December 2010 Issue
Photographs by Nguyen Do Thao
To coffee connoisseurs in Los Angeles, Viet Nam’s coffee is the worst. Java heads can scoff at the dark roast served with sweet condensed milk, but ranked second to Brazil as the world’s second largest producer of coffee, Viet Nam’s ca phe has a market and sells it well.
When Californian Sarah Grant heard such bold statements of Vietnamese coffee, she made it the focus of her dissertation to prove the quality of coffee is not measured by taste alone but by other collaborative factors.
“Who gets to decide what is good and what isn’t?” asks Grant. “Quality isn’t just about taste.” In her pursuit of a Ph.D in cultural anthropology at the University of California Riverside, Grant examines the coffee industry’s commodity chain—the step-by-step process from which beans are picked to when coffee is poured into a cup—and its affect on the quality and development of the industry.
Wearing her flip-flops and dark jeans paired with a jacket, Grant discusses her research with an LA laid-back attitude but with an undeniable command of expertise. Da Lat’s cold weather may have lightened her southern California tan, but it has not deterred from her fieldwork that began in March 2010 and continues until November 2011.
There are two major coffee beans: arabica and robusta. Viet Nam exports the latter possessing a harsher and much bitter taste in comparison. Robusta is the easiest to cultivate, the cheapest to sell and the fastest to brew proving it to be a lucrative commodity for instant coffee. Despite fervid comments from arabica aristocrats, farmers make efforts to produce quality robusta.
“[Vietnamese] farmers understand that if they pay high enough wages for better quality of work then [coffee] is very good. Farmers aren’t cutting corners, they are putting more thought into labour reforms,” says Grant.
Grant also notes that local cafes as well as national chains like Highlands Coffee have invested in better barista equipment complimented with styled interior for a more attractive environment.
Although notable improvements have been made for local ventures, the industry needs to set standards for the international market.
“Export processing companies should learn how to taste what they’re doing,” comments Grant. “Learning what [international] consumers want will develop the industry. Viet Nam should really understand what it is they’re producing and exporting to better utilise their resources.”
Five years ago, UTZ Certified, a company based in Holland conducting accreditation programmes regarding coffee growing and sourcing partnered with Cafe Control, a Vietnamese agricultural inspection organisation. Van Luu Hoang, director of the Lam Dong Branch of Cafe Control, certifies farmers and exporters who have applied UTZ Certified requirements to their techniques.
“[Coffee] quality since three years ago, is step by step growing,” says Hoang. “Farmers are now open minded and starting to care about quality.”
Such programmes require funding, an unstable factor causing quality inconsistency.
Plantation owner Kim Oanh Le Thi explains through a translator, there are many poor families who have acquired bank loans to purchase land that are under pressure to it pay back quickly. In response, coffee beans are harvested in advance of the ripened state.
“It takes money to grow quality beans,” says Le Thi. “Quality depends on how much money you have to maintain it.”
Da Lat café owners experience a decline in taste and do their best to serve the best batch from the region. Sum Tran has run Café 171 since 1980 with his six daughters and one son. Tran prepares his coffee for his customers at 01:00 to serve by 04:00. His café is packed daily extending outside, lining the entire storefront of a motorbike dealer next door with customers braving the brisk morning air.
Tran purchases his stock from local farmers roasting his beans at home using various blends to make the perfect cup. In his native tongue, Tran points to market fluctuation as a factor to the delineating grade. He says that when prices skyrocket, farmers collect in a hurry collecting green coffee beans; but when prices are stable farmers wait and patiently harvest mature, red stock.
Good or bad, coffee like art is difficult to grade by a set scale, it is ultimately measured by its patron’s perception.
It is a given that robusta exhibits less aromatic sensations and palette ecstasy than arabica. However, when Reuters earlier this year reported that Viet Nam will provide 15% of the world’s robusta, it is clear that elitist preference does not dictate market demands.
Grant distances herself from her own preference of a specialised seasonal brew from Panama, to further understand cultural impacts on the quality of a product.
“Coffee here is ubiquitous,” says Grant. “By the Notre Dame Church, you can have coffee on a mat with 150 students.”
Grant sees that coffee being highly accessible to be a factor of quality. The coffee industry acts a social affair from its production by locals to consumption by the masses. The ca phe phin may be stronger than San Francisco’s Blue Bottle drip coffee and with less flavour than your average espresso, but its brew suits Grant just fine.