We have been selling Vietnam for quite a while, but until December 2023, we hadn’t visited it as an origin country as a company. It’s not often you get to visit a ‘new’ coffee origin. Especially when that new origin happens to be the second largest producer in the world, next to Brazil. Oh, and has been growing coffee since the 1850’s when the French introduced it to the Tonkin Basin area mainly south of and including Ha Noi. However. Coffee here did not particularly take off, at least, not in any way that led to consuming countries recognizing it as a crop in competition to many other established origins.
That is, until the latter half of the 1980’s when the Doi Moi economic reforms lead the country to go from 1,310,000 bags of coffee produced in 1990/91 to 14,841,000 bags ten years later. In the early 1990’s over 50% of Vietnam’s population was recorded as being in poverty. Annual individual income at the time of the reforms in 1987 was given as $100. By 2008 (and at 18,438,000 bags) poverty was down to 14.5% of the population and by 2010, that $100 annual income had increased tenfold. The Central Highlands provided the soil for this transformation, turning the interior of the country into an agronomical source of income to help alleviate the poverty amongst farmers and workers in the area.
If you draw a parallel to where coffee in the 1980’s was for the rest of us, then it’s not hard to understand that the focus for these new plants was yield first. Speciality coffee was yet to really break out, and would have been spelt the American way still if mentioned at all. In the UK we were drinking instant coffee and the trade of green beans was still regulated through a quota system under the International Coffee Organization. Vietnam is a huge producer of instant and beans used to make instant coffee, so if you are one of many that still have a back-up jar at home you may be more familiar with Vietnam coffee than you realise.
It is with this history in mind, that three of us – Guus, Thierry and Jamie – landed in the city of Pleiku, Gia Lai. In the middle of the country, Gia Lai forms one of the 4 provinces known for growing coffee. The other three are Kon Tum, Lam Dong, and Dak Lak. These form the Central Highlands together with Dak Nong, and border Laos and Cambodia to the west.
We were met by an old contact of Guus’s who was much more familiar with Vietnam coffee and promised to introduce us to some of the other producers in the coffee scene. And so it was, after introductions at breakfast overlooking the football stadium and the Christmas diorama at the local Catholic church, we headed off to our first Canephora farm. A small reminder here, that whilst Robusta is synonymous with Coffea Canephora, it is technically just a varietal (C. canephora var. robusta).
Arriving we could see a whole patio separated into individual raised beds. Well organized and tidy, we were shown around and saw a colour sorter being applied for the cherry before processing. This helps to ensure the right quality of cherry is processed and it was interesting to see it applied at this stage rather than post processing as is more common elsewhere. This is only the second place we have seen this (the other is in Capucas, Honduras) and immediately marks things out as different. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised though, as this farm has a reputation for quality in Vietnam and was already sold out for the year.
Moving up to the fields, we were met with branches heavily laden with coffee. Most evenly red, as is normal for Robusta, but with some unripe or green cherries dotted around too. This is being attributed to the climate this year, which has been unfavourable and changeable, leading to slightly smaller cherries than usual and a more inconsistent maturation. We would hear this repeated in other areas.
In Pleiku, harvest is November to January, after the Arabica harvest that runs October to November. They grow both on the farm and so have a direct comparison, though Robusta is by far the dominant species in the Highlands.
We then zoomed over to one of the warehouses belonging to an export company also in Pleiku. On a street with the usual global coffee names around, we entered some very well-maintained grounds to see a larger operation at scale.
It is always pleasing to see a factory that is neat and tidy with visible systems in place. So it was here. Safety gear donned of hi-vis vests, hard hats, and masks we walked around to watch the unloading and initial sorting of the green bean into the required grades – beans are delivered here hulled and in parchment but unsorted. This counts as FAQ – Fairly Average Quality – and the focus then becomes on improvements through dry milling and the fulfilment of the orders received. Robusta runs a slightly different grading system and it is common to see much more granularity around the commercial grades as to what that includes. For example, R2 (grade 2) clean is given as 0.1% foreign matter, 0.5% broken, 0.1% blacks. This differs from Premium, with no more than 8 combined primary and secondary defects, and Fine, which is more analogous to what we see in Q-standard Arabica, having zero primary defects and no more than 5 secondary.
We also had the chance to see the wet polishing machine. This is an additional step in the process that is more common in Vietnam though does occasionally pop up in other countries such as Indonesia. It removes the silverskin from the bean by the introduction of a small amount of steam or hot water to a rotating chamber or drum. This makes the silverskin a little more adherent and so is rubbed off from friction. The small amount of heat this generates is enough to dry off any residual moisture so that it does not affect the final humidity in the bean.
Once cleaned, sorted and graded, beans are bagged up and stacked neatly. Similarly to Brazil, this means stored beans in warehouses are as green bean, and not commonly as parchment.
Introduction to the lay of the land complete, we headed back to the hotel to digest these facts ahead of our time with the producers we already work with, Po Ko Fair Agricultural Cooperative, Simexco Daklak, and Ea Tan Cooperative.
Po Ko Farms
A short drive north of Pleiku, Gia Lai, to the neighbouring town and regional capital Kon Tum, Kon Tum we stopped off for a quick cà phê phin before heading to the hills and the shores of the river Po Ko. Those already caffeinated may have noticed that the cooperative shares their name with the river, and the 109 smallholder farmers they represent are located along the banks of its course and surrounding hills. The river here flows into the many inlets the hills create, before heading south to Cambodia and ultimately the Mekong Delta.
Most farms are around the 1 to 1.5-hectare size. This is common in the country and means the Po Ko Cooperative cover about 180 hectares amongst their members in total. A close relationship with other farmers in the area is useful for being able to expand certified offerings, and Po Ko themselves to do not mandate membership. Farmers are enticed to sell and stay with the cooperative through competitive pricing and value add from training, quality improvement and access to markets. Almost all of their coffee is sold under the Fairtrade conditions, and they recently underwent RFA auditing to be able to add this certification too.
The farm we visited first was also being used as a model farm for organic. This trial was to understand practices and their local interpretations but mainly to be able to show fellow farmers a proof of concept in order to lead the way. Much like other organic farms, a soupy fertilizer was made using garlic and ginger and other ingredients which here also included young bamboo and galangal.
In what was to become a recurring sight, tall concrete posts were dotted through an adjoining plot growing pepper, with avocado trees replacing occasional posts and dragon fruit plants trailed over fences alongside passion fruit vines winding their tendrils along wires stretching between posts.
Heading down the path to the main part of the farm, the river expanded before us, fishing nets pegged out in the still water and the coffee trees showing the stress of dehydration common before the rains that come and induce flowering. The rainy season was behind us however, occurring in normal times between May and November. A large amount of Vietnam uses irrigation, and so flowering is forced through watering rather than raining in line with the seasons.
Coffee here was all picked. The harvest had been early, and crop this year was down slightly on the previous year due to being an ‘off’ year. This had led to an increase in pricing and subsequent increase in risk – some thefts had been reported, with one tale even talking about thieves cutting down whole trees to remove quickly and harvest later.
Older Canephora varieties were present here with some stretching back almost as far as the Doi Moi reforms. These will be replaced in the not-too-distant future we were told, but Vietnam certainly seems to hold on to its trees longer than you would expect for an Arabica or in other countries we have visited, at least in their differently pruned form. Most common were TR4 and TR9 which were formally released in the 1990’s were joined by Xanh Lun, a shorter greener tree with bigger beans only recently approved for release in 2021. TR9 also has a big bean, with TR4 given as being longer, but a medium bean size instead. For a product that is sold a lot based on screen size, the details demand attention.
Being a Fairtrade cooperative, we were shown one of the recipients for the additional spending the premium affords. The local village school is provided with free lunches for the children, where previously there was nothing. Not only was this a benefit to the young children that already attended, but meant that villagers now actively sought to send their children to school so that they would have food, with the education they gained almost a secondary benefit. A big impact indeed.
Nearby a local communal Rong house was being built. This is a cultural facility found in the area and provides a community meeting point as well as a venue for weddings, praying and welcoming guests. A cultural symbol for the Central Highlanders, it is built on stilts and has a steep angled thatched roof. We would see more of these in other villages we visited. Further to this school we visited two others, with FT funded projects to install toilets with running water. One saw us helping to plant trees to both provide shade for the children during breaks and to contribute to the Million Tree Project Po Ko had committed to with two other neighbouring cooperatives not involved in coffee, but cashew and tea.
These schools provided for all children in the area and were not limited to coffee producers or Po Ko members only. In fact, it was quite obvious the larger regional focus Po Ko have, and their desire to bring a positive impact to the people and land that surround them.
We also saw modest houses which were built to provide a bricks–and–mortar home to families that had previously lived in small wooden houses raised off the grounds. Again, these were not limited to cooperative members. The finished example we saw belonged to seasonal pickers in a hamlet who picked all sorts of crops when harvest rolled around, and not just coffee.
From the fields and roads with houses drying small lots of coffee on patios and yards, we moved to the mills of someone Po Ko work closely with for processing, Nguyen Huy Hung Mill. Dry mills and wet mills can be a bit closer in function here, as washed coffee is not so common. They will accept a mix of dried parchment, dried green, and wet coffee. Po Ko lease some well-maintained raised beds for processing of their honey Robustas. These are covered to provide protection from the weather, lightly shade, and help control temperature too.
Similar to Costa Rica you will find a number of coloured honey processes available and naturally a mix of practices to create these. For Po Ko and Huy Hung, this means bagged or open fermentation depending on the size of the lot, perhaps some shading, before a pulping and subsequent drying on the raised beds. Patio finishing is a final option, with cleaned tarpaulins laid underneath to protect from the concrete.
Yellow honey is by far the most dominant and seems to be mid-explosion internally, stretching out as global buyers are recognizing and switching on to it. Naturals are also available as barrel fermented but be aware -similar to Brazil, ‘natural’ is the default process and so the barrel fermented vs the picked, cleaned, and dried are two variations often bearing the same name. These modern naturals do not appear to be as popular amongst buyers yet, but given barrel fermentation is a familiar sight for the production of anaerobics perhaps there has been a larger leap before a subsequent dialling back of intensity or broadening of choice. Anaerobics’ recent rise to popularity coupled with the ability to really turn heads in speciality coffee mean they are also an increasingly common in offer lists around the world and no doubt will continue to do so for a good few years yet.
A more obvious difference in the landscapes of Arabica and Robusta coffee farms was to pop up on our second day with Po Ko. Compare the picture a couple above of the trees growing on the banks of the river Po Ko with the one below and you will see as we did. The trees lining the banks of the Po Ko river are much more in line with what we see in fields of coffee we normally visit. The one below, is much more like a stereotypical tree.
This feels odd to say, as coffee grows on trees and a tree is a tree. The thickness of the trunk marked the age of the tree and was the first sign. You can often find this at the bottom of stumped or renovated trees and is a great indicator of the pruning patterns in use on the farm, but to have thick, climbable branches emanating from the trunk rather than the slim, perhaps spindly, flower or cherry laden branches we are familiar with was new to me.
This would be far from the only example we would see and was the now preferred way of growing in Dak Ha where we were. This also means that picking is often seen with the picker climbing the tree. You can see in the background 2 and 3 stem variations of pruning, both of which had been trialed and have lost out to this single stem preference. These trees were in an area demarked with Liberica which comfortably grows 5 meters and up and acts as a great boundary marker-cum-windbreak.
What was mentioned was that this area did have a different cup profile to others in the Central Highlands. It’s fascinating to have these conversations on any coffee farm and discover the character of each one. It builds an appreciation of the subtleties that exist in both species, and reminds me at least, of how little it feels like I know. It is also a reminder of the need to listen to those in origin that do know, and serves as reinforcement to the value of taking these trips.
Two hundred and twenty kilometres south of Kon Tum lies the capital city of Dak Lak province, Buôn Ma Thuột. The largest city in the Central Highlands region and famous as the capital of coffee, it is here that Simexco are based. We have been working with them for a couple of years now, and it was great to finally see them in Vietnam. Celebrating their 30th anniversary in 2023, they have built a supply chain that is focused on connecting people. Their business encompasses 40,000 farms, 3 BRC accredited factories (similar to Kenya, the name is used to refer to wet/dry mills as well as warehouses), Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance certifications, and other globally recognized stamps to recognize the food safe practices and trustworthy exports. This has enabled them to extend their reach to many different countries as well as win 1st place in Vietnams Amazing cup competition for the quality of their Robusta.
Not just limited to coffee, they also cover pepper, and were the first RFA certified pepper producer in Vietnam. Pepper is something we would see repeated many times in the area. It actually forms part of the efforts made for sustainability in partnership with IDH – a Dutch based social enterprise that works with businesses and governments to help create and develop sustainable production and trade in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Working with IDH (amongst others) in the Central Highlands, Simexco have helped bring about significant changes to the landscape; 20% less water use in the area, 14% reduced chemical fertilizer use and zero use of banned pesticides. Crop diversification of not only pepper, but durian, jackfruit and avocado has led to 20% higher income for farmers, and lowered carbon emissions (measured in 2019-2020) by 60% compared to 2015-16. You can read more on that project here. Given that 95% of Vietnam’s Robusta production is grown in the Central Highlands, and that Vietnam is the 2nd largest coffee producer in the world next to Brazil, you can understand the impact this can have. Especially given that whilst Brazil is the 5th biggest country in the world, Vietnam is the 67th largest and under a third of the square mileage of Brazil.
Sustainability efforts don’t end there though. Simexco have also delivered 3.5 million nursery trees alongside 34,000 shade trees for farm rejuvenation. They have helped establish 3 co-operatives, and created verified sourcing areas to enhance traceability.
Ea Tan Cooperative
Having talked about the landscape, let’s turn to some of the people this project involved, and suppliers of some of our speciality or ‘Fine’ Robusta’s, Ea Tan. If you clicked the previous link, then you will already be familiar with them to a degree. Established in 2013, they were the first cooperative to be formed with the support of Simexco. 2015 saw a period of intensive development in speciality and high-quality coffee, mainly driven by the desire to achieve better prices for their coffee.
Not only did they achieve this, but they have gone on to win Vietnams Amazing Cup for 5 consecutive years, topping out with an impressive 86 points. It’s no surprise then to see their coffee being used the Barista championships around the world or as one of the coffees behind the impressive growth of US roasters Nguyen Coffee Supply. Ordinary Robusta this is not.
They have been certified Fairtrade for knocking on 10 years now, and since 2021 that has been accompanied with Rainforest certification. The certification has meant roads have been built locally and electricity brought to producers. This is a great boon in the area which is fairly remote in the Krong Nang district, which borders Gia Lai and Phu Yen Provinces and is on the edges of the Ea So nature reserve. It is slightly higher than Gia Lai so has the latest harvest in the area.
Training is regularly conducted with their members to keep the focus firmly on the quality of production though experimentation is still very much part of the mix. Whilst we were there, there were covered, raised beds drying Arabica that had had been experimenting with different yeasts for fermentation tests. The Robusta lots were sun drying on raised beds outdoors. The length of drying time was also part of the experiment.
Fermentation is a funny thing. For any that have worked with brewers making coffee beers, you will have no doubt discovered the coffee changes the way the fermentation behaves. It is different here too. With the two species having a different Brix content, Arabica has a direct comparison with Robusta as it grows in the same surrounds. Here Arabica will have a Brix of around 18 at up to 900masl, whereas Robusta will stretch up to 28 Brix, meaning different attention needs to be paid to the fermentation.
Anaerobic Robusta is the clear winner (for me) here, and any that have tasted will attest to how much it reframes expectations. The winey notes balance perfectly with a deeper spice underneath, and you will see the flavours interplay with each other as the cup cools. Fermentation though is only part of the story.
Trees (again, the climbable type) are picked a maximum of 5 times per season and that cherry delivered to the washing station. There are two pickings a day from the farms, and if the cherry delivered is deemed to have between 80% and 90% ripe cherry it is used for the Premium coffees, with only lots over 90% making it through the first selection for Fine production. Pickings are then processed in the late afternoon, with two rounds of washing including the flotation tank and mechanical cleaner. The mechanical cleaner has actually been fitted with rubber faces on the paddles that move the coffee up to the first screen to reduce damage, which it has done by an impressive 300%.
The cherry that comes out at the end is then available for coloured honeys or the anaerobic, with the barrels for anaerobic being lined so as much air can be removed as possible whilst making sure the cleanliness is the best that it can be. Temperatures max out at around 30C in the day and drop to 13C at night, so anything drying outdoors gets covered with a tarpaulin to protect from any brief showers or condensation overnight.
They have their own dry mill on site, capable of processing around 1.5mt an hour. This is used only for the top two grades though (Premium and Fine) and runs for around 8 hours a day. Any commercial grades are delivered to Simexco for handling by them.
The attention to detail and accolades it has brought them are important. Like many other coffee producing communities, the increasing average age of farmers is an issue. Ho Chi Minh is the draw for youth and the extra income the speciality coffee has brought in has enabled Ea Tan to increase wages to try and counter that draw. The intercropped produce also brings extra income and provide more year-round work, as they all crop at different times.
All this learning, alongside the processing of our own special lot (more of that in the future!) brought on a healthy appetite. In keeping with all the farming communities we visited, the hospitality shown was impeccable. “Mot, Ha, Bai, Yo!” was a phrase we were fast becoming familiar with, countered by putting ice into your glass to dilute the beer and stop so much fitting in so you can have more. It was great to relax with villagers, farmers, the cooperative, and Simexco altogether and enjoy a barbecue. There was eating, dancing and laughter and these aspects of a visit are important too. It leaves us very much wanting to go back as well as to share the experience with roasters. All good things must come to an end though, and so we drove back to the hotel in Buôn Ma Thuột happy, but exhausted.
Son La and Arabica of the north
Heading back to Ha Noi was a quick flight from the efficient local airport and we spent the evening in the city enjoying the crowds and colourful hustle and bustle. Whilst Thierry headed home, Jamie and Guus took a small detour to scope out Arabica producers in the north of the country. It was educational to find some of the newer varieties from World Coffee Research spreading around the farms with the aid of WASI, the Western Highlands Agriculture & Forestry Science Institute, International Women’s Coffee Association, and others. Catimor has mostly replaced the Bourbon of old that was affected by disease and needed to be replaced. This though in turn is now being replaced by the newer varietals, or at least being discussed for replacing. These things after all, can take years to proliferate, and replanting a coffee field is a considerable investment in both new trees as well as loss of earnings while the plants establish.
The commonly discussed varieties are Centroamericano, Starmaya, Marsellesa, H1. This new wave of plants were part of the international multilocational variety trials, evidence that the focus on breeding that WCR instigated has yielded tangible benefits. Some producers were very much ahead of the curve with their embracing of these, and visions of where they wanted to be in the market. Do speak to us if you think you would be interested, and we would be happy to talk further! Cup profiles were good – 82-83 and very keen on pricing, though of course that can quickly change.
So where does this leave us? As a first impression, it will be very interesting to watch the growth of Vietnam as an origin for Arabica as well as it’s long overdue fruition in speciality Robusta. Of course, the Robusta side requires us to properly accept the role Robusta plays in the future of coffee, for taste, for caffeine and for the environmental challenges the world is facing.
Will other Robusta growing countries learn from Vietnam to embrace the quality and processing opportunities and rewards Premium and Fine Robusta can bring? India already has some great examples, with Brazil experimenting too. And what then the future of speciality coffee? What effects will this in turn bring to the commodity world? Will quality rise there too?
We know how fast the market can change, but also how long it takes for those changes to occur in the plants themselves. The people are there though. The complexity is there. And this then perhaps leads me to the thing that excites me most.
The future of Canephora is wide open, and so the opportunities to embrace that world feel both endless and exciting.