Preface: We caught up with Su Nandar and Thi Ha in the Mandalay region of Myanmar on the 20th January 2021. As you may have seen in the news, since speaking with the team at The Lady a military coup has been announced in the country. We’ve been following the news with concern and our thoughts are with this up and coming region. The implications of this change are yet to fully unfold, and we are yet to know what this will mean for coffee in the region in the future. As it currently stands, the team at The Lady are well and the harvest for this year is continuing as normal. We'll keep you updated with anything more we hear from our friends in Myanmar.
This year we’ve been lucky enough to roast Nwar Ban Gyi from The Lady in Myanmar - a unique processing facility collective in the Ywangwan region, staffed exclusively by women and purchasing solely from female smallholders. In a typically male dominated industry we’re proud to celebrate a female-focused coffee from a budding specialty coffee region. We share four unique reflections from the producer, importer, roaster and barista on what they love about this coffee, and what it means to be a woman in coffee today.
The Producer: Su Nandar Linn
Su Nandar & Thi Ha cupping their experimental lots at The Lady.
The Lady is a processing facility created in 2018 by two leading lights of the Myanmar specialty scene: Su Nandar Linn and Thi Ha Gyawalie (the only man at The Lady!). Both are responsible for running their separate family farms, but have joined forces with The Lady to support and champion the efforts of farmers in the Ywangan region. The processing station is proudly releasing limited edition lots produced exclusively by women.
Su Nandar Linn’s family owns Shwe Ywar Ngan Coffee, a farm, processor, and roaster in Ywangan, Shan State. A certified Q grader and Q processor, Su Nandar Linn is committed to developing the country’s speciality industry through The Lady. We were lucky enough to arrange a very 2020s international zoom call with Su Nandar and Thi Ha, as well as coffee importer Shirani from Indochina Coffee, to find out more about how the project came about as well as day-to-day life for the team at The Lady. Here’s some of the highlights …
How did The Lady come about?
We both founded The Lady specialty coffee back in 2018. The vision behind The Lady is to promote women in coffee; which is the reality here in Myanmar, it’s mostly women working in the farms, not men. So we wanted to celebrate the fact that women can do whatever men can do by only buying from female farmers. That’s why we named the company The Lady.
We work with a lot of smallholders and farmers in the Ywangwan region who send their coffees to our facility. We started with 35 smallholders, and last year we had 81 but this year this has increased again. We’re in harvest at the moment and a lot of people are wanting to join our group! Right now we have more than 100 farmers in The Lady farmer group.
How did smallholders sell their coffee before working with The Lady?
Before working with The Lady, farmers used to process the traditional way, where they just dry the coffee on the ground, smash the fruits, and then sell in the local market for a very very low price. There are still a lot of farmers doing this kind of processing but the quality is very bad. There are a lot of defects in the coffee. We’re trying to get farmers to be involved in our group, as they often don’t have the knowledge or the techniques to do the processing properly. So we do that for them. We buy the cherries by weight and after processing we give back 20% of our profit to all the farmers, calculated based on the quantity they’ve sent over. Often they’ll keep some coffee as a cash crop, to use in an emergency situation. It’s more of an insurance or a back up, in the form of coffee. I don’t think we can eliminate this kind of processing for now, but maybe in the future when more people hear about our second payment methods.
What are the criteria to join the lady?
We have two criteria. The first is you have to have ripe cherries. And second, only women can be in the group. We get men coming to the group and asking to join. But we have to ask, do you do the harvest, or does your wife or daughter harvest the cherries? If their wife or daughter picks the cherries then we’ll invite the women to join and pay them women directly.
Can you tell us about any challenges you’ve faced as a woman in the coffee industry? And what are you doing to address problems on the gender pay gap in the supply chain?
When we started The Lady project, we made up our mind that we will hire only women in the facility. Women run the facility, with a 99% employment rate of women. The mentality here in Myanmar with men and pay grade is if we pay 5000 kyat to a woman, men want to get at least 6000 kyat just because they are men. So in order to eliminate that we want to pay them by what they do. So we hired only women, even in storing the coffee. If a man can carry 30kg of dried cherry but a woman can only carry 18kg, instead of doing 30kg we’ll only store 18kg so the girls can always lift the bags easily. To tackle the problem of the pay gap, we just eliminate men working in our facility. We are kind of discriminating against men but they have had more their whole life. Also during hand sorting, the boys are not patient enough to do it. So in that part, women are paid more because they are more patient and better with the details.
What’s the community like at The Lady? It’s quite unique to have an entirely female workforce!
It’s great! The girls are joyful. At the moment all the staff are staying in the facility because of covid. So we’ve built a space for all the girls to stay, live, work and cook. So this year, it’s more fun. In the evening we’re all there, we get to see people’s lives in our own facility. It’s kind of a beautiful thing to have all the staff staying in one facility and we tackle every problem together.
How long do you plan on everyone living at The Lady?
Until the harvest is over and until the hand sorting is over. So probably until June.
Do you have any families and people with children? How do you manage childcare?
The staff we have are all young, 18 to 22 or 23. They don’t have children but they do have younger siblings. So the story with a lot of the girls coming in to do the work is, they’re coming to work because they want to send their younger sister or brother to a good school, and encourage them into higher education.
What sort of programme do you have for people moving into different roles at the facility?
For every girl in the facility, we have a specific task assigned to them. For example if someone works in the cupping room with us, we teach her how to do the cupping, and how to do the processing as well. They get to learn a little bit about processing, storing warehousing, quality control processes. They get to learn more or less everything, so if one day they decided to do their own processing they could go away and do their own processing as well.
The Importer: Shirani of Indochina Coffee
Shirani cupping early lots of The Lady in Myanmar.
Based here in London, Shirani is of Filipino and Sri Lankan heritage, having had a long fascination with the strong coffee history in both countries. This inspired her to dig deeper into coffee production in Asia leading her to become a licensed Q grader, working with specialty producers in the region to showcase and champion their coffees to the rest of the world. She co-founded Indochina Coffee to work directly with farmers and producers in Southeast Asia to bring their specialty coffee to roasters in the UK and Europe. Having hosted several of Indochina’s unique Asian coffees in the last 2 years we’re so glad she’s playing a role in bringing these coffees to the UK.
What’s unique about coffees from Myanmar and what drew you to start bringing them to the UK and Europe?
When we started Indochina Coffee it was about building strong links with the region, and finding a way to maintain those links. When we started it was a time when specialty coffee in Myanmar was beginning to take off. We were based in Bangkok and we were looking at development programmes around alternatives to opium poppy cultivation and that’s how we got in touch with people who were working in Myanmar and Yunnan in China. That’s when we spoke to one of the biggest exporters (Mandalay Coffee Group) and we got to start trying these coffees. So in terms of what makes Myanmar coffee unique, it’s that whole idea of what Asian coffee tastes like versus what people think it’s meant to taste like. Earthy, spicy… blah blah blah. And actually the coffees in Myanmar, particularly the Ywangwan region, are very different and I think the meteoric rise in coffee from the region is particularly unique. In the space of a season cup scores went up significantly due to the communities working in coffee and I think that’s a really special thing. You hear about people talking about the coffees from that area having very fruit forward notes that you’d often associate with East African coffees which is quite unheard of when you think about Asian coffees. It’s the perfect opportunity for us as a new company to get on board and start building relationships with producers who are also at a similar starting place to us. So we’ve been able to grow together.
How did you meet Su Nandar and Thi Ha? And more generally, how do you find producers to work with?
I met Su Nandar and Thi Ha about January 2020, when I was getting out of my car with a suitcase. It was really fortuitous that I bumped into them. I was there on a trip with our tour partners MCG. I hadn’t arranged to meet them, and I hadn’t had any contact with them. So I ended up on my first day there visiting some of the smaller villages that supply the Ywangan coffees (the coffees Cimpson’s have been buying since the start). So I spent the day meeting some of the smallholders who grew those coffees. It was really nice to just be able to talk about coffee over dinner. And that night they took me to the processing facility and we tried some of the early samples of the lots being processed. It was dark already when we got back to the facility, so we couldn’t see anything going on but we still got to cup a little bit of coffee.
In terms of generally how we meet producers, I think it is a bit of luck like that. You’re sort of networking with people, producers have links with other producers. You need to spend time face to face meeting people, getting to know them, visiting farms, producers and gaining trust. Now we’re more established as a business we can show we’re bringing in X amount of coffee and that’s very helpful in terms of people understanding that we’re not chancers. It’s useful to have a bit of a track record in selling the coffee.
What sort of coffees can we expect in the next year? And is there any way that you’ll be able to visit these regions again soon?
Obviously technology is an amazing thing and it means that we’re able to communicate regularly through whatsapp and zoom calls. A few weeks ago we had a zoom tour of the facility to see what changes had been made, and that was amazing. So at least we can keep in touch that way. I’m optimistic that later this year we’ll be able to visit again. In terms of what to expect from us as a company, we have these long term relationships with the same producers and we do want to expand that but we are focussed on bringing in the same coffees, so people remember them and they’re getting their own reputation. It’s really important to be consistent and to work with the same producers every year and buy similar quantities or more every year. We bought a few bags from the Philippines last year. I’m half Filipino so it’s something I really want to develop, but again it means spending time in the Philippines really. But I’d love to bring in more quantity of that coffee….
… and we can’t wait to try it!
The Roaster: Emily Morrison
Emily joined the roastery team after working as a barista with Climpson's beans and wanting to take the leap into production. She’s been roasting, packing and brewing Nwar Ban Gyi at Climpson’s Arch (as well as all our other tasty Climpsons coffees).
How did you get into specialty coffee?
Totally by accident! I’d worked in hospitality before but never in specialty coffee. I applied purely by chance at a local cafe which just happened to be specialty coffee. The head barista, an Australian guy, offered to teach me about coffee and I thought sure! It quickly became apparent to me that this was something I was really interested in and passionate about. And that was it. I was hooked and have been working in speciality coffee ever since.
Have you got any female role models in the coffee industry?
Honestly, most of the people who have had the biggest influence on me have been guys that I've worked with in the industry. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some really passionate and dedicated people, who have not hesitated in teaching me what they know. However, I’ve worked for a couple of female managers and they have been some of the best times I’ve had in the industry. Working alongside someone who cares as much as you do and strives for perfection can be incredibly rewarding.
What would you like to see in the future for women in specialty coffee?
Not hesitating about going out and getting what you want. Making sure your voice is heard and not worrying how people may judge you for that.
What would you recommend to women who want to get into roasting?
Be prepared to do a lot of lifting! It’s a physically demanding job that can be quite tiring, especially on the busy days.
What do you like about this coffee?
I like that this is an all female produced coffee, with the emphasis put on showcasing female farmers. It’s got an unusual processing method, which leads to a pleasant cup with an interesting complexity. I’m fairly carefree with my brewing at home and I’m not too fussy about constantly changing my recipes. I tend to brew on a v60 with 18g dry coffee to 300ml water and brewed in about 2 to 2 and a half minutes. This seems to suit this coffee well and always produces a nice cup.
Thank you! Why not try Emily's recipe for your next home brew....
The Barista: Lina Zavišiūtė
Lina at Climpson's HQ doing what she does best .... whipping up a great brew!
Lina came to the UK from Lithuania and found herself behind the machine at Climpson & Sons on Broadway Market. We caught up to share her thoughts as a female barista and tips on making your first steps into coffee.
How did you get into specialty coffee?
My specialty coffee story is not that exciting as others may be, but it's very genuine. There was one coffee shop in the city I grew up in and all the interesting, creative people would gather there and leave flyers or free magazines about culture. It was a cultural hub. Then when I went away to study in the capital and my first job was as a barista (in a coffee shop chain similar to Starbucks, but created by local coffee lovers). The coffee shop chain had a roastery with a brew bar set up. I was always curious about all the equipment over there, but I guess felt a bit overwhelmed (in a good way!) every time I would go there for a cup of coffee. When my friends started to work there, I was always asking them a lot of questions about every little thing. And then with encouragement, I applied for a position to work in a roastery café. And here I am now - unable to imagine my life without a specialty coffee.
Have you got any female role models in the coffee industry?
There is this Lithuanian Barista girl that I follow and admire. Her name is Goda Gedvilaitė. She even was a sensory judge in London in Coffee in Good Spirits as well as Brewers Cup. She was a coach of Lithuanian Barista Champion (which was a girl as well!). And I'm just inspired by her activeness on social media!
What would you like to see in the future for women in specialty coffee?
First of all I would like to see more female coffee producers, more female farmers and more female baristas! Secondly, I would like to see more women being head baristas or head of coffee. I'm not even talking about women in championships.
What would you recommend to women who want to become baristas?
I would say go for it! Just develop some patience and don't forget to fight for what you believe in. But also remember that being a female is not about men opening the door for you so you could go first. It's about having the same power as men to open the door and it doesn't matter if you want to go through them or not.
Let’s talk about the coffee! What do you like about the Nwar Ban Gyi?
I like it's complexity (a classic way to describe a coffee haha). But it's true! I like that at first it feels sweet and chocolatey and nutty, but then when you go deeper it has this amazing cherry taste. It reminds me a lot of women - we all look sweet from the outside, but when you look inside you discover something good and unexpected!
Couldn't agree more, thank you Lina!
Have you tried the coffee yet? Pick up a bag of Nwar Ban Gyi to taste for yourself. Share your stories as a coffee loving lady (whether you’re a producer, barista or brew master) on twitter or instagram with the hashtag #femalefarmtocup.