From Field to Cup: Việt Nam Rides Coffee's Third Wave

Published September 18, 2016 in Episode 57

Chí-Linh Đinh : Brian try this cup I just brewed….So, we all know Vietnamese coffee, especially the iced type, like cà phê sữa đá, is loved all over the world

Brian Lâm: Right, the dark bitter brew cut with really sweet condensed milk. But this one, tastes less bitter. More sweet and mild.

Chí-Linh: Yep and that’s because this one is a different type of bean, not like most Vietnamese coffee you’re probably familiar with. Việt Nam’s coffee is mostly made from Robusta beans, not Arabica. It kind of makes a difference. And turns out there are people who are working on growing Arabica in Việt Nam.

Brian: Ah, Arabica, the sweeter, more nuanced, superior species of coffee.

Chí-Linh: Anyway, I’m Chí-Linh Đinh—

Brian: And I’m Brian Lâm—

Chí-Linh: And we decided to get to the bottom of this cup here as well as the new quest for growing Vietnamese Arabica beans.  

So even though cà phê sữa đá is delicious, did you know that it's not considered quality coffee?

Brian: I heard. It has to do with quality and quantity, right?

Chí-Linh: Việt Nam is usually not known for the quality of its coffee. Traditionally, large corporations like Trung Nguyên have huge operations in Việt Nam where they grow large amounts for export, and when they export, they export Robusta. They run it a lot like a big farming business. I spoke to a coffee processor from Huế, Nguyễn Phi, who explained how domestic coffee production companies like Trung Nguyên or Vinacafé run their operations.

Nguyễn Phi: With Trung Nguyên, they cover most of farmers’ expenses, such as seedling, fertilization costs. Then when they come to collect the coffee, they subtract that cost from the total payment to the farmers for the harvest.

Major coffee chains such as Trung Nguyên, or Vinacafé have their own market -- which doesn’t affect the smaller shops’ niche, like mine. The big players tend to focus on overseas exporting, whereas our coffee is for local consumption, so there’s no overlap.
(Photo: Mike Fernwood. CC BY-SA 2.0)

(Photo: Mike Fernwood. CC BY-SA 2.0)

Brian: So that bit of information is pretty important here: There are effectively the large producers and the niche players and they seem to serve different markets. Which allows for some of the smaller growers to start working with artisanal beans.  

Chí-Linh: We looked into these niche markets and discovered that there is a trend among smaller coffee makers small movement towards producing and exporting better quality Arabica beans...

Brian: ...specifically, from a small collective in Đà Lạt.

Chí-Linh: Right, so Đà Lạt is part of the Central Highlands of Việt Nam, an area famous for having large coffee tree fields. They produce mostly commodity-style coffee.

Brian: Large production, low, quality—

Chí-Linh: Exactly. It’s a great place to grow coffee, and a great place to start experimenting with it. I spoke to one coffee shop owner—

Trần Nhật Quang: My name Trần Nhật Quang.

Brian: --Quang runs coffee shop there called Là Việt.

Nhật Quang: My coffee business is located in Đà Lạt city, in Lâm Đồng Province, middle of Việt Nam, where I think Đà Lạt is the best location to plant good quality coffee because Đà Lạt has like two-season weather, and a high elevation. It’s about 1,500 meters above sea level, so it’s good for planting coffee. So my business is located in Đà Lạt city.
Checking the Roast. (Photo: Facebook/Là Việt)

Checking the Roast. (Photo: Facebook/Là Việt)

Chí-Linh: So, aside from the fact that he’s located in Đà Lạt, what’s interesting about Là Việt is the business model. Quang is the owner of what is considered a newer wave of coffee in Việt Nam, one which is focused on quality over quantity, that is Arabica and not Robusta. That’s definitely a new niche business that has only sprung up in the last couple of years. And the thing is, the potential of this is huge, especially for rebranding the country’s coffee image in the global third wave scene.

Brian: Hold on. Before you continue, what’s the third wave coffee scene?

Chí-Linh: To answer that question we have to define what third wave coffee actually is. So first wave coffee is generally the time when large companies exported commodity coffee to the masses. This was about the 1800s to the modern era, probably close to the 1940s and 50s.

Brian: So like, Folgers, Nescafé.

Chí-Linh: Yes. Large quantities of coffee for coffee’s sake. Second wave came after, which started to emphasize enjoyment of coffee. They were still pretty large suppliers, but the taste became more important.  

Brian: Probably the most famous is arguably Starbucks. They got big in the 80s and 90s.

Chí-Linh: Yup, Starbucks. They turned coffee drinking into a social scene. Everyone knew what a Latte or a Frappé was. Starbucks was influential enough to help bring in the third wave of coffee which is the rise of coffee houses that have direct trade with farmers in the coffee belt, and the beans are roasted to spec and brewed well. Not [in] super large masses.

Brian: The third wave as we know it, though, doesn’t seem to cover what Quang is actually doing with Là Việt. Because unlike most of the roasters who live outside of the coffee belt—

Chí-Linh: That’s the area of the world where the climate is good enough to grow coffee—

Brian: --Là Việt as a roaster lives directly inside a country known for growing coffee. And so they can do things that Western roasters can’t: They can control everything.

Nhật Quang: Yes, we plant the coffee ourselves, and we have facilities to process the coffee. Then we roast it ourselves, and then we brew it. So normally the four steps to make the coffee, we make it all. We plant, and then we process, and then we roast, and we brew.

Chí-Linh: Quang kind of calls this ‘fourth wave’, I think as a joke. And the advantage is that the consumer knows exactly what is in their product.

Nhật Quang: Yeah we have two coffee plantations. The first one is 30 hectares, and the second one planting it is about 50 hectares. The farm is one hour driving far away from the city centre, and in the middle of the centre of the city, we have one factory, with all the facilities to do the secondary processing, drying, and we have a roasting room, for about like 100 square meters. We have a coffee room, and we have a café inside the factory.
The cafe space. (Photo: Facebook/Là Việt)

The cafe space. (Photo: Facebook/Là Việt)

Brian: From field to cup. That’s definitely an advantage.

Chí-Linh: Yeah, it is. And his business is small, but it’s growing. Here’s the thing, and why we’re talking about his café at all-- shops like his have the potential to change Việt Nam’s branding.  

Brian: Currently Việt Nam is known for low quality coffee, and doesn’t get to profit from having a reputation for high quality, smaller batches, like other established countries.

Chí-Linh: Right, and branding is important. But more than that, in order to change the branding, the infrastructure for coffee has to change in the country as well, and that’s hard. I spoke to Sarah Grant, associate professor at the California State University in Fullerton to ask about this. She studies the business of coffee in Asia.

Sarah Grant: You know I used to think it was just this branding question that Việt Nam was a culprit, that Việt Nam doesn’t produce good coffee. I think that’s still part of it but the other half of the story is just how hard it is to establish a trading relationship on a small scale. You know it’s not as if someone can just go in and buy a crop of coffee and leave the country with it. Import export regulations are difficult and it needs that relationship with an extreme amount of patience, and I think time to devote just to Việt Nam. And I don’t know if anybody’s really fully explored that yet.

Brian: So far, what we have discovered is that although the movement might be there for higher quality artisanal beans, progress is slow.  

Nguyễn Phi: I feel sad. We are a major coffee-producing capital, ranking top of the world. But Vietnamese people don’t know how to appreciate our coffee. They tend to prefer the instant powder mixes. They don’t like the original pure coffee. It’s a big problem. It makes it really difficult for the true coffee producer.

Brian: That doesn’t mean that things aren’t all lost, however.

Chí-Linh: When Quang started his business, it was with the help of a friend who came by way of the specialty coffee business himself. His name is Will Frith.

Will Frith: I come to this whole coffee thing from Pacific Northwest in the United States, and Olympia, Washington, where I got my start in the coffee business.

Chí-Linh: Frith is pretty influential in coffee circles, being well known as a consultant for coffee roasting and tasting. He was interested in the Southeast Asian market and eventually went digging around Việt Nam, looking for a way to break into the specialty market there. What he found was kind of discouraging.

Frith: I found Đa Lạt to be kind of the ideal, in terms of location, topography, history of coffee. So, they’ve got really good varieties of Arabica coffee that’s been evolving in place for quite a while, some since the 1850s, and others from projects that have happened a few decades before I arrived there. And I think people have tried in the past and have kind of, moved on, or given up, just any number of things, that make people want to stop doing what they’re doing. Like I said, it’s pretty hard to do business in Việt Nam.

Brian: Frith and his wife eventually just upped and moved to Đà Lạt to really try to jumpstart the growing process and that’s when he met Quang. And the first few days were pretty interesting...

Frith: So we kind of over the next year, rode around his motorbike, and looked for coffee trees on the side of the road. And if we found something that looked promising, we would go knock on the door, and see if we could strike up a conversation with the producers. After a couple of years of this, really built a great network of relationships there, and he’s since built his own facility.

Chí-Linh: The way Frith describes the early days seems almost like a Wild West that’s hard to believe, but thanks to his partnership, Là Việt got a hold in Đà Lạt.

Brian: Yes, and in the last couple of years, there’s more and more traction to the idea of Vietnamese beans, created and roasted for consumption in Việt Nam. Quang told us about the other promising cafés that have popped up since then.

Quang: A I co-operated with some friends in Hô Chí Minh City, and we opened the first Vietnamese specialty coffee shop in Hồ Chí Minh City in 2014. It’s called ‘The Workshop’ in Hồ Chí Minh City. It’s been more than two years now, and the business is going good right Hồ Chí Minh City. We have some friends that opened their own coffee shop. It’s what they call classic coffee... that sells Vietnamese coffee.

Chí-Linh: Frith has since moved out back to the States, but he still helps with the whole specialty coffee movement in Việt Nam.

Frith: Yeah. It’s happening on such a small level, but it’s happening, with a lot of people. So you’ll probably won’t hear a lot about it for a little while, but it’ll start mushrooming up around, and all of a sudden it’ll be there, and you won’t even see it coming.

Brian: Recently Frith co-hosted a seminar on Vietnamese coffee at the last SCAA convention...

Chí-Linh: That’s Specialty Coffee Association of America.    

Brian: ...In Atlanta and the Vietnamese coffee tastings were well received.

ChÍ-Linh: And recently, Quang has started exporting Là Việt beans into Japan and Korea, where he says clients love it.

Brian: So it's small, but perhaps in the future, the rest of the world will see the export of better, third wave coffee coming out of Việt Nam.

Chí-Linh: And we can sit in the kitchen and brew it like any other good quality coffee.

Brian: I’m Brian Lâm.

Chí-Linh: And I’m Chí-Linh Đinh. Hopefully you can join us for coffee next time. This is Loa.

*With contributions by Jenny Lý