Vietnam is not a nation that’s well-known for the quality (or indeed, quantity) of its coffee exports. In the west, discussions about the latest quality coffees usually centre on specimens from East Africa, Central and South America, and even the Pacific Islands before they turn to this tiny Asian nation.
It may be surprising, then, that Vietnam is the world’s second-largest exporter of everyone’s favourite plant (with the largest being Brazil). During the 1980s, when the country accounted for just 0.1% of global coffee production, the ruling Communist party decided to change direction, betting that coffee would lead the way toward prosperity. The bet proved a wise one, and now that figure has risen to an incredible 30%. Today, the crop is second only to rice in terms of value to the Vietnamese economy.
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Vietnamese Coffee Production
Today, most Vietnamese coffee producers are owned to some extent by the state. It’s only since the 1990s, when a program of economic liberalisation kicked in, that international titans like Nestle have stepped into the country for their slice of the action.
Coffee was first introduced to Vietnam during the rule of French colonialists. A Catholic priest brought a single Arabica tree, from which was created a sizeable crop. The country’s central highlands proved suitable for its cultivation, and it quickly became a valuable export commodity. Both the Vietnamese and the French enjoyed the drink with condensed milk, as the dairy industry in Vietnam had yet to take off – and the practice endures to this day.
Since condensed milk is always sweetened, the drink has evolved to become something more akin to a dessert in Vietnam. Consequently, domestically-consumed Vietnamese coffees tend to be roasted extremely dark, in order to provide a bitter contrast for those sweet flavours. They’re served on the table while they’re still brewing, in separate vessels called phin, a vessel which comes with a dripper mounted on the top, which fills it directly.
Of course, being such prolific exporters, Vietnamese producers must also cater to the tastes of foreign markets, and subtler roasts. When Vietnamese coffee is roasted and brewed outside of Vietnam, it must stand on its own. It’s important, then, that only the best lots are selected by those looking for premium-grade coffee.
Species of Coffee in Vietnam
Much of the coffee grown in Vietnam is Robusta – the hardier sort which accounts for most of the world’s coffee consumption. This production takes place in the country’s tropical south, where the conditions aren’t suitable for Arabica. In the country’s North, however, there are densely-forested highlands which provide the ideal conditions for cultivating great Arabica. Though Arabica accounts for just 3% of coffee grown in the country, this proportion is expected to rise in the coming years, as the growing areas begin to expand. We’re almost certain to see a gradual improvement in Vietnamese Arabica, as the nation’s producers look to capitalise on a global trend toward specialist coffee. Take a look through the examples listed here, and you’ll see the shape of things to come!