Profiles of Women and Coffee: Interview with ChengCheng Su

Chengcheng Su, Coffee Quality Institute’s Asia and China Coordinator, has been instrumental in the development of Chinese coffee.  She has written masters theses in both illy’s Research and Innovation Department on sensory science and illy’s Coffee Program on the current status and future prospects of coffee in China, translated 12 Q grader courses for six instructors, and is a Q grader herself. Chengcheng was a lead staff for the first Pu’er International Specialty Coffee Expo/Forum this past January, and will be one of the leaders to watch as China’s coffee industry grows. 

What have been the most interesting aspects of your coffee career? 

The best part of the job for me is working with farmers. I love their smiles. We all know that growing coffee is anything but easy…During my various farm visits in Yunnan, I saw several farms poorly maintained because farmers couldn’t make ends meet. On the other hand, more farmers are putting efforts into making their trees healthier and wet mills cleaner, constructing raised beds, greenhouses, and Western-user-friendly toilets with the belief that pursing quality is the right direction that they should work towards. 

The Coffee Quality Institute and our partner in China, the Yunnan International Coffee Exchange, have implemented several interesting projects in Yunnan. For instance, we did a post-harvest processing protocol trial on 15 farms in Yunnan during the 2016/2017 harvest to assess the effect of the main processing methods on the cup profile and cup quality of coffee from the region. We started a model farm program last September with the intention to fully bring out the potential of Yunnan coffee and create the showpieces that Yunnan can present to the world to enhance its recognition and reputation. 

How has the experience of being part of the organizing committee of IWCA China been for you?

I always want to do something for coffee growers, many of whom are women. When Ted Lingle asked me in October 2016 if I would like to be the second member of IWCA China and help Julien Shi, owner of Manlao River Coffee, to form China Chapter, I sent him a big yes. 

Forming a chapter is easier said than done. We have formed an organizing committee with twelve members coming from nine provinces of China working in coffee production, trading, roasting, brewing and training. In August 2017, Puebla, Mexico, I signed the Letter of Intent to form IWCA China at the IWCA Convention on behalf of Julien Shi. The next step is to get the chapter legalized in China, which is a sophisticated administrative procedure that can take over a year to complete. Though difficult, I believe with the help from many warm-hearted coffee friends in China, we can get it done within 2018. 

How does sustainability factor into your work?

Fewer younger generations are willing to do farming as their parents and grandparents do, which will lead to a drop in labor force, thus an increase in labor cost. This issue will become more severe if coffee prices stay lower than the cost.  Farmers can easily switch to other cash crops if coffee cannot bring enough income, but then our coffee business can no longer be sustained. 

That’s why I believe working hard to produce quality coffee in an environmentally friendly way can possibly solve this issue. If your coffee is good enough, buyers will be willing to pay premiums, meaning farmers will suffer less even when the “C” price drops below the production cost. If the coffee is consistently good and has a unique flavor, farmers will have the right to negotiate on the price. We are continuously working with farmers to help them improve coffee quality and income so they stay in this business.   

Looking forward, in ten years, where do you hope China will be in the context of the coffee industry?

In ten years I’ll be old! I think China will be an indispensable high-quality coffee supplier of the world market by then. I hope that in ten years, consistently good Chinese coffee possessing unique identities and characteristics will be easily accessed, purchased and transported to buyers from all around the world. Each region in Yunnan will have had their own flavor profiles like what Guatemala has today. More importantly, Yunnan farmers can lead a decent life producing coffee. They will have the right to set and negotiate prices with buyers from the globe and will get what they deserve.  

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