When it comes to beverages of choice, Asia conjures images of tea for most, from the bitter powdery green tea (matcha) of Japan’s tea ceremony and China’s soothing oolong to India’s sweet-spicy masala chai. Through a twist of historical fate, however, Vietnam bucks this trend and has developed one of the most thriving coffee scenes in the world.
Thanks to French colonial influences, the Vietnamese have developed a knack for mixing and brewing a unique style of coffee. They have also perfected the experience of quaffing the brew, elevating it to something of an art.
In Vietnam coffee “is meant to be savored, not carried in a cup-holder to work,” Len Brault, CEO of U.S.-based Southeast Asian coffee importer Heirloom Coffee, told The Diplomat. “It’s a gourmet and relaxing experience to brew the coffee one cup at a time at your table. That’s why it is unique in the world. It isn’t just the coffee. It’s what it means to people in their lives.”
Brault described Vietnamese coffee as being low in acid and “very smooth, even when it is brewed strong or has a sharp flavor.” For Brault the secrets of the brew include the practice of blending three signature species of coffee, the nation’s basaltic (old volcanic mountain) soil, the methods used to dry the beans, the practice of roasting them and finally, the special brewing method itself.
Coffee was introduced in Vietnam around 1857 and it quickly became a mainstay for the nation’s economy, with plantations sprouting up across the country. Several varieties of coffee – Arabica, Robusta, Excelsa and more – are cultivated in a wide range of microclimates found throughout Vietnam’s lush landscape.
For Vietnamese, coffee was imbued with a sense of social decorum from the start, with different classes imbibing the drink of choice in different ways. Chairman Dang Le Nguyen Vu of Vietnamese coffee giant Trung Nguyen told The Diplomat that “common laborers drank coffee as a beverage (a weakly brewed coffee in a large glass) while the creative classes and intellectuals enjoy slow dripping their coffee through a Vietnamese phin (filter).”
For Dang, the slow act of dripping coffee through the phin can become a form of non-religious meditation. While the drip process is underway, “a sufficient interval of time passes, helping the drinker slow down and let go of the worries of the day.”
While the act of drinking may be a way to unwind, on the business side Vietnam’s connoisseurship does not allow for much rest. Last year Vietnam became the world’s largest producer of the coveted bean, surpassing Brazil.
This is no small feat. Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world after oil, making it more in demand than natural gas – an amazing thing to consider. And export volumes continue to grow, with a spike of 8 percent in global output predicted for the 2012/2013 marketing year. That’s 146 million bags.
Despite a drop in production of a bit less than 5 percent during the 2012/2013 harvest in Daklak – the nation’s main coffee producing region – Vietnamese soil in Daklak province alone still managed to yield 465,000 tons (7.75 million bags) of beans.
Nationwide, Vietnam exports roughly 1 million tons of beans every year and earned U.S. $3.4 billion on coffee exports in 2012, a yearly increase of 36 percent. The Vietnamese government has unveiled a blueprint for maximizing coffee production until 2020, with the aim of growing the treasured bean on 500,000 hectares of land (with a yield of 2.4 tons per hectare).
From March 9 to March 12, the 4th Buon Ma Thuot Coffee Festival was thrown in Vietnam’s coffee “capital” city of Buon Ma Thuot, in the country’s Central Highlands. The festivities were rolled in by performances featuring 150 ethnic gong artists, while a street parade with elephants, dances and puppet performances and even a Coffee Queen competition were all on show.
But the real point, of course, was the coffee. In total, 183 domestic companies and 38 from overseas clamored for visitors’ attention at 700 booths. More specifically, the goal is to put Vietnamese coffee more centrally on the map overseas – specifically in the U.S., the world’s largest coffee market.
If any firm from Vietnam is poised to make that breakthrough, it is Trung Nguyen, which was a co-organizer of the event in Buon Ma Thuot. Already the biggest coffee retailer at home, the company’s real dream is to take its product global. “Everyone knows the U.S. is the top country for coffee consumption. It (the U.S.) does not need new coffee,” Dang said. “It needs a new story; one that embodies history, culture and legacy.”
According to Brault, the main obstacle to this potential gold mine is marketing. He explained that companies in Vietnam have still not found the right way to present their “amazing product… About seven out of ten people we test the products with would either replace their favorite coffees or add Trung Nguyen to what they drink,” he said. “The dollar value of that proposition is in the billions.”