April 8, 2021

Exploring geographical indication in coffee

Around the world, there are certain food and beverage products that are protected by a geographical indication (GI). This means that they are defined by the region they are produced in, and cannot truly be replicated anywhere in the world. 

Examples include Sorrento lemons (Italy), Kalamata olives (Greece), and Champagne (France). 

There are also coffees protected by geographical indication. Two of the most well-known examples are the “Café de Colombia” and “Jamaican Blue Mountain” labels. These can, by law, only be applied to coffees produced in specific countries and regions.

To learn more about how coffee can receive a geographical indication, and what this means for farmers, I spoke with several coffee sector professionals working in Son La, Vietnam. Read on to find out what they told me.

You may also like our article on terroir and how it affects your coffee.

Geographical indication: An overview

GI certifications are granted to products that have intrinsic qualities associated with specific producing regions or areas. Historically, they have been associated with European food products and the concept of terroir. 

The earliest GI system, appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), can be traced back to early 20th-century France. It is commonly used for distinctive French wines and cheeses. In 1992, the European Union ratified a “protected designation of origin” (PDO) framework to support GI systems for all of its member states.

Often, established GI systems require that products meet certain criteria to use that name or label. For example, many GI-protected wines around the world must be made with a high percentage of grapes from a certain growing region. These grapes represent the area’s terroir and provide a finished product that has distinctive flavours unique to that region.

Another famous example is Roquefort cheese, made from sheep’s milk. To officially bear the Roquefort name, a cheese must be made from the milk of the Lacaune breed of sheep, and aged in natural caves near Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, Aveyron. This is because a certain mold only found in the soil of these caves gives Roquefort cheese its distinctive tangy flavour.

Son La, in northern Vietnam, is a coffee producing region that was awarded GI certification in 2017. While historically famous for its high number of tea plantations, coffee has been grown in Son La for over 150 years, specifically under French colonial influence in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

However, production has scaled in recent decades. Son La offers excellent altitudes for cultivating the arabica plant alongside fertile soil and good temperature ranges. Today, around 20,000 hectares of land are used for arabica production in the region, yielding between 30,000 and 40,000 tonnes of coffee every year.

Vuong Van Hai is the Chairman of the Son La Coffee Board and was part of the team responsible for securing GI certification for the region. “The Son La coffee association was established in 2017 to promote a sustainable coffee sector in the region,” he says. “We provide support for our members to voluntarily manage the use of GI Son La coffee.

“[The association has] 10 members, including companies and co-operatives, of which 5 now use GI coffee in their products.”

Hoang Minh Chien is the Deputy Director General of the Vietnam Trade Promotion Agency (Vietrade). He says: “The Son La GI project has the ambition to make foreign customers aware of the origin of the Vietnamese arabica coffee grown in this suitable, fertile area.

“Since the project started three years ago, many [measures] have been implemented, [giving] customers a quality product as a result of the passion, care, and experience of our smallholder farmers and supply chain actors.”

Obtaining geographical indication

Obtaining GI certification for any product is not easy. Producers have to prove that their farming practices are consistent and unique, as well as submitting comprehensive application documents to the right administrative body. Only then can the relevant GI certification symbol be used on packaging.

However, before anything else, the producing region must be established as possessing unique and distinctive qualities.

Duc works for Minh Tien Coffee, a producer and trader based in Son La. He says: “Minh Tien sources arabica coffee in Son La from 3,800 coffee households. 

“[The region is characterised by its] geographical and weather conditions, [such as] high altitude, fertile soil and high temperature fluctuations between day and night.”

Intensive training programmes are often needed to comply with GI standards, as agricultural best practices are a key part of setting aside a product as unique and distinctive.

Vuong tells me that in Son La, farmers were taught about agricultural and post-harvest practices that put an emphasis on quality. He adds that these included training on picking cherries at peak ripeness. “Son La coffee [must be] harvested by hand, a tradition which ensures high quality through even ripeness,” he tells me. 

He also notes that farmers in Son La are being taught how to plant shade trees. This promotes sustainable, responsible cultivation, as well as improving coffee quality.

Finally, soil slope erosion is an issue for coffee plants in Son La. Nguyen Dinh Phong is the Vice Director of the Son La Department of Industry and Trade. He explains that the natural terrain is steep, which can make production difficult at times. Producers in Son La have worked towards planting trees in a way that combats soil erosion on steep slopes. 

However, Nguyen adds that this presents other unforeseen difficulties. “Coffee in Son La is planted on high slopes and can only be harvested by hand,” he says. “This makes mechanised harvesting almost impossible, resulting in higher costs.”

What are the benefits of geographical indication?

In 2020, the total sales value of GI products in the EU amounted to €74.76 billion. They make up a significant amount of the global food and beverage market.

The popularity of GI-certified products has been reflected in the progress of Son La coffee. Three years on from obtaining GI, Duc says that coffee companies in the region have seen no small amount of success.

“Minh Tien produces between 22,000 and 25,000 tonnes of green coffee every year, mostly for export,” he says. “About 90% of total output is sent to Germany. The remainder is exported to the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Japan, and the USA.”

Vu Viet Thang is the Director of Phuc Sinh Coffee, a processing company based in Son La. He says that GI coffee offers a unique proposition and better differentiation for other stakeholders along the supply chain. 

“GI Son La coffee is quite useful for companies when they start introducing products [to] new customers and new markets,” Vu explains. “It plays an important role in establishing the country of origin and increasing [the] credibility of the company [in question].”

The improved quality control required for GI coffee naturally also means greater interest from the specialty coffee sector, as it leads in turn to higher scoring coffees. If these practices are neglected, coffee quality can fall and it may no longer be specialty-grade on a 100-point scale.

For example, Blue Son La, a GI coffee sold by Phuc Sinh, “scores higher than 80” and has been used in “national coffee competitions” according to Vu.

Ultimately, GI coffee and the focus on quality that comes with it can open up new markets for farmers. In turn, better market access means improved financial stability for the producer, and greater sustainability across the supply chain.

Does GI make production more sustainable for coffee farmers?

GI certifications add more credibility to a coffee and subsequently allow farmers to differentiate their crop on the international market. However, GI alone does not solve all the issues that coffee producers face.

In Son La, for example, challenges remain despite the GI being approved in 2017. Dang Van Thinh is the Director of Son La Coffee Ltd. “There is no clear distinction between areas with and without GI,” he says. “[In addition], many customers [do not] know that arabica is produced in Son La. This causes difficulties for companies seeking to reach new markets.

“[Ultimately], the production of GI coffee has not significantly improved income for coffee farmers. There is a lack of quality assurance and traceability systems which would control the quality of coffee produced in Son La.”

Smallholder producers still need access to better infrastructure if they are to become more sustainable and increase quality across the board. GI certification is a start, but major changes like this will make coffee production in Son La more sustainable in the long term.

“[There are] concerns about wastewater treatment and by-product treatment to reduce water pollution, for example,” Dang says. “Investment in such systems is costly, especially for smallholder farmers. There should be more partnerships to proactively manage such issues and promote organic, sustainable coffee production in the future.”

Nguyen echoes Dang’s statements about quality assurance. “Harvesting in Son La is often prolonged because of the uneven ripeness of coffee cherries,” he says. “This often leads to uneven inconsistent quality and high post-harvest loss. A quality assurance system should be developed to supervise the whole process, from planting to harvesting.”

Despite these difficulties, stakeholders in Son La remain confident about the GI certification.

“To promote GI Son La coffee, the Son La coffee board is focusing on promotional activities, exhibitions, and trade events,” Vuong says. 

“Alongside this, it is providing guidelines for members about how to invest in processing activities [and subsequently] increase the value of their coffee.

Better exposure for Son La coffee is also a long-term aim. The GI is a good start, but improving its visibility on an international scale will be key if coffee production in the region is to be as sustainable as possible.

Deputy Director Chien says: “With coming development projects that will promote the regional brand of Son La, we believe that the GI will grow the reputation of Vietnamese arabica around the world. This will have a positive impact on communities in Son La.”

So, as transparency and traceability continue to be key concepts in wider discussions about the sustainability of the coffee sector, will GI certification become more relevant? 

Along with Son La, the Rwandan Appellation Project, Protected Geographical Indications in Colombian growing regions, and denominations of origin in Minas Gerais have all been confirmed in the past 20 years.

The consumer focus on understanding where coffee comes from and how it is produced is only growing. The role that GI has to play in this shift in attitudes is important, but exactly how it will play that role remains to be seen.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on whether nature or nurture has the greatest effect on coffee quality.

Perfect Daily Grind

Photo credits: VIETRADE

Please note: VIETRADE is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

Special thanks also to Minh Tien Coffee, Bich Thao Coffee Cooperative, Son La Coffee Ltd, Phuc Sinh, the Son La Department of Industry and Trade, and the Son La Department of Science and Technology for their support with this article.

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