Women in Coffee: Building Gender Equity in Myanmar

A remarkable coffee from an emerging origin


Charlie refers to Myanmar Kyauk Kuu Pyin Village Natural—our first of four Single Origin releases from the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma—as a perfect storm of deliciousness. 

In this two-part blog series, we're exploring the serendipitous confluence of events that brought him to the other side of the globe and revealed a coffee from one of the industry's dark horses.

In many ways, that goodness is nothing short of a miracle. “High-quality coffee is already outlier an in this area,” says Charlie. “Specialty naturals would be an outlier anywhere in Southeast Asia. Highly traceable coffee would be an outlier in Southeast Asia. Anything from Myanmar that specialty roasters are excited about would be an outlier in Southeast Asia. But the coffees we're working with this year from Kyauk Kuu Pyin are all of these.”

Then there’s the deliciousness itself. “This profile is unique in all the world,” says Charlie. “The only other terroir I can compare it to would be Yemen, because of its very articulate, fruit-confection-like sweetness and gamey complexity. It's delicate and expressive and precious-tasting.”

A combination of terroir and natural processing—a sustainable method for a region where water must be rationed outside of the rainy season—is one reason for such remarkable results. But it's the farmers who are bringing a coffee backwater to the global forefront. 

“They asked every question they could about the coffee process, from harvest to grind to pour,” says Juliet. “They hadn’t even seen a pour over before, hadn’t even tasted their own coffee. But they saw the opportunity they had with specialty coffee, and knew this business could be a big part of their future.”

The Partnership for Gender Equity


As Blue Bottle's green coffee buyer, Charlie Habegger's job is tracking down the world's most delicious coffees, but it wasn't business that brought him to Myanmar in late 2016. "I was really admiring the work that my friend, Kimberly Eason, was doing with the Coffee Quality Institute, and I wanted to help," says Charlie. 

From his years building relationships with coffee farmers and co-ops in countries all over the world, Charlie had seen firsthand the impact that egalitarian farming and business practices can have on entire communities—an impact that the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) aims to support with the Partnership for Gender Equity (PGE). 

"With PGE, we're really looking to cause a shift in the way the coffee industry looks at gender, from big companies to small farming communities," says Kimberly, CQI's Gender Advisor. "When we're working at the household level, we're bringing together male and female farmers and having them talk about the visions they have for their futures. Then, in a creative, participatory way, we have them look at how might there be barriers related to gender that are holding them back, and how we might we be able to shift how they work together in pursuit of the greater good."

Gender Equity and Economics

Through PGE, CQI is pioneering ways to promote gender equity in order to impact quality of life and of coffee for producers who wouldn't otherwise have the means. While 70% of the world's coffee supply is grown on small family farms, and women do much, if not the majority, of the work, most rarely have access to the resources—financial compensation chief among them—that would allow them to be more successful.

Though in itself a serious issue, gender inequality does more than reduce economic returns for women. It has a negative impact on quality of life for all the members of a community. Ignoring gender equity, as PGE states on its website, is a missed business opportunity, and emphasizing the economic incentive behind gender equity is central to its approach. "For anyone, if you're going to change the way you do things, you want to know that it's going to benefit your community as well as you personally," says Kimberly. 

That means helping small farming communities improve the quality of their coffees and their ability to command market value for them, as well as finding ways to harness the overlooked capabilities of women farmers and producers. 

"No One Expected Results This Good."


Coffee quality is where Charlie comes in. With his background and experience, he saw that he could play an important part in PGE's workshop series, which combines coffee education with gender equity development. Kimberly invited him to share his extensive knowledge in one such workshop in Mya Ze Di, the tiny agricultural community in the hills of Myanmar's southern Shan State where the village of Kyauk Kuu Pyin is located. Charlie recruited Juliet Han, lead roaster at Blue Bottle's Webster Street cafe and roastery and a woman whose standing in the coffee industry has gotten her her fair share of recognition, to volunteer with him.

Although he was looking forward to sharing his expertise and access to one of the world's largest industries, Charlie assumed that the farmers of Mya Ze Di had a long road ahead of them. Already familiar with Myanmar's reputation for producing low-grade coffees, he expected that improvements in gender relations, education, and infrastructure would have an impact on their coffees... eventually. 

"But no one expected results this good," says Charlie. "I arrived there with no intentions other than acting as a consultant and representative of quality markets interested in the work.What I found was a thriving community of producers and quality experts on the verge of having a truly viable coffee."

Keeping Up the Momentum


Between his first visit to Mya Ze Di in December of last year and his next visit, to judge a local coffee cupping competition, the following February, Charlie's dreams for the surprisingly tasty coffee, grown by the group of farmers who call themselves the Villagers of Kyauk Kuu Pyin, had crystallized into a plan. He knew that Blue Bottle would be eager to sell a coffee that was not only delicious, but sustainably grown (with a water-free processing method, key in a region where water must be rationed outside of the rainy season) in a community where, thanks to programs like PGE and the leadership of local women, the commitment to gender equity is already spreading. 

"For our first workshop," says Kimberly, "we had twenty-four people show up. On the last day of the workshop, they brought in the rest of their community to learn from them about the practices and tools they'd developed over the last week. Going forward, the community leaders that emerged during the first workshop will hold others, and continue to share those lessons to other people. You really never know who's going to turn up as a leader. You have to give people a chance, and they do amazing things with it."

An Emerging Origin

Charlie sees Blue Bottle's relationship with the Villagers of Kyauk Kuu Pyin as the beginning of something special: Myanmar Kyauk Kuu Pyin Village Natural is the first of four Burmese coffees Blue Bottle will be releasing this summer and fall. 

"This is the first time that Burmese coffees this transparent and this high in quality have been available to the world," he says. "I hope and expect that the passion of our guests, who love coffee and are curious about how it all works, will open doors so that we can continue telling this story."