Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer in the world after Brazil, and is the largest robusta-growing origin on the planet. This means it holds an important role when it comes to global coffee production, and has a significant effect on global markets.
But while the country boasts volume and breadth, what about quality?
Well, despite historic connotations of low-quality coffee production, the country’s reputation for quality is increasing. Arabica production is slowly but surely increasing in parts of Vietnam, which is generating some excitement among coffee professionals.
To learn more about the country’s coffee industry and its many coffee growing regions, I spoke to a few industry experts. Read on to find out what they said.
A brief history of Vietnamese coffee production
As with many of the world’s foremost coffee producing regions, coffee arrived in Vietnam as a result of colonisation. In this case, it was the French who introduced it.
Tony Le Ngoc Thuong is a senior coffee trader and the assistant CEO at Vinacafe. He explains how coffee reached Vietnam and how this history helped Vietnam develop into the coffee giant that it is today.
He says: “It is said that French missionaries brought the coffee plant to Vietnam in the 1850s.
“However, it wasn’t until 1888 when the first coffee farms were opened by French farmers such as Borel Leconte in Ha Nam, Coudeux Gombert in Nghe An, Michael Philip in Quang Tri, and Rossi and Delfante in Daklak.”
After these initial efforts, Tony says Vietnamese coffee production grew rapidly through the 1900s.
He adds: “From 1920 to 1925, coffee continued to be planted across the Central Highlands. By 1945, coffee farms covered some 10,700ha, which grew to 20,000ha by 1975.”
Midhun Pachayil is the Vice President of Coffee for Vietnam at Olam. According to him, the Vietnam War played a major role in shaping the industry as we know it today.
He says: “Coffee production was disrupted by the Vietnam War, and in 1975, after the war had ended, the industry was nationalised under collectivisation. The reforms of 1986 reintroduced private land ownership and coffee production has grown astronomically ever since.”
Today, Tony adds, coffee farms cover more than 600,000ha of the country’s most fertile farmlands. This massive area, principally spread across Vietnam’s mountainous regions, yields some 30.7 million 60kg bags of green coffee every year.
Overview of production & producing regions
Currently, robusta makes up about 95% of Vietnam’s coffee production, while arabica makes up the remaining 5%. The country is most well-known for the former, the majority of which is grown in the Central Highlands region. The Central Highlands is responsible for around 80% of all Vietnamese robusta.
Vietnamese coffee production has traditionally had a focus on quantity and mass production, as its climate and elevation make it perfect for the large-scale cultivation of the resilient robusta plant.
Today, Vietnamese robusta is sold en masse to buyers who operate at scale, who often roast it and process it into instant coffee.
This philosophy of large-scale, low-intervention mass production is why Vietnam has come to be renowned for offering quantity over quality where coffee is concerned.
This has been damaging for the country’s reputation as an origin, especially for those Vietnamese coffee producers who are interested in producing good-quality robusta and arabica.
Arabica is farmed by smallholders in a few regions. Harvest times range from November to January, which aligns with many Central American harvests. Arabica farms are scattered across the north and south of the country.
The most widely accessible and popular arabica variety in Vietnam is Catimor, which suits the climate because it is high-yield, resilient, and capable of thriving at lower altitudes. However, it is not well-known for its cup quality, which is a barrier for some Vietnamese producers.
However, there has been a growing trend among some smaller farms in Vietnam to move away from this variety and begin planting higher quality varieties, such as Bourbon and Typica.
As mentioned previously, the bulk of Vietnamese coffee production occurs in its Central Highlands, which are renowned for robusta cultivation.
Tony says: “Vietnamese coffee is mainly grown in the Central Highlands region, which includes five provinces: Dak Lak, Gia Lai, Dak Nong, Lam Dong, and Kontum.”
Midhun adds that a variety of factors make the Central Highlands ideal for robusta production, including altitudes of between 300 m.a.s.l. and 500 m.a.s.l.
He says: “The area has a warm tropical climate influenced by the South Asian monsoon, with distinct dry and rainy seasons. Robusta is cultivated in the highlands and plains, with hot weather, high humidity, and weak direct sunlight, and temperatures between 24°C and 26°C.”
Arabica production regions
While the Central Highlands dominates Vietnam’s robusta production, arabica production is much more diffuse. Arabica is grown in pockets across both the north and the south, generally in areas where altitudes are higher and are more suited to the production of arabica coffee.
Tony says: “The arabica coffee grown in Vietnam is in the regions of Da Lat, Dien Bien, Nghe An, Son La, and Quang Tri, which range in maximum altitude from 1000 to 1400 m.a.s.l.”
Midhun adds: “Arabica is better suited to the mountainous areas at high altitudes with lower temperatures — between 20°C and 22°C — and an annual rainfall of 1,300mm to 1,900mm.
He says that each region has its own distinctive and unique flavour. In particular, he notes that Da Lat is widely considered to be something of a “paradise” for Vietnamese arabica, thanks to its altitude and cool climate all year round.
Processing, drying & other production methods
Historically, Vietnam’s farming and processing have been largely focused on meeting one target above all else: volume.
Most Vietnamese coffee is hand-picked and then wet processed, with little focus on natural, honey, or experimental processing. However, there is a growing emphasis on improving production techniques (with a specific focus on post-harvest) to drive up quality.
Tony tells me that coffee is usually dried as quickly as possible, which creates quality issues. After that, he says that typically, farmers fix their prices and sell to local buyers, before immediately re-investing the funds they receive into increasing their farm capacity. This has effectively kept producers focused on quantity.
Midhun adds that while some coffee farms in Vietnam focus on exclusively growing coffee, many actually practise intercropping. This occurs in two systems.
He says: “The first is a farm where coffee trees are intercropped with other crops on the same plot of land, known as a synchronised farming system.
“The second type of crop diversification is where different crops are planted in separated plots of land, called a segregated farming system.”
As an example of the benefits of intercropping, Midhun says, 100% of farmers in Dak Lak who are involved with Olam’s Rainforest Alliance program earn additional money from producing at least two crops. Beforehand, the figure was just 24% for the region.
He adds: “Farmers are trained to intercrop their farms with non-coffee trees such as pepper, durian, avocado, and passion fruit, among others
“This means they become more resilient to the impact of unstable coffee prices and increasing climate temperatures.”
Tony, meanwhile, says that there is a growing understanding that Vietnamese coffee producers need to focus more on quality.
He explains: “With low market prices, farmers are interested in adding more value to their coffees through changes such as picking 100% ripe cherries, natural processing methods, half wet/honey methods, and by using fermentation to improve quality.”
Vietnam’s effect on the C price
With such a significant share of the global coffee market, the Vietnamese coffee market categorically has an impact on the C price, and subsequently affects coffee producers elsewhere around the world.
Supply issues in Vietnam or adverse weather conditions for coffee production can cause the price to skyrocket, while a strong harvest or good, consistent rainfall can cause it to fall.
We saw such an effect earlier this year, when a Covid-19 lockdown in Ho Chi Minh (the country’s largest city and a major export hub) staggered coffee exports.
Because the city and its ports are part of a key trade route that runs from China to Europe, the disruption made it more difficult to export. Consequently, with a diminished global supply, robusta prices started to rise.
Tony says that while it’s easy to say that Vietnam’s coffee industry can easily affect the market, he reminds me that this doesn’t mean that farmers earn more as a result.
”Vietnam’s coffee market is dominated by foreign direct investment and speculative funds. The Vietnamese coffee ‘brand’ itself is not well-known, which means it struggles in comparison to other origins.”
Vietnam is the world’s second-largest coffee producer and the biggest robusta origin in the world. This means that it has an undeniable impact on the global coffee sector, and trends there indirectly affect coffee producers elsewhere around the world.
However, while low market prices and a focus on quantity over quality have hurt the country’s reputation as a producer, there is a growing focus on producing better-quality coffee. Some regions starting to experiment with new varieties and processing, as well as turning to arabica.
Whether or not it will come to be more renowned as an arabica origin in the years to come, however, remains to be seen.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on steps towards specialty in Vietnam, coffee’s 2nd biggest producer.
Photo credits: Vinacafe
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