When you think about made-in-Vietnam coffee, I guess the Central Highland will pop up in your mind. Not all of us know that coffee has been present in the country’s northwestern mountains for over a hundred years and is shaping the Vietnamese specialty coffee story.
Starting from the seeds
Robusta and Arabica are the two most popular coffee species in the world. In Vietnam, the first is more common because it suits Vietnam’s tropical hot and humid climate. The latter is more picky in terms of geographical and climate conditions. It is better grown in cooler weather with the ideal environment temperature from 15 to 25 degrees Celsius and moderate humidity. It is therefore usually cultivated in temperate climate zones of over 1000 meters above the sea level.
In general, Robusta is usually much cheaper than Arabica. Robusta has a strong bitter taste and higher caffeine content. It also requires less effort and farming costs. While many Vietnamese consumers go for Robusta, Arabica with its slightly bitter taste, light aroma and lower caffeine content is preferred worldwide.
There are several basic differences between Robusta and Arabica coffee: *
|Robusta coffee||Arabica coffee|
|Bean shape||more circular||more oval|
|Caffeine content||~ 2.7%||~ 1.5%|
|Lipid and Sugar content||Sugar: 3-7% |
| 6-9% |
|Top producing country||Vietnam||Brazil|
In the late 19th century, the French brought Arabica coffee to Vietnam’s Northwest region after studying the advantages of the terrace and climate here. Dien Bien and Son La have since become two amongst five major Arabica coffee growing provinces in Vietnam besides Lam Dong, Quang Trị, and Nghe An. The two provinces combined create the biggest coffee production area in the north.
However, most coffee farmers are used to cultivating it without mastering the necessary knowledge and techniques. They left the coffee plant to the wild and only applied fertilisers in ways similar to any other common plants. As time goes by, the traditional farming method has not worked well anymore. Consequently, the output has decreased with the bean quality gradually going down. To ensure income, many families have removed coffee and started planting fruit trees instead. Arabica used to be a haunting sadness of many coffee farmers in the Northwest.
Changes under way
“I decided not to follow other people [who quit growing coffee] and was determined to find a unique taste for my homeland’s specialty coffee.”Cam Thi Mon
Mon lives in Chieng Chung commune, the heart of Arabica coffee area in Son La province. People in her village have been cultivating coffee for more than 20 years. After graduating from high school, she married Bun and both took over 4 hectares of coffee field from Bun’s father. Born and raised in the coffee region, she knows well the climate here.
The coffee harvest season is in the winter time of the north. Things are hard because of the lack of labour and high wages. At times, week-long rain might simply make the coffee cherries over-hydrated, cracked and fall on the ground. That is not to mention the damage caused by heavy hoarfrost. Having bad crops discourages people. Slowly, nearly half of the villagers cut down coffee plants and replaced them with fruit trees like orange, grapefruit, or mango.
The coffee beans get ripe in 5 rounds that last up to 5 months. It means harvesting spreads over a long period and requires more labour. Having neither cultivation techniques nor business experiences, the farmers had no choice but to sell fresh cherries to traders and processing plants. The buyers would decide the price based on the cherry quality. Losses were not uncommon when the costs for fertiliser and labour accounted for two thirds of the selling price.
Things have changed since Mon and many others joined the Village Savings and Loan Association, or VSLA, under a CARE project titled Technologically Enhanced Agricultural Livelihoods, abbreviated as TEAL. Many VLSAs have become production groups. That means members now work together to improve the coffee quality on a bigger scale than household. They can also negotiate with buyers as groups, not individuals.
Thanks to taking part in technical training and the visit to the Arabica coffee area in Lam Dong province, Mon finally realised that only changing the farming and processing methods could help changing the future of Arabica coffee in Son La.
She then turned down the offer to join a fruit cooperative. She convinced the family, especially her husband, to keep cultivating coffee with new techniques that can help bring organic and high-quality coffee. The couple aimed to produce specialty coffee in the hope of improving the economic return. You can read more about Mon in this newly-launched photo book.
The French brought coffee to Son La, and Son La people will take it to the world.Leo Van Bun
In 2017, the Intellectual Property Department of Vietnam granted Son La Coffee the geographical indication certificate. This created a great condition for made-in-Son La coffee to expand its domestic and international markets. During the same time, CARE successfully applied for funding from the Australian Government for the TEAL project. A total of nearly three million Australian dollars was promised to support Arabica coffee farmers in Son La and Dien Bien.
After an intensive preparation period, the Ara-Tay Coffee Cooperative was founded in early 2020 with 14 pioneering household members from the two communes of Chieng Chung and Muong Chanh of Son La province. The Mon – Bun family was one of them.
“Ara” refers to Arabica . “Tay” in Thai ethnic language means Thai people. It also means “hand” in Vietnamese, implying the image of Thai women’s hands that nurture the coffee plant.
Ara-Tay is made from the heart and mind of ethnic minority farmers. The heart that treasures the bean, the soil, the water and the growers. The mind that brings technology and sustainable farming and clean processing techniques to the coffee, ensuring for “kindness in every bean”.
Ara-Tay Coffee made its debut at Vietnam Amazing Cup competition in Buon Me Thuot in March 2020. Beyond their expectation, both products scored 83/100 points, earning the Cooperative the first specialty coffee certificates right away.
By April 2020, the Cooperative has been working on the final steps to bring their products to market. Mon, Bun and the other members are busy growing, harvesting and processing coffee. And the story of a Arabica specialty coffee of the Northwest will continue to be unfolded.
The Technologically Enhanced Agricultural Livelihoods (TEAL) Project receives funding from the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP). CARE implements TEAL together with Dien Bien Centre for Community Development (CCD), Son La Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) and several private coffee companies. In addition, the Project team has also been working closely with Dak Lak Community Development Centre and leading coffee experts in Vietnam.