Tea or coffee? A question asked millions of times each day but in Yunnan's Puer prefecture, the ancient heartland of tea production in China, the answer has more to do with business than personal taste. For farmers such as 24-year-old Li Chunxue, the choice was clear. Li and his parents decided last year to convert nearly all their 7.28 hectares of land to coffee, leaving a small proportion for rice, vegetables and just enough tea for the family's own consumption. 'I have no preference on what to plant or what not to plant. I plant whatever makes money,' said Li, who only drinks tea. 'Our tea leaves are of high quality but we get only seven yuan (HK$7.95) a kilogram. Coffee we can sell for about 18 or 19 yuan. So we chopped down all our orange trees and plenty of tea bushes last year. We need more land for coffee.' Most of the other 2,000 farmers in Manxieba, 18 kilometres south of Puer where Li lives, are also planting coffee in a region where tea cultivation began during the Han dynasty (206BC to 220AD). Farmers in the neighbouring Nandaohe area and around the nearby city of Xishuang Banna are also diversifying. This is a sharp departure from tradition for growers from a region that has seen the name Puer become an internationally renowned brand for premium tea. It has long been popular in Guangdong and Hong Kong where it is known in Cantonese as 'polay' tea and prized as an aid to digestion. Devotees also believe it can help with weight loss or even prevent or cure cancer. For centuries, chains of pack horses hauled the leaves in densely packed bricks over dizzying, slippery trails to the outside world. Before the opening of modern trade routes, the first destination was Tibet, then on to India and beyond. The Chinese authorities recently acknowledged the importance of this historic trade route, Chama Gudao, or Ancient Tea-Horse Road. While tea is still Puer's dominant export, in Manxieba and Nandaohe, the two areas with most coffee plantations, it is now common to see the two crops grown side by side. There is also plenty of newly cleared farmland that farmers say will be planted with coffee. For a region steeped in outward trade, it was the winds of globalisation that brought a new flavour to this tea-drinking kingdom. 'It all began with Nestle,' said Deng Jianhuo, a director of Beigui Coffee, one of the first companies to start planting coffee in Puer. 'Nestle came. It said this place is suitable for growing coffee, high quality coffee. It signed a co-operation agreement with the government. So our company was set up to work with Nestle.' Deng said the company bought abandoned mountain tracts and rented land from farmers to plant coffee. He added the majority of the mainland's coffee plantation were in Puer and the rest in neighbouring Xishaung Banna and Hainan Island. In 1991, the Swiss food giant opened a joint-venture factory in Dongguan to produce its signature Nescafe instant coffee and began steps to source coffee locally. Initially, the development of coffee plantations in the country was slow and the multinational had to rely on imports. However, output has accelerated in recent years with some 80,000 farmers now growing coffee in Yunnan. From only 1,000 tonnes in 1988, the annual yield of green beans has now reached 30,000 tonnes. Nestle is still a major buyer. It accounts for 4,000 tonnes of production and since 1997 it has been able to source all Arabica coffee it needs locally. State-affiliated firms and individual coffee traders have also entered the market and export the green bean directly to the overseas market. Puer alone exported 7,927 tonnes of coffee bean to Western countries in 2007, pocketing US$18.38 million, according to the authorities. This accounted for more than 40 per cent of the country's coffee exports. More than half of the coffee shipped from Puer went to Germany. Deng's company, for example, no longer sources for Nestle. 'We haven't been doing business with Nestle for years,' he said. 'We built up our own distribution channel in Europe and the US. We don't need Nestle anymore.' At its coffee collection point in Puer, Nestle managers declined to be interviewed but in a written reply to questions, the company said the area of Yunnan situated between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn had the perfect environment for cultivating the Catimor variety of Arabica coffee. Li, the 24-year-old farmer, sells all his beans to Nestle. In his village, farmers share knowledge on growing the new crop. Those who sell to the company haul loads of beans to the collection point in town. For Nestle growers, the company hands out free packs of instant coffee. 'The taste is not good, too bitter,' said Li as he sorted harvested beans in the family courtyard. 'We don't drink the coffee, we drink the tea we grow.' Alongside higher returns, a major attraction for new coffee growers is the transparency of the coffee market. To any grower who asks, Nestle reports the price of beans in New York every Monday and Thursday, which means there is little local deviation from international values, irrespective of the buyer. 'The reason I like growing coffee is I don't have to worry about sales,' said Chen Baohuo, a farmer in Nandaohe. 'Someone will buy from me anyway. It is only a matter of how much the beans are.' Coffee trader Xu Longhai said farmers were profiting from the mainland's growing appetite for the beverage. Annual demand is increasing in double digits although overall consumption is still less than 10 per cent of that of tea. Xu, in his late 20s, was drawn to the coffee business two years ago after running an unsuccessful travel agency in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. He does not pretend to be a coffee expert but says he made money from selling coffee he buys from farmers in Puer and Xishuang Banna and sells to buyers in major mainland cities, Western Europe and the Middle East through business-to-business websites. He is guarded about his earnings but says he plans to buy about 200 hectares of land to grow coffee. 'I think I need to invest in this crop,' he said. 'I need to know what makes good beans.' Deng from Beigui Coffee also turned to the booming local market. The company has developed two lines of coffee wine and markets three-in-one instant coffee, a powdered mixture of coffee, sugar and creamer. 'Three-in-one coffee is going to be the drink of the 21st century,' Deng said. 'Chinese are ignorant about coffee but still they drink it because they adore anything Western, so three-in-one coffee is suitable for this market.' Deng said he had visited cafes in Beijing and Shanghai that claimed their beans were from Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia or even the Blue Mountain but in reality it was Puer coffee. 'I grow it,' he said. 'I can tell by sipping only a little. They lie because the consumers adore everything Western but I don't care as long as I'm making money.' While some cafe owners in outward looking big cities might misrepresent the origin of their beans, Zhao Xuejun is definitely not one of them. Zhao runs a tea house in Kunming but she knows she faces an uphill battle to convert locals to the Chinese coffee she also sells. As a coffee lover, her original plan was to open a cafe but changed her mind after asking friends and surveying outlets in the city. 'None of my friends thought a cafe would work in Kunming because it is a tea-drinking city, so I went to observe all the cafes and I found that none of them rely on selling coffee for their survival. So, I decided to run a tea house instead.' Zhao said most people in Yunnan were unaware that the province produced coffee. 'If we don't drink Yunnan coffee ourselves, who is going to drink it?' she said. 'So far, it is only popular among foreign tourists in Yunnan because they drink coffee.' Back in Puer, there are also farmers who remain attached to tradition. Single mother Xiao Xiancui has been growing tea for more than 20 years. She earns only 300 yuan a month from supplying tea to processors and sells salted vegetables to top up her income. Xiao knows other farmers who switched to coffee earn five to six times more than growing tea but she has no plans to do the same. 'This is what I learned as I grew up,' she said. 'I'm used to it and I have enough money to live on. I'm not going to change.'