Tran Nhat Quang drives his black 4×4 slowly past small farms and derelict French villas on the outskirts of Da Lat — Vietnam’s “Petit Paris.”
He breaks, suddenly, and points out a rangy Bourbon-Arabica shrub in someone’s front yard.
“The best coffee in Vietnam is here,” he cries with a wag of his long index finger. “Just go out there and find it.”
Quang started his day at the crack of dawn, dodging backhoes and mud-spattered motorcycles on the sluice-like drive to his farm in a remote rural district of Lam Dong Province called Me Linh.
The creative destruction of the once passable road has dragged so long, Quang has been forced to rent a warehouse space in Da Lat to house his massive roaster and other coffee processing equipment.
“The transportation costs are killing me,” he cries, as though he’s happy to die.
Before making it to the farm, we stopped in Da Lat briefly, for a cappuccino at the Bicycle Cafe.
A local architect and his wife filled the colorful, rambling space with pretty old things: Edison bulbs, a bathtub full of plants and an old metal hospital bed loaded with pillows.
Perhaps the most intriguing antique in the cafe are Quang’s beans, which have been individually salvaged from colonial-era Arabica shrubs.
When Quang hears about someone who has yet to cut down a Bourbon, Typica, or Moka (all arabica varietals brought to Indochina by French colonists more than 100 years ago), he tries to track down the grower, mark off the tree and offer free organic pesticides for use until harvest.
If all goes according to plan, Quang offers way above market price for the best of the crop.
“Last year, the market price for one kilo of ripe cherries was VND6,000 (28 US cents),” he says. “To farmers growing Bourbon-arabica, I offered VND12,0000 per kilo.”
This is almost unheard of in Vietnam.
Coffee farmers routinely strip half-ripe cherries off their shrubs and sell them as quickly as they can at peak price. Because it’s a volatile commodity, no one knows what they’ll get.
In bumper years, they’re visited by shady middlemen who make a living squeezing their already slender margins.
In lean years, like this one, they have to keep a constant lookout for thieves who can clear cut a whole hectare in an evening. Everyone complains about the buyers, who come from all over the world for the cheapest (and some argue worst) coffee on earth.
This attitude seems to pervade the entire supply chain. Roasters are notorious for adding soybeans and corn charcoal, dyes and chemical flavorings to their mix. The result is poor quality coffee with a bad reputation.
Quang believes his one-man company, La Viet, is on the brink of changing the bad taste that the phrase “Vietnamese Coffee” brings to the connoisseur’s palate.
A dozen or so small farms in and around this high-altitude resort town sell to Quang, which he processes and roasts in admirable fashion.
La Viet’s prime picks head down Highway 20 where a growing circle of Ho Chi Minh City aficionados are waiting to pay an impressive premium.
With each cup, Quang and his supporters get one step closer to creating a coffee that might one day sell in New York or Portland for $15 a half pound.
An ugly history
Many people still don’t know that Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer behind Brazil—and the largest producer of robusta, the cheaper, high-yield family of coffee plants that usually end up filling out espresso blends, pods or instant coffee powders.
Fewer still know that Vietnam accomplished that feat largely by cutting down forests, displacing ethnic minority communities and planting miles of low-quality, high-yield coffee nurtured with chemical fertilizers that continue to be loaned to farmers at usurious prices.
Robusta’s star has risen in recent years as consumers in emerging markets (including Vietnam) suck it down with heaps of sweetened condensed milk or a hefty dose of sugar.
Few in Vietnam could stand to drink the beans alone.
Less than five percent of Vietnam’s crop is arabica — a fussier plant that grows at high altitudes and tends to yield a more refined bean.
One large robusta buyer and exporter in Dak Lak told me that it’s both easier and more profitable to put together 99 tons of robusta and one ton of “foreign matter” than it is to do the painstaking work of producing 100 tons of high-quality arabica.
Vietnamese coffee has relatively low quality due to poor processing and drying equipment and obsolete harvesting technology” — Vietnam Trade Promotion Department report.
Nevertheless, Vietnam seems to recognize that it had better do something to add value to its product. And quality arabica is the only way to do that.
Earlier this year, the Vietnam Trade Promotion Department released a draft report that more or less put a laser focus on what Quang and his collaborators are up to.
Coffee exports hit $3.5 billion in 2012—the same year the department released its first call for the country to drastically rethink its gigantic coffee industry.
Ninety percent of Vietnam’s coffee is exported raw and nets “a lower price than the average world prices,” the report noted.
“Vietnamese coffee has relatively low quality due to poor processing and drying equipment and obsolete harvesting technology,” it added.
The department concluded by recommending that Vietnam upgrade quality by investing in research, post-harvest preservation and processing technology and develop sustainable standards for coffee production.
Quang’s farm produces 40-hectares worth of mostly robusta shaded by avocado trees, and his Catimor (a kind of robusta-arabica bride of Frankenstein) was rated at 82 points by a professional taster, which is very good.
He has planted a few arabica trees on another 30-hectare farm that has yet to yield beans, but says the elevation of his own property isn’t ideal for such plants.
“The world isn’t ready for this coffee,” Quang said overlooking the verdant valley his plants drop into.
At one time, French colonial plantations in remote areas of Vietnam, such as Khe Sanh, were known to produce the best arabica coffee in the region–variously called “mocha,” “bourbon,” though few of their actual identities have been confirmed in laboratories.
But they were good.
The robusta boom of the 1990’s supplanted many of these trees, prompting Vietnamese farmers to cut down and replace fickle, arabicas with tougher, robusta shrubs that spit out tons of cherries at all altitudes.
And that’s what Quang has tried to stop.
Partners in Coffee
Michael Gomez-Wood and his partner Cana Little moved to Da Lat two years ago from Colorado with tons of ideas and just enough money to survive. Using their own small savings, the couple headed to Asia to change the way the world treats its coffee farmers.
Before they left the U.S., their two-person organization, Filanthrope, won IRS approval to partner American coffee-drinking donors with coffee-farming communities in a “gift exchange.”
The exchange allows Americans to give tax-deductible donations toward, say, a clean water well in India’s Kerala state and be thanked with a supply of delicious Indian peaberry.
They found government support in India and Indonesia for their project. But Vietnam proved trickier.
Their ideas seem, at times, dizzyingly utopian.
They argue that, with the right approach, individual high-altitude farmers can produce premium arabica on a small scale as just one component of a sustainable, mixed-crop organic farm.
Their rented home in Da Lat feels like the headquarters of some coffee revolution, filled, as it is, with the smell of beans toasted over gasified rice hulls and sacks of samples from all over Lam Dong Province and the world.
During Filanthrope’s long wait for a license to proceed with their plans in Vietnam, the couple has helped Quang identify quality plants and teach curious farmers about organic farming techniques.
They linked up with Quang about the same time that Will Frith, a Vietnamese-American expert coffee roaster, writer and barista showed up in Da Lat hoping to source elegant beans.
Last year, Frith left Vietnam for a well-paying job designing an elaborate brew system for office towers in Singapore.
Like the rest of the group, he made almost no money during the fourteen months he spent in promoting a cause that’s only now taking off.
Frith, a tall, bespectacled vegetarian honed his expertise in the industry while working at Olympia Coffee in Washington state.
Quang calls Frith “my teacher;” some of his former colleagues in Da Lat call him “the master.”
On a recent afternoon, he popped into one of several nascent Ho Chi Minh City specialty coffee shops to provide a full day of free barista training and quality control.
When asked to pinpoint a characteristic flavor of Vietnamese coffee, Frith shrugged.
“We’re just beginning to learn about it. Once we’re able to eliminate some of the agricultural, processing and storage issues, we can begin to see what it really tastes like,” he said.
“What I’ve experienced so far with some of the better arabicas is that the coffee tends to be sweet, with mild acidity and good body. There’s probably more in there, but we have a lot of work to do cleaning it up before those flavors begin to express themselves.”
This December, Frith and his wife, Kelly Norman, returned to Saigon, drawn by Saigon’s crowd of new aficionados which came out like a monsoon rain.
On Monday, January 12, they will hold an open tasting of the most recent harvest (“the most promising crop yet,” Frith wrote) at the Workshop Cafe in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
The tasting will begin at 9:30AM and, among other things, invite coffee drinkers to meet the people who grow and process each beverage.
Tree to cup
This Labor Day, a group of well-heeled investors held the official opening for their massive specialty coffee shop in the heart of Saigon.
They called it Workshop—a nod to their ongoing pursuit of the perfect cup.
During their month-long soft opening, long-legged women flocked to the place in polka dot and floral print dresses to Instagram their artfully-made VND75,000 (US$3.50) cappuccinos or spend hours hovering over a single glass of watermelon juice.
Presiding over it all was Dung Nguyen, a Hanoi construction manager who developed an affinity for fine wine, cigars and (of course) coffee while living in Hong Kong.
Pretty much every day since it’s opened, coffee nerds and curious neophytes have crowded Workshop’s sleek copper bar to watch the painstaking preparation of coffee on everything from a ceramic Taiwanese funnel to a state-of-the art expresso machine.
You you could be anywhere in the world here, except for all of the Vietnamese and Lao beans on the counter.
Carved out of five old apartments into a sleek, semi-industrial space, Workshop might evoke complex misgivings about elitism or commodity fetishism. But the knowledge that farmers a bus-ride away are profiting in an unprecedented way on a clean approach to coffee somehow softens that blow.
On a recent afternoon, Quang emerged from behind the bar to fill the hands of his once-doubtful friends with shots of bourbon arabica—now brewed as a single-origin espresso, or dripped over ice in a glass Chemex.
The scene would have been almost unimaginable a year ago, when he couldn’t give away a bag of his coffee.
At that time, the town contained nothing but cà phê sữa đá and the occasional imported Italian espresso.
I want to make true Vietnamese coffee […] I want to teach people how to drink coffee from tree to cup” — Ho Pham Minh Duy
He says La Viet now supplies approximately ten specialty coffee shops in Ho Chi Minh City.
The quality of each beverage at Workshop is monitored by Ho Pham Minh Duy, 26, a former Food and Beverage Manager at a series of state-owned Ho Chi Minh City hotels.
For a time, he worked under Quang at La Viet until he developed his own project.
Most days, Duy, (notable for his rakish scarf and flat grin) checks in at Workshop to maintain barista performance and roast new beans.
On others, he travels to his one-hectare farm in Da Lat, which he speaks about in only the most idyllic terms.
Duy calls the business Happy Farms Cooperative and hopes it will serve as a kind of model for organic and sustainable coffee production.
“I want to connect the farmers to change their thinking about coffee and change their lives,” he said on a recent afternoon at Workshop.
“I want to make true Vietnamese coffee […] I want to teach people how to drink coffee from tree to cup.”