Stop and smell the coffee. And take a good look around while you’re at it. Vietnam's cultural scene has been booming since the start of the pandemic as people are beginning to pay close attention to what the country has to offer within its borders. The allure of the faraway places loses its hold once you’ve realized that what we have here is just as good. And with the Year of the Ox just around the corner, you can really load up your plate with a buffet of cultural offerings.
Take Lacàph, for example. This Lunar New Year, the coffee bar is giving Robusta – a bitter, earthy-tasting bean with a somewhat unfair reputation for being hopelessly commercialized – a second chance.
In collaboration with Cochin Cà Phê, who is just as dedicated to supporting roasters and farmers of Vietnamese coffee, Lacàph brought together Vietnam’s caffeine heads for a Robusta showcase on a grand scale at their second coffee fair – just scratching the surface in terms of upcoming events and initiatives that will further support the growing coffee community in Vietnam.
Whether you like it or not, the humble Robusta represents 95% of Vietnam’s coffee production, making it the backbone of the coffee industry the same way the hardworking ox is the backbone of Vietnam's agriculture.
Unbeknown to many, when given the same TLC as the more complex Arabica bean, Robusta can result in a rich, bold, and delicious cup. (The formidable attempts by the Lacàph team to prove the point can be found in their Tet gift box).
Lacàph and Cochin Cà Phê’s fair, a two-day educational event, spotlighted a number of local Vietnamese brands who are relentlessly experimenting, innovating, and improving on Vietnam’s coffee heritage. Whether their process involves hand-picked and wet-processed Arabica from Langbiang or direct-trade Liberica from Lam Dong, what these brands have in common is the pride they take in representing the local coffee-growing industry.
At the fair, while the experts traded insights, the public marveled at the many steps that go into turning a pale green bean into an aromatic cà phê. Your correspondent had a chat with Timen Swijtink, owner of Lacàph, and heard from some of the coffee brands featured at the fair, about giving the world’s coffee market a jolt of real competition from Vietnam.
More than a morning pick-me-up
First introduced by the French in the 19th century, coffee production has been a major economic driver for Vietnam, second only to Brazil, the world’s biggest coffee exporter, in production volume. Deeply woven into the social and economic fabric, the Vietnamese see coffee as a way of connecting with the land and their agricultural roots. Coffee production brings people from all pockets of Vietnam together as well as connecting the country to the world.
To feel the heartbeat of a Vietnamese city, a cup of an expertly brewed cà phê is a good place to start. It will take time for the international cognoscenti to start recognizing Vietnam-grown coffee as a specialty grade product, but the locals love and embrace their coffee culture as it is.
And cà phê sữa đá and egg coffee, though emblematic of the Vietnamese coffee culture, barely scratch the surface when it comes to the variety of local recipes and flavors. Emerging types and styles of coffee are entering the market, while alternative roasting and brewing methods are being eagerly adopted by local baristas looking to broaden and refine the tastes of their customers. It seems to be working.
Serving it freshly brewed and strong is no longer enough. It’s a given. Consumers are seeking higher quality products and becoming more selective. So in addition to enjoying the beverage itself, the focus is also on the journey of the coffee bean.
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From farm to cup
Before Vietnam started importing beans, coffee production was highly commoditized, says Timen. Farmers produced large quantities of low-grade beans for caffeine extraction. And beans of higher quality were sold to the multinationals who would roast them and put their own logo on it. Advertising the origin of the beans was not exactly a priority for anyone.
Once the country began to import coffee off higher quality, local coffee drinkers were shown what possibilities the bean contains. Local producers saw opportunities of another sort: why import when we have it all here?
Since then, there’s been a tremendous shift in how farmers and coffee lovers see the future of Vietnam’s coffee industry. Instead of relying on imports to satisfy consumers’ growing appetite for quality brews, they want to manufacture high-quality coffee here and export it as a premium product.
Timen envisions a future where you are able to walk into an international grocery store like Whole Foods and find Vietnamese coffee next to established international brands. This goes for teas, spirits, salt and pepper, and even fish sauce! To get there, he is calling for stronger supply chains domestically as well as creating local coffee brands with an international appeal. There's a lot of work that needs to be done, and even more opportunities.
Why go local?
"We owe it to the country and its farmers to share the story of these products with the world." According to Bộ Lạc, when we support our local smallholders, it means we’re supporting the livelihood of those who produce the fuel for our modern lives with so much dedication and attention to detail.
And besides, it's just more exciting! Local coffee brands stay engaged with the coffee bean throughout its entire journey and put their signature twist on every batch roasted, offering much more variety and novelty. There are so many combinations to play with: Arabica or Robusta, medium roast or dark, phin or the French press, nutty or fruity — it's a whole new world of aromas, flavors, roasting techniques, and brewing methods. Each cup carries its own story, and people want to hear it and taste it.
Everybody does it a little differently
Here is a little snippet (and a taste of things to come) of what went down at Lacàph's recent coffee fair.
- Lacàph kicked off the fair with a Fine Robusta from Hệ Sinh Thái farm in Đắk Lắk Province, highlighting the improvement of Vietnamese Robusta in recent years; a honeyed, walnut and almond flavors of this blend results in a smooth mouthfeel.
- Quest struck the crowd with their prize-winning beans, showcasing the distinctive characteristics of Robusta from Lâm Đồng and Arabica from Cầu Đất.
- Aramour presented a Catimor variety of Arabica. Their beans are processed using both natural and honey methods, then roasted for a chocolate, buttery aftertaste.
- Naturally processed and roasted in-house, 96B presented direct-trade Robusta, Catimor, and Liberica from Lâm Hà and Đà Lạt, featuring notes of tropical fruits, chocolate, and cinnamon.
- Alambé put a modern twist on Vietnamese coffee with their selection of Robusta and Arabica beans from Lâm Đồng, carefully roasted for a phin style coffee and Italian style espresso packed with leathery and bittersweet chocolate flavors.
- Silvi showcased a deliciously fragrant roast of Arabica harvested in Lang Biang. The result was a rounded mouthfeel with clean notes of fruit and chocolate.
- Building introduced hand-picked, wet-processed Arabica from Langbiang-- a medium-light roast with acidity from plum, red apples, and caramel for a silky sweet aftertaste.
- Using wet and natural processing methods, RCoffee’s beans are carefully roasted for an enhanced yet well-balanced traditional Vietnamese tasting coffee. A taste of Vietnam!
- Tractor’s selection of honey and wet-processed beans from Bảo Lâm and Xuân Trường produced a unique Fine Robusta and a 100% Liberica to accentuate the simple, rustic characteristics of pure coffee.
- Bộ Lạc presented a Red Honey Arabica from Lang Biang, lightly roasted to express both the acidity and sweetness of the red honey process. A well-balanced body with fruity and dark chocolate notes.
- Phin Xanh’s rich premium Robusta from Đắk Nông Province were honey processed and roasted to produce a medium body with warm notes of dark chocolate and brown sugar.