Despite an unrelenting stream of coffee shop openings over the past year or so, it is still surprisingly difficult to find a decent cup of coffee in Myanmar – unless your idea of decent is three-in-one. Buying beans and grinding them at home is often the safest way – but where do you find a good bean? How do you know, even, what a good bean is?
Myanmar’s first comprehensive coffee class, run by crop-to-cup coffee expert Sithar Coffee Company, aims to teach its students exactly that. And as the leading grower, processor and roaster of quality coffee in Myanmar, there’s no better place to increase your coffee IQ.
Coffee was first introduced in Myanmar 130 years ago when missionaries started growing beans in Myeik and Dawei. In 1885, Robusta was introduced around Thandaunggyi area at Kayin State, where it continues to be grown today. Arabica was later introduced to Shan State and Pyin Oo Lwin in the 1930s.
In 2004, the military government pushed for more coffee cultivation to diversify Myanmar’s agricultural production, allocating 100,000 acres of land in Pyin Oo Lwin to be leased out to estates. But Myanmar continues to be a net importer of coffee, consuming over 10,000 tonnes and producing only 2000.
Now, Sithar aims to put Myanmar coffee on the map by tapping into the specialty coffee market. Specialty coffees are from high-grade Arabica beans graded 80 points or above according to protocols set by the Specialty Coffee Association of America or the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe.
“Myanmar produces several coffees with a score above 80, but we’re not as well-known as other quality coffee-producing countries. We want to raise the profile of Myanmar coffee on the international stage,” said Sithar’s executive director Thu Zaw, whose family started the company 20 years ago.
Our class begins with a brief history of Myanmar coffee and the various processing and roasting methods. Producing quality coffee starts with the basics, explains Thu Zaw.
“Farmers sometimes take shortcuts and pick the berries too early – we have to pay them more to wait until they’re ripe,” he said, referring to the preharvested form of coffee that contains the bean.
After we’ve learned the processes involved in producing quality coffee beans, it’s time to learn how to turn them into the perfect cup of joe.
Our barista, San Lin Aung, starts by talking us through the various brewing methods. For San Lin Aung, coffee is akin to chemistry. It starts with evenly ground and measured beans, followed by the correct amount of water at the optimal temperature. He admires the precision required, and brews as deliberately as a chemist in a lab. “You need to know what to do to get the best out of different beans,” he said.
As well as a cold brew – prepared in an incredibly scientific-looking glass tower – and a simpler V60 drip method, we learn the best way to prepare our morning coffee in a French press: carefully grinding the beans and measuring the coffee and temperature of the water. Who knew making coffee in a French press could be so complicated?
Each brewing method results in a different aroma and aftertaste, and by the third or fourth cup we’re beginning to work out our preferences.
For best results, you need to match your brewing method with the flavour notes in your coffee, says Thu Zaw. A French press works well for nutty, caramel flavours, while a V60 brings our floral or fruity notes.
“People always ask me what is the best coffee. I don’t want to say one coffee is better than another – you have to learn what you like,” said Thu Zaw. “But if you really want to taste the complex flavour notes in a coffee, the V60 is the best method.”
For Sithar’s expert coffee cupper Yu Phyo Aung, coffee is more of an art than it is a science. Cupping, or coffee tasting, is the practice of observing the tastes and aromas of brewed coffee. Yu Phyo Aung is currently training to become a professional cupper, known in the industry as a “Q Grader”.
“In Myanmar we pour in milk and sugar and think it’s coffee. When I first tasted real coffee I was shocked! To become a cupper I had to completely change my mindset and imagine the liquid I was tasting was a completely new liquid,” she said.
As we slurp down our fourth coffee sample – a slightly bitter cold brew – one of our group spots the espresso machine in the corner and asks San Lin Aung for a cappuccino. Even for hardened coffee addicts, it seems, specialty coffee can be an acquired taste. For Thu Zaw, who drinks up to 10 cups a day, it’s one he hopes the world will open its eyes to.
How to make the perfect cup of coffee
Start with good ingredients
Wherever your coffee comes from, be sure to get fresh beans. Keep the pack airtight to avoid oxidation – “the number-one enemy of coffee”, says Sithar’s Thu Zaw.
Buy a grinder
Make no beans about it, if you’re going to take coffee seriously you need a grinder. Sither’s barista San Lin Aung uses a manual grinder, but lazy coffee lovers may want to invest in a good quality electric one. The coarseness of the grind depends on how you’re going to prepare your brew. The longer the coffee remains in contact with the water, the coarser the grind should be: super-fine for espresso, medium for paper filters and coarse for a French press.
Investing in a scale to weight your coffee is a good idea if you’re trying to perfect your coffee making skills.
Take the plunge
Whichever brewing method you prefer, preparing the perfect cup of joe requires patience. Cold brew prepared in a tower can take over eight hours to percolate, so unless you’re prepared to wait, a French press may be a simpler method.
Weigh 15 grams of freshly ground coffee with 270ml of water at 92-95 degrees Celsius, and leave it to brew for four minutes, or 5-6 minutes for a more bitter flavour.
Of course, if you can’t be bothered with all that, you can always stick with three-in-one.
Coffee classes at Sithar Coffee Company cost US$40 per person, including one pack of coffee to take home, and can be booked through Thahara. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Classes are suitable for anyone who wants to improve their coffee making skills – not only budding baristas – and are limited to small groups so that everyone can try their hand at the different brewing methods. If you want to take your coffee tasting skills to a whole new level, Thahara also arranges tours of the Sithar Coffee Estate in Pyin Oo Lwin.