Vietnam's quiet coffee revolution

An indigenous community is trying to improve Vietnam's coffee reputation by growing better-quality, organic beans. There's more to the world's second-biggest producer than just instant coffee, they say.

Rolan Co Lieng walks slowly through a greenhouse checking the yellow and caramel-brown coffee beans that have been drying on net beds for months. She picks up a few and smells them. Soon, they will be ready to be milled, roasted and sold in Vietnam, Japan and Germany.

Nature and Environment | 16.01.2018

Lieng comes from a tradition of small-scale coffee farmers among the indigenous K'Ho community. They've been living at the foot of the Lang Biang mountain in Dalat for centuries. Her parents grew coffee plants, as did her grandparents, who received Arabica coffee seeds from French travelers in the early 1920s.

Lieng fell in love with coffee at a young age.

"When I grew up, every morning before going to church at 4am, my parents drank a Nescafé," Lieng told DW. "The aroma really attracted me, it was sweet and creamy. When they left the house, I always smelled the cups and tried to taste the coffee with my fingers."

Nature and Environment | 06.02.2018
Kaffeeanbau in Vietnam

Rolan Co Lieng comes from generations of coffee farmers and says she wants to transform Vietnam's coffee reputation

Today, she has turned her passion into a business. Together with other members of the K'Ho community, she founded a cooperative that aims to transform Vietnam's coffee reputation, while safeguarding the community's own traditions.

The oldest ethnic group in the South Central Highlands, the K'Ho are famous for their rich folklore and bamboo and buffalo horn instruments. Once nomadic, most of the 170,000 K'Ho are now settled and make a living cultivating rice and coffee, as well as selling handicrafts. 

Read more: Drinking coffee for the climate

A tale of two beans

Vietnam is the second-biggest coffee producer in the world, after Brazil. Yet coffee enthusiasts often turn their noses up at the country's offerings — or don't even know about them.

That's because Robusta beans account for 95 percent of the country's coffee production. The beans are easier to grow than the Arabica variety but are considered inferior, as they have more caffeine and are more bitter to taste, said Denis Seudieu, chief economist at the International Coffee Organization, a United Nations' agency representing coffee importers and exporters.

"The market and consumers prefer the taste and flavor of Arabica beans. Therefore, Robusta is mostly turned into soluble coffee, that is, instant coffee," Seudieu told DW. "In terms of marketing, it's not a good image to say your coffee is Robusta, that's why there is not a lot of advertising around Vietnamese coffee."

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Kaffeeanbau in Vietnam

The fertile soils of the Lang Biang area are perfect for growing prized Arabica coffee beans

Until the 1990s, there was also little financial incentive for farmers to ditch easier-to-grow Robusta because Vietnam's government bought the entire coffee harvest for a fixed price. As the private market has opened up, that's changed.

The K'Ho had been growing a mix of Robusta and Arabica. But in an effort to wake the world up to Vietnamese coffee and bring in more revenue, they've switched to growing Arabica exclusively.

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Made with love

The Lang Biang plateau provides fertile ground for Arabica beans, which thrive in higher altitudes. Here, K'Ho farmers tend to 30 hectares (74 acres) of coffee plants where they grow everything organically, or as they say: naturally.

"We use our natural way to process and take care of our plants. We don't use any chemicals but our own compost which we make from waste food and we grow a lot of different plants between the coffee plants to provide shade and supply more oxygen," said Lieng.

Kaffeeanbau in Vietnam

A community member winnows the coffee beans, using the wind to separate the broken skin from the pit

When it's harvest time, the entire village picks the ripe, red coffee "cherries" by hand. The cherries are pulped and fermented to remove the flesh before they dry under the sun for several weeks. Then, the K'Ho comb through them to remove broken pits.

Read more: The more coffee you drink, the longer you will live (if you're lucky, that is)

The harvest is hard work and each bean is valuable to the community. A K'Ho woman will pick up any bean that falls while they are winnowed — an old method used to separate the beans from their broken skin by throwing them in the air so the wind blows away the lighter skin.

The skin-free "green beans" are directly sold to buyers in Vietnam, Japan and Germany. But the K'Ho also roast coffee themselves. It's an unusual practice for Vietnamese coffee farmers, who usually sell their unprocessed beans to big coffee companies that turn them into instant coffee.

Founded in 2012, the cooperative today supports more than 60 families through sales of coffee, as well as traditional handicrafts and tourism. All profits are invested in the village. Men and women who, in the past, would have had to leave their village to find a job in the city can now stay in their community, according to Lieng.

From Dalat to Berlin

More than 9,000 kilometers (5,592 miles) away, a coffee roastery in the German capital Berlin is spreading the word about K'Ho coffee.

Almost three years ago, Ngoc-Duc Nguyen opened his roastery HAN Coffee Roasters in the city. He is Vietnamese and said it didn't feel right to sell Italian coffee when his home country is such a major producer. So, he decided to sell Vietnamese coffee. But it wasn't easy at first.

Kaffeeanbau in Vietnam

The indigenous K'Ho community were once nomadic but are now mainly settled. They work and live together. Their children grow up in a big community

"I couldn't find any good-quality Arabica beans in Vietnam and I was about to give up," Nguyen told DW. "Then, in a specialized café in Ho-Chi-Minh City, somebody told me about the K'Ho coffee from Dalat."

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He sampled it and says he was impressed by the quality of the produce and the community project.

"Another reason I like this coffee is that the K'Ho is a minority and part of our cultural heritage. Rolan [Co Lieng] manages to present a glimpse of minority life in Vietnam," said Nguyen.

He believes that more and more coffee farmers in Vietnam will shift to Arabica when they realize they can earn higher incomes with it.

The K'Ho community in the south Vietnamese mountains is already a step ahead.

Black gold

Global coffee production for the current crop year, 2015-2016, will reach around 143 million 60kg bags, based on current estimates. That makes coffee the second highest traded commodity after petroleum, worth billions of dollars. And it all started deep in southwestern Ethiopia - in Bonga, to be more precise.

Where it all began

Despite being the birthplace of high-quality Arabica coffee, Bonga is a name rarely encountered. The global coffee industry passed Bonga by, as it only produces small amounts of coffee. Today this little town, shrouded in mists early in the morning, sits quietly in 500 square kilometers of subtropical cloud forests brimming with coffee trees and wild honey.

Inquisitive goatherd

Legend has it that in the the sixth century a goatherd called Kaldi spotted his goats eating red berries off a shrub he’d never seen before. Afterwards they became excitable, so Kaldi tried the berries himself, discovering the coffee bean and forever changing breakfast time. The term coffee is said to derive from Kaffa, the ancient name for the present-day Oromia region in which Bonga lies.

Organic by default

The majority of Ethiopian coffee is produced by subsistence smallholder farmers. Unable to afford fertilizers or expensive equipment, they produce coffee that couldn’t be more organic or unadulterated. Ethiopia is Africa’s largest producer of coffee, with the livelihoods of over 15 million people depending on it. Ethiopia exported around 800 million euros worth of coffee in the year 2014/2015.

Natural coffee factory

The forest’s varying topography, ranging from 500 to 3,300 meters in elevation, partly explains the high quality of its coffee berries, which grow best on land between 900 and 1,800 meters. Also, shade provided by forest trees means coffee develops more slowly, becoming more dense and flavorful as a result. Coffee trees don’t grow so high either, and so can be handpicked by locals.

Sweet trees

The diversity of flora in the forests attracts honey bees. Farmers also often resort to prayer, beseeching the wild bees to stay in the hives and make honeycomb. It seems to work! Myriad stalls dotted around Bonga are stacked with tubs of varying colors of honey, from dark caramel yellow to marble-like white. Much of that honey goes toward making Ethiopia’s fabled honey wine, known as 'tej.'

Fruits of the forests

"I would never move to the city and leave this behind," says local beekeeper Mirutse Habtemariam, gesturing to the forest around his village. He also pointed out forest cardamom and long green peppers growing among shrubbery beside dirt tracks, as well as banana trees, their purple flowers dangling incongruously, and a plant called 'enset,' also known as 'false banana.'

Jebena bunna: the freshest pot of coffee

Another advantage of this rural existence is the prevalence of the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Raw green beans are roasted over hot coals, then ground with a wooden pestle and mortar, before finally being brewed in a clay boiling pot, called a 'jebena.' Coffee, which is called 'bunna' in a number of Ethiopia’s languages, doesn’t come much fresher than that.

No bitter coffee here

Growing amid such rich biodiversity produces high-quality organic coffee in many scintillating varieties: coffee that tastes like a sweet wine, with hints of jasmine and orange; coffee with hints of raisin, violet and mango; coffee with shades of strawberry, cherry and lychee. It’s estimated Ethiopia could harbor about 6,000 varieties of coffee.

Gift to the world

Last year Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn visited Bonga to inaugurate a new National Coffee Museum, part of efforts to help bring Bonga to people’s attention. Meanwhile, Ethiopia's coffee industry tries to catch up with the world market, and increase economic benefits from the caffeine-laden delight it introduced to the world over a millennium ago.

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