The Roasterie Adventures to Indonesia Part 4: Is Vietnam Specialty Coffee’s Final Frontier?

Before The Roasterie team brought their Indonesian adventure home to Kansas City, our Bean Hunter and Bean Baron had another stop to make: Vietnam. While most specialty coffee producers seem to avoid this country, our team couldn’t help but wonder why. While it is true that Vietnam is mostly known for producing Robusta beans, The Roasterie explored the possibility that Vietnam may be a coffee roaster’s final frontier. See what Jon Ferguson, our Bean Hunter, had to say about their experience in Vietnam:

Vietnam, December 6, 2013

Vietnam is the second largest coffee-producing nation in the world, second only to Brazil.

When I heard this fact for the first time, I became curious how a country so much smaller than Brazil could produce such an enormous amount of coffee.  As it turns out, there are several reasons such a small country can produce so much coffee. First, they mainly grow a species of coffee known as Robusta, which has a much higher yield, matures faster, is more resistant to pests and diseases, and can be grown at lower altitudes.  It may sound like the perfect coffee species, but unfortunately, many people (including myself) have a very hard time finishing a cup of Robusta coffee.  Robusta is often used as filler in low-grade coffee blends, and is very harsh and bitter for most people who are used to drinking specialty grade Arabica species. The Roasterie has never bought Robusta, and we have no plans to do so.

So why are we in Vietnam?

We are a very curious bunch of coffee folks at The Roasterie. The other day Danny asked if I was a Star Trek fan.  I’m not sure if it was an intentional connection to our trip to Vietnam, but it makes sense.  Vietnam may not be the “final frontier”, but it is a place where very few specialty coffee roasters have gone before.  And frankly, it makes very little sense to come here if you’re looking for a ready-made, fully washed, high grown 100% variety specific micro-lot coffee.  But to avoid the thought of Vietnam ever having the potential to produce exceptional Arabica coffees would be unfair.  This question is not simple, and perhaps no one in Vietnam would even want to invest more in producing Arabica, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Danny and I spent the first night in Vietnam at the historical Rex Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.  The Rex Hotel’s first customers were in 1961, when the first 400 U.S. Army company-strength soldiers arrived in Vietnam. Thereafter it became a hangout spot for military officials and war correspondents.

That night there was a coffee party being hosted on the rooftop of the Rex Hotel.  Most of the guests were heavily involved with finance, export, logistics, and warehousing in the coffee industry. In fact, I met a German who manages one of the largest manufactures of solubles (aka instant coffee) in the world, along with Jean-Christophe Mani, the managing director of Atlantic Commodities (ACOM) Vietnam, LTD, the largest exporter of Vietnamese Robusta coffee. I couldn’t help but ask Mr. Mani about Arabica production in Vietnam. He explained although Arabica production is practically nonexistent, there is some being grown.

The complications come in many forms when addressing why almost no Arabica is grown in Vietnam. He pointed out that because Robusta has a higher yield, matures faster and is cheaper and easier to grow, farmers are accustomed to the lower levels of risk and higher yields. To ask a farmer to risk their livelihood for an Arabica experiment would be very naive. On the other hand, he did mention Vietnam has a Typica Arabica varietal growing at 1,700 meters in northern Vietnam, which produces approximately 300 bags of coffee. It was a great conversation leaving me cautiously optimistic and excited to learn more.

The next morning Danny and I met up with our hosts Dzung and Doan from Atlantic USA and Christopher Galvez, the mill manager of Atlantic Commodities Vietnam (ATCOM) LTD.  We flew to Pleiku, about an hour flight north of Ho Chi Minh City where ATCOM’s new mill is located.  Once we arrived, our first stop was a fantastic lunch in a beautiful restaurant hall in downtown Pleiku.

After lunch we visited the warehousing and processing facility, Vinh Hiep, where we witnessed coffee as a commodity, being quickly received, sorted, and bagged for export.  Meeting the farmers and staff was a thrill, observing serious efficiency with friendly faces at the same time.

Danny and a farmer on his tractor delivering a load of coffee to the Vinh Hiep Mill in Pleiku, Vietnam

Our next visit was to ATCOM’s new mill and warehouse, taking a tour of the milling and sorting tables, along with a cupping in the quality control lab.  I was a bit hesitant to cup a table full of Robusta, but when we arrived, we found a table full of Arabica coffees to taste!

Danny cupping Arabica coffees at ATCOM quality control lab in Pleiku, Vietnam
Panoramic view of ATCOM’s massive warehouse in Pleiku, with several rows of coffee being stored in “supersacks”
Standard attire for safety. ATCOM’s mill
Map of Pleiku, Robusta cherries, and ATCOM warehouse security guard

One word to describe the overall impression from the cupping in Vietnam would be “potential.” The conversation about producing specialty grade Arabica in Vietnam, Laos, or even Cambodia have been limited in the specialty coffee industry, if not somewhat taboo.  But it doesn’t hurt to question, and to explore some of coffee’s new frontiers.