Recently, our valued partner Hoppenworth & Ploch published a very interesting article about Vietnamese Arabica coffees. It is not only about Vietnamese Arabica coffee in general, but also about our longtime partner Zanya Coffee. At the foot of the Lang Biang, Lim and Marian grow fine specialty coffees with a lot of passion and skill, which have now also found their way into the Hoppenworth & Ploch range. Read more about Vietnamese Arabica, the region around Lang Biang and our partner Zanya Coffee in the article written by David Maneke.
A brief history of Arabica cultivation in Vietnam
As in so many coffee-producing countries, the history of Vietnamese coffee cultivation is closely intertwined with the country’s colonial history. The first coffee plants were introduced under French colonial rule as early as the mid-19th century. During these first attempts to establish coffee cultivation in Vietnam, Arabica was still exclusively grown, and it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that Robusta was introduced to Vietnam. This worked so well that to this day Robusta is the dominant coffee plant in Vietnam – around 97% of Vietnamese coffee cultivation is Robusta. Arabicas in Vietnam thus eke out an existence in the shadow of their much more resistant relatives.
The French colonial rulers did make efforts to establish Arabica cultivation in Vietnam. Among other things, they designated areas to be used for experimental cultivation so that greater knowledge of the growing conditions in Vietnam could be obtained. One of these areas was found at the foot of the Lang Biang Mountains, where special climatic conditions prevail. Coffee fields were established there, the purpose of which was to find out the growth characteristics of different varieties. Against this background, the variety Catimor was not cultivated there, as is otherwise almost exclusively the case in Vietnam, but Caturras, Typicas and Bourbons were also grown in the same field – in some cases, plants of different varieties were planted directly next to each other. This led to spontaneous crossbreeding and a unique genetic pool – today it is no longer possible to trace which coffee plant carries genetic material of which variety, the result is a unique mix of all cultivated varieties.
Marian Takač – the Processing Wizard of the Lang Biang
And there, at the foot of the Lang Biang, lies the farm of Marian and Lim. Marian has earned a reputation as a “Processing Wizard” with remarkable dedication and diligence – yet he has been working in coffee cultivation for just five years. He was actually just traveling in Vietnam with some friends until he met his current wife, Lim, and decided to stay in Vietnam. Lim belongs to the K’Ho ethnic minority, a traditional agricultural group, and her family grows coffee. However, instead of processing the coffee themselves, the family had to sell the harvested coffee cherries unprocessed to wholesalers.
It is an often-observed phenomenon globally that coffee farmers in particular, for a variety of reasons, do not have adequate access to knowledge about how to strengthen their role within the supply chain through their labor. Marian witnessed how the family had to sell the coffee cherries they harvested at very low prices to large exporters in order to secure their income; and he saw how this dynamic kept an entire region in poverty. So he began to work intensively on processing so that he could control a crucial step of the value chain himself. Today, Marian’s focus is almost exclusively on beneficiation techniques; in order to expand his own, very manageable, harvest, he buys the coffee cherries of surrounding family members to beneficiate himself – thus passing on portions of the value he generates to the community.
One of the key power dynamics in coffee production runs along the lines of who can influence prices. When coffee reaches a certain quality, it escapes the highly speculative environment of world market trade and becomes available to the specialty trade. Here, pricing does not depend on a listed nominal price, but primarily on quality. So if coffee producers commit to the effort required to grow high quality coffee, they will be rewarded with better price control – this is the leverage that Marian has taken advantage of. The coffee he produces now guarantees a higher income for the whole family.
Coffee harvest in the face of Corona pandemic and climate change
However, it is not immune to other adversities. In the past harvest, the effects of two global problems were clearly noticeable. On the one hand, the restrictions imposed by the COVID19 pandemic caused great difficulties for Vietnam’s coffee producers. The lockdown in Vietnam was enforced very rigorously, with coffee producers and harvesters prohibited from leaving their homes to work in the fields until well into the harvest season. On the other hand, global climate change is also increasingly leading to unpredictable weather conditions, making harvesting much more difficult in practice. Until well into the harvest season, the region was affected by heavy rainfall, making it much more difficult for a long time to reach the fields located on the mountain via the unpaved roads leading to them. When harvesting could finally begin, many farmers acted with great haste, fearing that another hard lockdown could also quickly interrupt the harvest.
The aforementioned Corona restrictions had the effect that smaller quantities than usual could be harvested. In order to still get their quantities, wholesalers began to buy the harvested coffee cherries directly from the farm from individual farmers at a comparatively high price – an option that was also taken up by many members of Marian’s family in this confusing situation. For him, there was not too much left over: instead of 10 tons of coffee, as originally planned, he was only able to sell 3 tons on the market in the course of this harvest.
Rosy prospects – The future of Arabicas in Vietnam
The 2021/2022 harvest was tricky in many respects for Vietnamese producers. But the medium-term outlook for Arabica cultivation in Vietnam is promising. Although Arabica will not even come close in absolute quantities to what Robusta cultivation means for the Vietnamese economy in the foreseeable future, the growth potential of the niche is quite high. In Vietnam itself, a small but passionate milieu of specialty coffee consumers is slowly developing, especially in the big cities. And so an effect is becoming noticeable that can also be observed in many other coffee-producing countries: when consumption increases in the country itself, the appreciation of the original product also increases. Producers learn to better assess the value and quality of their work and, like Marian, open up to new techniques that keep one step of the value chain in the hands of the producers. This development is still in its infancy in Vietnam, but it has been initiated. And it is thanks to the efforts of producers like Marian and Lim that Vietnamese arabicas will become increasingly visible in the specialty coffee market in the coming years.