Something of a revolution is brewing in Kunming, one fomented in, and outside, an ever-increasing number of cafes. The radicalism is no more apparent than on a short street outside Yunnan University. The pavements of narrow Wenlin Street are choked with tables; patrons nurse their cups, lean back and watch the world go by. But in this land of tea, what they are sipping is coffee.

Eighteen months ago, Starbucks opened its first branch in the City of Eternal Spring, drawing attention to Yunnan province’s increasingly prolific coffee plantations, which are gaining long-overdue recognition at home and abroad.

As early as the late 1980s, Swiss-based Nestlé, Maxwell House of the United States and other coffee giants flocked to the province to source cheap beans. With its humid, subtropical climate and fertile soil, Yunnan has growing conditions similar to those of Costa Rica or Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, resulting in beans some procurers say deliver a far superior drink to that which Starbucks sells.

Nevertheless, the Seattle-based company is seen as being in the vanguard in the battle to win over the teaaddicted, brand-obsessed hometown crowd.

“With Starbucks’ arrival, coffee-drinking has become more popular here,” says Daniel Moon, proprietor of Coffee Break, on Wenlin Street, a stone’s throw from the university campus. “After the locals have their first taste of coffee, they’ll become the customer base, creating more opportunities for us.”

It’s a weekday afternoon and Moon, who is also a barista, is busy. One minute he is frothing milk, the next putting the finishing touches on a mocha.

Moon emigrated from South Korea after his wife grew homesick for Kunming, her native city. He arrived fully equipped with the tools of the trade, right down to the roaster, and opened his shop in 2008.
The cafe, which offers customers a small library of travel books and magazines and has a display of various types of bean, attracted a cult following after becoming one of the first in the city to offer speciality coffees.

At a table outside, regulars Gui Heling and Zhong Mingji sip espressos. “My friends think it’s strange that I’d drink such a bitter thing,” Gui says.

The first recorded coffee bush on Chinese soil was planted in 1902, after a French missionary had carried arabica seedlings to his posting in Dali, about 260 kilometres northwest of Kunming.

The conditions proved perfect for cultivating arabica.

In 1910, the Yunnan-Vietnam Railroad went into operation and trains were soon hauling beans from Haiphong into Kunming. Coffee became ever more popular as local populations of French expatriates – as well as southern and eastern Europeans – grew.

In the following two decades, the habit would spread among Chinese, particularly young scholars and students from Peking, Tsinghua and Tianjin’s Nankai universities who had retreated to Mengzi county, in Yunnan’s southeast, during the Sino-Japanese war, to form Lianda, the National Southwestern Associated University.

Coffee culture made further inroads in the early 1940s, when volunteer pilots from the United States, known as the Flying Tigers, descended on Yunnan to assist in the fight against the Japanese. For a while, caffe americano was on everyone’s lips.

Now, despite its retreat – along with foreign influence – in the second half of the 20th century, coffee’s place in mainstream culture is assured, say Jenny and Yanli Tan, sisters who run the Prague Cafe, also on Wenlin Street.

“Drinking coffee is a way of life that will catch on,” says Jenny Tan. “Lots of young people are learning their way but it’s still hard for us to reach the over-30 set.”

The sisters started as apprentices in a Beijing coffee shop in the late 1990s, and now run three cafes between them. The Prague Cafe has a living-room feel, its second floor furnished with large tables, couches and armchairs.

The sisters say it’s important to create a peaceful atmosphere for their customers, so mahjong and card games are forbidden.

A decision that has contributed to their success came a few years ago, when they switched from imported Italian beans to above-average Yunnan xiaoli (“pellets”), grown in the south of the province. The move allowed them to charge just 12 yuan (HK$15) for a cup of coffee, a price many more people could afford.

Nonetheless, Tan says, she has customers who think their espresso is served in too small a cup and baulk at paying the full price. And more than a few expect their double espresso to be twice as large as a single shot.

Fang Zhou, manager of the Full Cup Cafe, in downtown Kunming, says more time is needed for mainlanders to grasp the subtleties of coffee culture.

“Right now, the majority of people don’t even have basic knowledge about coffee,” he says.

Fang confesses to having been entirely unacquainted with it himself, even into adulthood. In four short years, however, he has risen to be a barista. Full Cup is housed in a glass box loft perched on top of one of the fanciest malls in town. Well insulated from the bustle of shoppers, it is a world unto itself, its 1970s-style hand-crafted chaises lounges encouraging many a patron to linger.

A sound stage is suspended from the roof and live music is performed at the weekends.

Since becoming acquainted with the cafe’s Hong Kong owner, Alex Ng Wing-keung, Fang has accompanied him on visits to plantations across the province. They have seen first hand how growers have been striving to improve their techniques, sometimes by trial and error.

For instance, farmers used to dry coffee beans on the ground, as they do most other dried produce, but dirt adulterated the taste. They have since learned to dry their beans on wooden racks. “Chinese growers have a lot of catching up to do,” says Fang.

A lot of expertise was lost when the region’s coffee plantations lay fallow for nearly 30 years. Before China and the Soviet Union fell out in the late 1950s, Yunnan growers shipped most of their beans to Russia. It wasn’t until 1988, when dwindling harvests in South America forced global buyers to look elsewhere, that the province was rediscovered as a bountiful source. Since then, Yunnan – which encompasses Puer county and is often referred to as the “birthplace” of tea and home to the most popular Chinese leaf – has made room for the expansion of coffee plantations.

As part of its 2010-2020 plan, the provincial government aims to expand production from 38,000 tons a year to 200,000 tons. A researcher from the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences estimates that, currently, only slightly more than 30 per cent of the acreage suitable for coffee growing has been tapped.

Today, as much as 85 per cent of the beans harvested in China are for export, but that may change. Four years ago, Starbucks began sourcing Yunnan beans for a blend named after the province – “south of the clouds” is a literal translation of “yunnan”. The blend is now being marketed across the country.

Meanwhile, some Kunming processors have been honing their skills by going the distance – to Brazil, Colombia and Germany, for example – to learn from the best coffee minds in the world. And their efforts have paid off: in the 2011World Coffee Competition, Yunnan AA – produced in Puer, no less – was named one of the best beans, scoring 87 out of 100.

Since Full Cup opened more than two years ago, Ng, a Q-grader (the highest standard of speciality coffee “cupper”, or expert), with US and European credentials, has sourced at least half of his beans in Yunnan.

“There’s lots of good stuff here in China,” he says, “but it’s still overlooked.”