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March Origin Focus: Specialty Robusta from Vietnam

The ICO reported that 72 million bags of robusta were produced in 2022/23. With arabica production at 94 million bags, robusta accounted for 40% of global supply. Quite the rise from a measly 13% in the 1950s.

With this growth has come significant development. There is an R grading system, comparable to the Q system used for arabica. In fact, our quality manager at DRW, Thierry Akroman, has recently qualified as an R grader. There is traceability. There is extensive research around cultivation, yield, quality, and varietals. There are unique processing methods. There are fascinating terroir dependent nuances in profile. In fact, all the tools and attributes we use to sell specialty arabica are applicable to robusta.

Perception of taste is perhaps still a hurdle. One would think that the explosion in extreme fermentations in arabica, that has forced the coffee community to recalibrate, would be a helpful lesson in unlearning norms. But robusta is still hindered by stigma and comparison. We must learn to appreciate robusta for what it is rather than for what it isn’t.

So, what robusta should I be drinking I hear you ask? Well… the Ea Tan cooperative, in the Dak Lak province of Vietnam, is the perfect example of what specialty robusta can be. This origin focus will explore the history of the Ea Tan cooperative and what makes the coffees so special. I speak to our QC manager and Jamie, Head Roaster at Hot Numbers who has been working with Ea Tan to hear their thoughts…

Anaerobic robusta barrels fermenting through the night at Ea Tan, Vietnam

Three hundred km northeast of Ho Chi Min 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 the Ea Tan Cooperative was formed. Established in 2013, they were the first cooperative to be formed with the support of Simexco.

There are 156 farmers involved covering just 73 hectares of land. Specific cultivars were selected and planted in collaboration with the Simexco Sustainability Programme across the various smallholder plots back when the coop was formed. The primary varieties chosen were TR4 and TR9, part of 11 cultivars created by The Western Highlands Agro-Forestry Scientific and Technical Institute (WASI) chosen for their cup profile, disease resistance with high productivity.

The 73 hectares that form the cooperative sit at some of the higher altitudes for growing Robusta. As a result, the coffees tend to ripen 30-40 days later than the rest of the country, and the resulting sugar content of the fruit is higher.

As you can tell, the foundations for good coffee were there from the start. However, Ea Tan cooperative did not stop there. In December 2023, DRWakefield visited the coop to understand what boundaries they continue to push in the pursuit of quality. Vice president Mr Thong and QC manager Mr Minh take us through some of the specifics…

Thierry picking robusta in Vietnam.

Collaboration: Since their inception, the group has placed great emphasis on process. Synchronising within a cooperative structure has enabled the group to knowledge share and achieve consistency through shared quality targets and collaborative experimentation.

Training: Workshops are regularly conducted with and between members to keep the focus firmly on the quality of production. Whilst visiting in 2023, a range of Robusta lots were sun drying on raised beds in contact with different yeasts to understand the fermentation impacts.

Picking: Trees are picked a maximum of 5 times per season and there are two pickings on each of these given days. Cherry delivered between 80% and 90% ripe is used for the Premium coffees. Only lots over 90% ripeness are selected for Fine production.

Post harvest: Pickings are then processed in the late afternoon, with two rounds of washing including the flotation tank and mechanical cleaner. The mechanical cleaner has been fitted with rubber faces on the paddles that move the coffee up to the first screen to reduce damage. Initial research suggests the padding has reduced defects by an impressive 300%.

Processing: Fine production is typically processed as coloured honeys or anaerobic. Honeys are dried on raised beds with various mucilage levels removed. Anaerobic barrels have a secondary lining to create an oxygen free environment and heighten cleanliness between batches. They are also experimenting with natural yeast strains ready for the next crop.

Ea Tan have won Vietnams ‘Amazing Cup’, a robusta quality competition, for 5 consecutive years. It’s no surprise then to see their coffee being used the Barista championships around the world. Ordinary Robusta this is not.

So, how does this work impact the cup profile? I spoke with our QC manager and inhouse R grader Thiery, who visited Ea Tan last year. Jamie of Hot Numbers Coffee Roasters also shared his feedback having recently roasted the Ea Tan Natural Anaerobic T4.

Thierry, do you have any preconceptions of Vietnamese robusta from your 2 decades working in coffee?

Thierry: In my experience, robusta has mainly been used for blends or as a filler coffee (as it is called in the industry). Often quite a woody profile with earthy notes. Thinking about Vietnam specifically, the cup profile often has some nutty and astringent notes and a dense mouthfeel.

Jamie,  what were your preconceptions?

Jamie: I began working in coffee at Costa so I already had a slightly low perception of Robusta. Something that was primarily used as a blending component purely to add body or caffeine.

Has Ea Tan changed these perceptions?

Thierry: Ea Tan coffees, specially the Golden and Black Honey have completely turned those preconceived ideas about Vietnamese Robusta upside down. Consistently in the cup we get some notes of cinnamon, jackfruit, banana. And some sweet and floral finish you do not normally associate with Vietnam. A very good Fine Robusta.

Jamie: Mostly yes, I still think Robusta has a solid place as a blending component to add body and richer notes. This coffee has certainly opened my eyes to how good cultivation and processing can elevate robusta as a single origin.

What feedback have you had?

Thierry: When visiting Ea Tan last year, it was very clear that the cooperative members were very proud of their coffee. I think winning the Vietnam specialty coffee championship so many times, Amazing cup Vietnam, really helped with this.

Jamie: Mostly positive. Some people are shocked that a robusta could have that much complexity in the cup. I think most of the team and our customers have been very open to the idea of trying it without judgement which is great.

Thierry, what excites you about the potential of Ea Tan moving forwards?

Thierry: They are in a process of experimenting their processing method with the use of yeast which they were very excited about at the coop. I know this is not that helpful for your Robusta article as well Jack, but they have some very exciting things happening on Arabica front. too. A very ambitious coop (thanks for that Thierry).

And Jamie, do you reckon you will be looking at Ea Tan coffees again when the fresh crop lands?

Jamie: Absolutely! I would love to be able to showcase this coffee again and see how the processing and preparation progresses.

Jamie, Head Roaster at Hot Numbers

As you can tell, we all think Ea Tan is pretty special. We are already extremely excited to cup the fresh crop PSS in April, keep your eyes peeled for the landed coffees shortly after. If you want to find out even more about Vietnam, have a read of our trip report from 2023 here.

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