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First coffee shipment from Burma arrives in US

Women sort coffee grown in Burma. (Photo: Daily Coffee News)

Two shipments of coffee beans from Burma arrived in the United States this month, the first commercial-scale imports in over 15 years and the fruits of a US government development programme for farmers in the once-isolated Southeast Asian economy.

The two containers, totaling 600 60-kg bags, imported by Seattle-based Atlas Coffee Importers are a fraction of the 24.8 million bags of coffee consumed annually in the United States. But the shipments could herald a welcome diversification from traditional supply areas that are being hit by climate change.

Whole Foods Market bought 41 bags and La Colombe, a specialty chain backed by Chobani yogurt founder Hamdi Ulukaya, purchased 10 bags. The arabica beans will be on show at La Colombe cafe in Washington on Tuesday.

“It will be sold as single origin and as special coffee that we’re offering,” said Darrin Daniel, director of sourcing for Allegro Coffee Company, a Whole Foods subsidiary that supplies much of the food store’s coffee.

Burma exported only modest amounts of coffee in the 1990s and a shipment of 17 60-kg bags in 2015 was the first delivery since 2000, US government data shows. Burmese immigrant Melvin Tan, who founded Austin, Texas-based Irrawaddy Coffee Roasters in 2015, said he imported 10 bags from Burma that year.

“I’m down to 1-1/2 bags. I would say … I’m going to more than triple it this year from last year,” Tan told Reuters.

Poor diplomatic relations between the United States and the former military dictatorship made traders and roasters cautious in conducting business up until recently, industry sources said.

USAID, the federal government’s aid agency, launched a funding programme to help the country’s coffee farmers bolster the quality of beans two years ago as part of a shift toward open economic and political relations with Burma.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has been running a separate programme since 2014 to help farmers switch from growing opium poppy to coffee. The agency has worked with 1,280 farmers to plant 1,000 hectares of coffee, and expects its first harvest at the end of this year, said programme coordinator Jochen Wiese.