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Myanmar Coffee Will Hit Whole Foods As an Economic Opening Continues

August 23, 2016, 6:24 AM UTC
A Whole Foods Market Inc. Location Ahead Of Earnings Figures
A man pushes a shopping cart through the parking lot of a Whole Foods Market Inc. store in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., on Sunday, May 1, 2016. Whole Foods Market Inc. is scheduled to release earnings figures on May 4. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Two shipments of coffee beans from Myanmar arrived in the United States this month, the first commercial-scale imports in over 15 years and the fruits of a U.S. government development program for farmers in the once-isolated southeast Asian economy.

The two containers, totaling 600 60-kg bags, imported by Seattle-based Atlas Coffee Importers are a fraction of the 24.8 million bags of coffee consumed annually in the United States. But the shipments could herald a welcome diversification from traditional supply areas that are being hit by climate change.

Whole Foods Market (WFM) bought 41 bags and La Colombe, a specialty chain backed by Chobani yogurt founder Hamdi Ulukaya, purchased 10 bags. The arabica beans will be on show at La Colombe cafe in Washington on Tuesday.

“It will be sold as single origin and as special coffee that we’re offering,” said Darrin Daniel, director of sourcing for Allegro Coffee Company, a Whole Foods subsidiary that supplies much of the food store’s coffee.

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Myanmar exported only modest amounts of coffee in the 1990s and a shipment of 17 60-kg bags in 2015 was the first delivery since 2000, U.S. government data shows. Burmese immigrant Melvin Tan, who founded Austin, Texas-based Irrawaddy Coffee Roasters in 2015, said he imported 10 bags from Myanmar that year.

“I’m down to 1-1/2 bags. I would say … I’m going to more than triple it this year from last year,” Tan told Reuters.

Poor diplomatic relations between the United States and the former military dictatorship made traders and roasters cautious in conducting business up until recently, industry sources said.

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USAID, the federal government’s aid agency, launched a funding program to help the country’s coffee farmers bolster the quality of beans two years ago as part of a shift toward open economic and political relations with Myanmar.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has been running a separate program since 2014 to help farmers switch from growing opium poppy to coffee. The agency has worked with 1,280 farmers to plant 1,000 hectares of coffee, and expects its first harvest at the end of this year, said program coordinator Jochen Wiese.

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James Tooill, who handles La Colombe’s sourcing and roasting of single-origin coffees, said if farmers keep up quality after USAID-funded training ends in 2019, Myanmar could become a reliable origin for specialty coffee.

“The ability for it to run once the initial investment is over is a crucial turning point,” Tooill said.

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Further buying by roasters could encourage more production, said Craig Holt, founder of Atlas Coffee Importers.

“A lot of people that contributed this year just did a tiny portion of their harvest as an experiment to see if it was worth the money,” Holt said.

Myanmar produces about 115,000 bags per year, according to Atlas, less than neighboring Laos and Thailand, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture says produce 525,000 and 1 million bags annually, respectively.