Coffee in Vietnam

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I would like to start this topic by quoting this I found by Alex Scofield :

When you think of major coffee countries, odds are that Vietnam does not jump to your mind. Yet in recent years, Vietnam has shot up through the world’s coffee exporting ranks, now second only to Brazil in tons of coffee exported internationally. This rapid rise from utter anonymity in the coffee-producing world to its current exporting prowess has put the country at the center of a global economic controversy, as countries from Colombia to Tanzania blame Vietnam for contributing to the swell of coffee supply and plummeting prices. No small fact, considering that coffee is the world’s second-most widely traded commodity, second only to petroleum, according to TechnoServe.

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You would be surprised to find the amount of coffee that is consumed in Vietnam. It is an institution here which is gradually changing from squatting on a small plastic chair on the road side to swanky coffee houses. Now whenever I pass by the Starbucks in different cities or airports, I take a second look at their collection of coffees displayed. Surprisingly, none of them mention Vietnam. But one. At Heathrow Airport in London. There might be others which I have not come across, though.

I am not a coffee drinker and I do not need it as a fix to face my day. But everynow and then when I am in the right place and sure about the quality of the brew. I succumb to the numbing flavour that fills the air, that of freshly brewed coffee. And for this, Italy does it for me. Venice and Rome are the main places where I was a victim of the tight expresso, to the point of sending my heart to joyful beats. Although my better half enjoys it with a hot croissant or fresh baguette from the bakery to start the morning when we are in France. I have tried the coffee in Vietnam but it has sent me in sudden tremor by its strength. Nothing compared to the capuccino or Expresso. It is knocker of knockers. Not surprising to see the tourists in Vietnam hanging to their lattes.

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Coming back to Coffee in Vietnam, this is a unique place for this brew. No country in South East Asia drinks so much of this powerful beverage and in the way the Vietnamese do. In Vietnam, the coffee is brewed stronger than you can imagine, by the cup. A small strainer sits over the cup and hot water is poured over and the brew slowly sips down in the cup. The Vietnamese drink it very sweet and sometimes accompanied by condensed milk. The older generation likes it hot and the younger one in a tall glass with lots of ice. It is the time for romance and socialising. The chain of coffee shops in Vietnam is the Highlands Coffee. Each city is strewn with these opulent coffee houses where the Vietnamese hip crowd mingle in a cloud of smoke. I usually get my fresh chilled coconut water there, served in its shell with a tall spoon to scoop out the thick cream.

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Colombia, Ethiopia, and Brazil would not be the only players on the coffee scene nowadays. Although rich in history and coffee culture, these countries would have to acknowlege the presence of Vietnamese coffee on the world market. The countries rich soil of the highlands is very healthy and sees a bright future in its production.

Rich, robust and rewarding – that was to be the flavour of coffee production in Vietnam. The country has made an astonishing leap in production in the last few years but, for some, there’s a bitter taste in the dregs as they struggle to survive disintegrating world prices.

Coffee has been grown in Vietnam since it was introduced by French missionaries in the mid 19th century. Not even in their wildest prayers could they have imagined that, within 150 years, Vietnam would have become the second largest exporter of coffee in the world after Brazil. From 5,000 tonnes twenty years ago, to over 600,000 tonnes harvested from the 2000/01 crop, there is now an awful lot of coffee in Vietnam. This would be fine were it not for the fact that, with production up and demand down prices for robusta coffee are at a thirty year low.

Like its near neighbour and competitor, Indonesia, it is robusta coffee that Vietnam principally grows, the most productive region being the Central Highlands close to the borders with Cambodia and Laos. Harvesting takes place between November and February and, because it is the dry season, the cherries can be spread outside on the ground to dry. Much of the production is by farming families owning between 1 and 2 hectares. They rely on the sale of their coffee beans for the bulk of their income and have been hit hard by the drop in prices.

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Coffee trees take three to five years to begin producing, and maximum yield occurs when they are between five and fifteen years old. Thereafter yields tail off, although the trees can live for forty years. It is this slow production cycle that precipitates the pricing problem. When prices are high, because production is low, there is a rush to burn off and grub out natural forest, as has happened in Vietnam, and plant young coffee trees. The Central Highlands is a region in which the government has encouraged settlement by ‘under-employed’ lowland Vietnamese who were happy enough to take the opportunity of a hectare of land with the expectation of a future brightened by red coffee cherries. Any resentment felt by the indigenous hill people at this intrusion and destruction of their native forest was ignored. But, five years later, production is in full swing but its value has plummeted. Environmental degradation, debt and social disquiet are the inevitable consequences.

For some small scale coffee farmers in Vietnam, the crop which should have sustained them for a generation, is hardly worth picking – unless world prices pick up. Vietnam has earned itself both the right and the responsibility of a world player in the coffee market. As such it agreed earlier this year to retain 170,000 tonnes of exportable coffee as part of an international scheme to boost market value. Brazil, whose exports of coffee are double those of Vietnam, has been retaining 20% since July last year to the same, so far unrealized, end.

No doubt the cycle of price and production will continue to revolve. Vietnam’s coffee competitors are just as vulnerable, if not more so, and the country now has many hectares of young trees and many young coffee farmers with little choice but to stick it out and hope for a better return on their production. The bottom of the cup may not be so bitter after all. The economic boom seems unfazed apart from a short slump due to the recent credit crisis.

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The debate now is considering conservation issues faced with increased growth of coffee in Vietnam.

This calls for another post.

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