A decade ago Vietnam acquired a reputation for low quality coffee when its exporters dumped large amounts of Robusta on the global market. Now that it’s the largest coffee exporter, the challenge for Vietnam is to clean up its image.
Based on what we saw in Daklak Province this month, that won’t be easy. That’s because the economics of coffee farming promote productivity not high quality. Farmers and processors know how to produce good coffee, but — like much of Vietnam’s economy — the quest for short-term profits prevails.
Daklak Province is the world’s Robusta capital. In light of that distinction, it’s remarkable how low-tech and individualized the industry is. Vietnam has big coffee players like Holland’s Nedcoffee, Kraft Foods, Nestle, and Vietnam’s own Trung Nguyen. But the vast majority of Vietnam coffee is grown and processed one farm at a time.
Each farmer has his own style, and it makes you wonder why coffee isn’t marketed more like wine: each farm with its own characteristics. There appear to be hundreds of thousands of coffee farmers in Vietnam, and like snowflakes, no two are the same.
The farms we visited maintain somewhere between one and five acres of coffee at or near their homes. They tend to harvest the crop all at once, regardless of whether it is ripe. And then the processing methods diverge.
Some sell the raw coffee cherries to a middle-man/processor for a little less than 20 cents a pound (as of early November). Others process, or partly process, the cherries themselves, using one of three methods: (1) put he cherries on a slab of concrete in front of the house for about ten days to dry in the sun; (2) chop the outer layers with a machine and dry in the sun for about four days; or (3) put the cherries in a bin through which hot air and smoke are forced, which speeds up the drying to about 18 hours.
Then the dry cherries go into a machine that peels off the inner layers and, in some cases, sorts the beans for size. After that, coffee companies buy the beans for about 80-90 cents per pound, process them further and turn them into Nescafe and many other products.
By Vietnamese agricultural standards, coffee is a prosperous business — certainly more so than rice. But Vietnam coffee can be much better than it is today — perhaps among the best in the world. Many farmers know how to get there, but they need a reward that encourages them, for example, to leave the cherries on the trees until they are ripe.