife, Lay Lay Myint, Ngwe Tun is pioneering the production and sale of high-quality coffee grown in the Shan highlands, through his business Genius Coffee.

“Everyone can drink coffee!” he says, explaining his intention to take advantage of Burma’s ideal coffee-growing climate to produce a high-quality, export-ready commodity. “We are working in the local, but we are working [to] international standards.”

The family business has started a plantation in Ywar Ngan, a small hill village in Shan State, using an Arabica coffee bean imported from Costa Rica. Though the beans will only be ready for harvest in three years, Ngwe Tun is impatient to see results, and is now working with a select group of local farmers, training and supporting them to harvest beans of the highest quality.

The beans are then hand-roasted in the family’s home in Rangoon’s South Okkalapa Township, and sold in the commercial capital at Ngwe Tun’s newly opened coffee shop. He describes the taste as mild and clean, without bitterness and evincing a sweet undertone.

Sipping a freshly made cup, the flavor is impressively robust (I like my coffee strong) and both the espresso and cappuccino pack a punch, served exactly right. The espresso is not watery, and the cappuccino not drowned in milk—both horribly common, unforgivable sins.

At just 1,000 kyats (US$1) for an espresso and 1,500 kyats for a cappuccino, prices are astonishingly cheap—Ngwe Tun explains that local production helps keep costs down—and located centrally on 31st Street, just behind the Sule Shangri-La hotel (formerly Traders). Throw in the free Wi-Fi, and this tiny café is a gem of a place.

Equally passionate about the environmental and ethical footprint of the business, Genius Coffee sells its beans in reusable bags, and customers are encouraged to refill their coffee at the shop for a discount, rather than buy a new bag.

“We care a lot about the environment,” Ngwe Tun explains.

With cool mountain regions and a strong rainy season, Burma has an ideal coffee-producing climate, with both Arabica and Robusta beans growing well in different areas. Though local farmers produce coffee in many of the mountainous areas across Burma, and there is a small selection of fresh Burmese coffees for sale in the supermarket chain CityMart, there is little coffee produced for the international market. Among local palates, the popular processed “coffee mix” powders dominate.

Ngwe Tun is clearly determined to change this. Already a member of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), Genius Coffee uses SCAA quality standards and their coffee has been awarded “specialty” certification and a “very good” scoring of 81/100 by SCAA’s coffee analysis. They are in the process of seeking Fairtrade certification.

Yet Ngwe Tun’s is an unlikely story. Raised in Rangoon to a family of car traders, he initially trained in web programming, and still works as the technical director of an IT company. But unsatisfied with his IT career prospects, he turned to agriculture after an opportune conversation with a coffee expert in Singapore helped him realize the potential of Burma’s untapped coffee market.

Ngwe Tun taught himself the complexities of specialty coffee production through online training courses, and support from a coffee research center in Pyin Oo Lwin.

Genius Coffee is a pioneering business with a heart. Ten percent of profits go toward ethnic Danu hill tribe development projects, and Genius Coffee has provided stipends for three promising young people from the Ywar Ngan area to attend medical school.

“We are a social enterprise,” Ngwe Tun explains. “For our coffee we are trying to make [added] value by [creating] local jobs or local opportunity. If we sell the green bean, we cannot create jobs for the roaster—like roasting the coffee bean, or selecting the coffee bean.”