Why you should care
Make room, Seattle, for the new epicenter of coffee.
On the coffee farms that hug Vietnam’s lush Lang Biang Mountain, there’s not a bearded hipster or Starbucks addict in sight. Rolan Co Lieng, who hails from the remote tribal minorities of the highlands, brews my cup of coffee from beans fresh off the tree, handpicked with the same tenderness with which you would caress a baby. The sweet, silky smooth Bourbon Arabica coffee I’m drinking — or, rather, guzzling with gusto — is her labor of love. I make the mistake of asking for sugar. That’s sacrilege, says Co Lieng.
Bow down, Seattle. No longer the scorched earth of Agent Orange, Vietnam is the new Mecca of high-class coffee and, boy, are the pilgrims lining up. According to the International Coffee Organization, places like East and Southeast Asia are getting hooked on coffee faster than anywhere else: The number of coffee drinkers in the region has nearly doubled since 1990. You see, the Vietnamese have long slurped down crappy cups of instant coffee in sludgy, rubbery Robusta form, often loaded with condensed milk and sugar to mask the burnt-tire bitterness. But the caffeinated tides are quickly turning in the East, and java junkies who reside in Vietnam’s sprawling, shiny urban core are now pining for bougier beans — much like the ones you might find brewed in posh cappuccinos and fancy Italian espressos. We’re not talking about industrial agriculture — that’s not new. We’re talking about the small-scale, boutique agriculture of craft coffee. It’s like crack: “You can’t go back,” says Co Lieng.
But let’s go beyond the beans. Coffee isn’t the only thing at stake here. As the continent’s burgeoning middle class continues to blossom, Asia is striving to shed its reputation as the world’s factory and inch toward global dominance in all sectors. “It’s a story you see throughout the world’s emerging markets,” says Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the California-based Specialty Coffee Association — the tale of the oft-ignored developing nation grasping for power, trying to carve out a niche in a world full of Goliaths. And as this tiny Southeast Asian nation starts to dream of bigger and better things like “luxury goods, cars and smartphones,” Rhinehart says, the government has set its sights on the booming multimillion-dollar craft-coffee market. Plus, with the lion’s share of the world’s biggest and fastest growing economies, Asia is rapidly becoming the global tastemaker — where the continent goes, others will soon follow.
Still, with all of these swift changes, you might feel that Vietnam is losing its unique cultural heritage. As a chilly breeze whips through the rural coffee fields, Co Lieng pulls on her North Face–inspired jacket, grabs her Mac laptop and starts to walk home to her American husband.
Nowhere does coffee leave such a bad taste in your mouth as from the furry anus of a filthy, caged animal. I’m sitting on a slab of wood at a roadside farm near Dalat, Vietnam, where dozens of civets — the bushy, weasel-like creatures native to Southeast Asia — are crammed into suitcase-size crates like, well, sardines in a can. The coffee fruit, or cherry, which encases the bean, is fed to these civets, who in turn excrete the “processed” beans via their aforementioned, erm, rear ends. Owner Phương Dân then washes and roasts the beans. She swears this rather unusual technique enhances the flavor profile and results in “very, very healthy” coffee, hence her costly price tag of 3.5 million VND (about $154) per kilo of these “special” beans, compared to the average $5 per kilo.
Granted, there’s not much scientific proof to back up her claims. As I hold the mug of dirt-brown liquid to my nose, I shudder at the noxious fumes. As the poop-scented Arabica coffee slides down my throat like mud, I blink back tears. Cheap vodka — or anything, really — would be better. Is this a legit part of the craft-coffee scene? I mean, this coffee, quite literally, tastes like shit.
When you think of the world’s coffee kings — Ethiopia, Colombia or maybe Indonesia — there’s a reason Vietnam rarely comes to mind. That’s because, despite being one of the world’s largest coffee producers, second only to Brazil, Vietnam is known for exporting one-million-plus tons of those cheap coffee beans that you find inside foul-tasting espresso blends or gritty instant coffee powders. The country does have a rich coffee tradition going back to the 19th-century French colonial era. But today, the flood of low-quality Robusta coffee — often mixed with a blasphemous barrage of butter oil, corn syrup and other fillers — is a highly lucrative business, filling Vietnam’s coffers with $1.5 billion every year.
Yet as far as caffeine fixes go, experts say the current coffee industry is not a stable, long-term strategy for the country’s economy and environment. So far, entire forests have been razed to the barren ground, and waterways and villages have been sullied with chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Moreover, in recent years, several ethnic minority groups like Co Lieng’s Montagnards have been pushed from their native lands to make room for vast factory coffee farms.
Still, these same tribal minority farmers are starting to cultivate high-grade Arabica, thanks to a flush of funding from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. In 2015, the java juggernaut Starbucks even gave a nod of approval by lining the shelves of its U.S. stores with Vietnamese coffee for the first time, selling it as part of a limited-edition range of specialty coffees. The move is helping to raise “awareness of the quality of Vietnamese Arabica coffee,” says Patricia Marques, general manager of Starbucks Vietnam.
Marques says the country’s much-needed coffee revolution could even act as a business blueprint that’s truly sustainable — both economically and environmentally — for other nations struggling to balance breakneck development with the health of their land and peoples. That’s no small compliment for a country known better for pollution and palm oil, and Vietnam’s model could matter even more in the Global South’s tug-of-war between economies on the rise and the little guys who usually get left behind.
Although the country’s coffee makeover may be good for the soul (and the environment), who’s to say the transformation will be good for its wallet or bottom line? Not at all, says Rhinehart from the Specialty Coffee Association. He points out that craft coffee is just a small sliver of the $48 billion coffee market. Sadly, the profit margins are even slimmer in Vietnam, where less than five percent of the coffee crops are Arabica — a trickier plant that needs high altitudes, which is scarce real estate in low-lying, tropical Vietnam, and requires backbreaking labor in a country where more young folks are fleeing the farms for big-city life.
Ironically, those same cosmopolitan city dwellers are fueling the demand for a better quality cup of joe in Vietnam. Uh-oh.
When outside values go head-to-head with cultural norms, it can take time for age-old traditions to give way to foreign idiosyncrasies. But there’s no hotter import in Vietnam right now than snobby cafés. On a stroll through downtown Ho Chi Minh City, I drop by the Workshop, an industrial-chic hangout with bare brick walls and exposed beams and wiring overhead. Unlike the rustic coffee fields some 200 miles north, this café is filled with fancy-pants Vietnamese hipsters and Western expats galore.
In the past year, these speakeasy-style establishments have sprung up like mushrooms, riding the wave of Vietnam’s coffee revolution and quenching the city’s newfound thirst for ethically sourced artisanal coffee doled out by skilled baristas. Often nestled in a maze of alleyways and gritty side streets, upscale and underground cafés like the Workshop in Ho Chi Minh City, Reng Reng Cafe in Hanoi and La Viet Coffee in Dalat are new additions to Vietnam’s cityscape, slowly edging out the longtime curbside vendors who serve traditional cà phê sữa đá, or black coffee with a generous dollop of condensed milk and ice.
Inside the Workshop, the smells of toffee, vanilla and freshly roasted coffee beans linger in the air. The premium beans are apparently “certified organic, family grown, as well as kinder to the land and the country’s surrounding minority villages.” At least, that’s the elevator pitch that co-founder Dũng Tuấn Nguyễn is giving me as he pushes a steaming cup of siphoned Moka coffee into my hands. Soon, fancy lattes will start flowing from coffee filters like “water out of a firehose,” he tells me.
At the next table, a group of teenyboppers delights in their sweet caffeinated high. There’s a bitter irony here, and I’m pretty sure it’s not the taste of the coffee. Despite a painful history including waves of foreign invaders and colonizers going back centuries — China, Japan, France and, most recently, the United States — the new middle class of Vietnam conveniently ignores these scars and is hungry for what the rest of the world has to offer. Sure, coffee can wake you, but it can’t get you woke.