Coffee News: from Seed to Cup

Steps Towards Specialty in Vietnam, Coffee’s 2nd Biggest Producer

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Have you had a specialty coffee from Vietnam? No? You’re not the only one. For many, specialty coffee and Vietnam are mutually exclusive ideas.

Yet specialty is creeping into this country, slowly but surely. And several organisations are helping it along.

SEE ALSO: How to Make Sweet Vietnamese Coffee

sorting green coffee beans

Coffee beans, seeds of change in Vietnam. Credit: D. Vogelmann.

Vietnam: A Consumer Coffee Giant

Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of coffee, with an estimated 2016 harvest of 29.6 million 60-kilo bags. That’s a serious amount of coffee: one pound of green beans is made up of approximately 1,600 coffee cherries.

Needless to say, then, that our favourite drink is important for the country’s economy and culture. Most major brands source their Robusta from here, making coffee Vietnam’s biggest agricultural export – even beating rice. It creates over one million jobs. And there’s a long history of it as a social ritual.

Vietnam’s not the only coffee giant to have the reputation of quantity over quality, but the potential for specialty in an industry this big is immense. And so, while more slowly than in Brazil, traditional coffee culture is making room for new practices.

The Difficult Challenge of Specialty Coffee

Specialty coffee: award-winning crops with unique profiles produced by passionate farmers who are often both educated and experimental.

It’s not easy for Vietnam to enter into a market like that. There’s a lack of financial support, which can put good processing equipment out of reach for many. And so the consumer market can be easier target for Vietnamese producers.

Yet that doesn’t make producing specialty impossible. This month, Vietnam hosted its first ever International Cafe (Coffee) Show and Vietnamese Barista Championship: steps in the right direction. And while gaining a reputation for specialty might be challenging, Vietnamese people are both proud and persistent. It’s my opinion that, if they have their mind set to something, they’ll achieve it.

They don’t have to achieve it alone, either.

selecting ripe coffee cherries by hand

Coffee processing near Da Lat, a hands-on affair. Credit: Vichai Saeti

Helping Specialty Farming to Grow

Specialty is all about quality, and making that transition can be difficult. Yet certain individuals and organisations are working to provide both support and training.

Vichai Saeti is one of them. A Q-grader, he provides SCAA-approved courses on topics such as cupping. And for farmers, not just in Vietnam but across all the continent, he also provides training on growing and processing coffee.

Then there is Nguyen Ninh of La Viet Coffee, a small export company. La Viet Coffee buys coffee directly from local farmers, hand sorts the beans, cups them, and then exports smaller quantities all around the globe. The coffee beans they sell have no fungal infections, which can be common here since many farmers naturally process their crops. In this way, La Viet Coffee helps specialty producers to achieve an income – making it a viable farming choice.

Yet can Vietnamese farmers ever hope to engage in direct trade?

coffee dried on raised beds

A coffee farm works on adopting specialty practices. Credit: fi-lăn’thrə-pē

Creating Direct Trade Partnerships

Specialty roasters and purchasers prefer to do business with the farmers themselves, sometimes even purchasing microlots and small yields. You’d be forgiven for thinking that, in a socialist-orientated market economy like Vietnam’s, such business relationships would be hard to establish. Yet state controls on foreign trade were relaxed in the ‘90s and, now, several bodies are setting the roots for direct trade across the country.

There are a number of NGOs that deserve mention, but one that particularly stands out is fi-lăn’thrə-pē (filanthrope). It specialises in specialty coffee and direct support for producers; in their own words: “We have developed and promote a model of trade that permits farming communities to gain access to retail value for their crop, and in doing so empowers them to improve their standard of living together as a community and pursue ecologically and socioeconomically sound farming practices”.

Is it seeing success? Absolutely. One recent example is from the Vietnamese highlands, where they helped farmers achieve 83+ cupping scores for their crops and then sell the complete harvest of 20 ton to a US buyer for an “honourable” price.

And since Vietnam recently signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership with the US (on the 4th of  February, 2016), we can expect direct trade to only get easier and easier.

As a result of all this, more and more farmers are starting to understand the benefits of producing and selling high-quality coffee. We can expect the specialty coffee market to continue growing – and, maybe one day, you’ll be able to positively answer the question, “Have you had a specialty coffee from Vietnam?”

Written by D. Vogelmann of Farmers Blend Coffee and edited by T. Newton.

Feature Photo Credit: @fincaelreposo

Perfect Daily Grind.

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