It’s said that the best coffee in the world grows in the area between 15 degrees northern latitude and the Tropic of Cancer. Hainan is situated on this golden belt. But coffee from Hainan has never enjoyed the same popularity as Java Arabica Coffee or Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee. What’s the reason for this? 

A cup of Xinglong coffee.[Photo:]
As a coffee machine fills the morning air with a tantalizing aroma, leisurely dressed people yawn as they sit around a cup-laden table. Here in Xinglong County in southeastern Hainan, locals have gotten into the habit of drinking coffee every morning.

Coffee is not only provided in fancy coffeehouses but also can be found at almost any ordinary-looking stall along the street. Cups of coffee are ordered with "youtiao," or fried bread sticks, and noodles.

"We cut the youtiao into pieces, and have a cup of coffee for breakfast," said a local people drinking coffee at a breakfast stall in Xinglong. "Sometimes we dip youtiao into the coffee. It’s full of flavor."

For local people who have grown up with coffee, the island’s coffee culture is rooted in their blood. Many locals are descendents of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia who brought the first seeds and started coffee plantations in 1953.

Xinglong has become one of the largest coffee growing areas in Hainan with a yield of 40 tons of beans last year, accounting for about 10 percent of the island’s total coffee bean output.

Coffee is not a luxury here. A cup of freshly brewed java costs only three yuan. But the taste is second to none. One tourist said he was surprised to find such good coffee in the county.

"The taste is really good," he said. "I think it is better than Nestlé’s. The coffee is full-bodied with a pleasant, sweet finish."

What it takes to grow good coffee is rich soil and reliable rainfall. Chu Zhong, Vice Director of the Xinglong Tropical Botanical Garden said the county enjoys a favorable geographical location which produces the best coffee.

"The coffee here is of high quality," Chu said. "Xinglong is at altitude from 0 degree to 18 degrees and has plenty of rainfall, so it is very suitable for growing Robusta (coffee beans)."

Coffee beans can generally be divided into two categories: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica beans are mild and aromatic, while Robusta beans are very bitter but have 50 percent more of caffeine than Arabica beans. Most parts of Hainan grow high quality Robusta beans.

But if quality is not a problem, then why isn’t Hainan coffee on the blue-ribbon list of the best coffee in the world?

"Compared with foreign brands, we lag far behind in terms of brand marketing and packaging," said Wu Huasong, Vice President of the Xinglong Tropical Botanical Garden. "We didn’t make good use of our advantages to do promotions."

The good thing is that coffee makers here have realized the problem and are making an effort to change the situation. For example, Fushan Coffee, another major coffee producer in Hainan, hosted a coffee cultural festival last year to attract more tourists. The Xinglong Tropical Botanical Garden has created a special tour where visitors can see coffee trees, learn how coffee is made, taste samples and take some beans home if they like. The garden has also managed to combine research, planting and production, sightseeing and scientific popularization. 


People drink coffee at breakfast stalls in Xinglong, Wanning.
But there is yet another problem. Because of fluctuations in coffee prices and fewer land resources, some farmers have turned away from growing coffee. The total area of coffee fields in the province has decreased from 167 million square meters to 4 million square meters. Coffee production requires about 3,000 tons of beans, but Hainan is only able to produce 500 tons. The remaining beans must be imported from Yunnan Province or Vietnam where they are much cheaper.

Wu Huasong said farmers in Xinlong County have figured out a way to improve yield per unit from 60 kilograms to 200 kilograms and encourage others to return to growing coffee trees.

"Since 2009, we started to promote the high-yield technique by giving farmers seeds and proper training and purchasing the coffee they grow at protective prices," Wu said. "But we are still in the initial stage."

Another way to get more farmers to grow coffee beans is to focus on processing rather than planting.

"Hainan should forge its distinctive coffee products," said Fu Changming, President of the Hainan Coffee Association. "We have no competitive edge in terms of yield, but what we can do is to conduct research on blending coffee and do more related to coffee products."

Fu said he is optimistic about the future of Hainan coffee and believes more opportunities have come with the increased numbers of international tourists who visit the island each year. The number of foreign tourists was about 470,000 in 2010, a 20-percent increase over the previous year. Fu said this was surely a big boost for the coffee industry in Hainan. 

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