Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world. What people are often unaware of is that most of the coffee grown in Vietnam is of the robusta variety, which tends to be more bitter and used for low-quality or instant coffee. Arabica coffee, which is less common in Vietnam, is considered to be superior, as it’s sweeter, more fragrant, and more complex in flavor.
Despite significant challenges, an arabica revolution seems to be coming Vietnam’s way. Hoi An Roastery is a pioneer in the race to popularize Vietnamese arabica coffee. Hoi An Roastery’s Rudy van Bork has made it his mission to bring high-quality arabica to consumers while supporting the entire coffee supply chain.
So Vietcetera joined the team from Hoi An Roastery on a trip to the coffee plantations of Central Vietnam to witness the production process. During our visit, we spoke with Rudy van Bork to get the inside scoop on the specialty coffee and espresso bar bringing arabica to Hoi An.
What is the origin story behind Hoi An Roastery? Why did you choose to base the company in Hoi An?
A friend of mine had just purchased a local coffee shop in America and added a roaster to make his product more unique. He was passionate about crafting that perfect cup.
He first got me interested in entering the coffee industry after he visited Hoi An and told me it was impossible to find a decent cup of coffee here. Then he suggested that we start our own Hoi An-based business to fill that void. From then on, I made it my personal mission to learn all I could about coffee.
I’d already spent time in Vietnam developing businesses and planning to create new resorts. After doing this successfully for about seven years, my business partner at the time went bankrupt. We lost everything.
I had just met my wife, and with this clean slate of sorts, I decided to take on a new challenge. It was definitely a low point for me. So when my friend pitched the concept of Hoi An Roastery to me, I threw myself into the work. We opened our first shop in January 2015 to sell our daily fresh-roasted coffee. Hoi An Roastery was the first business in Hoi An Old Town to do this. Today, there are a few more coffee shops in Hoi An.
How did you perfect the coffee blend for Hoi An Roastery?
While the company was still in the early stages of development, I met Ben Miller, a talented coffee specialist who now helps design university courses on coffee production and while also working with Shin Coffee. He would always walk around with his coffee and a press in his bag.
Together, we visited some coffee farmers in Dalat, and ended up looking at a total of fifteen farms. It was incredible to meet such dedicated individuals. After that, Ben spent three months at my house experimenting with coffee, tweaking roasts and blends until we were satisfied with the result. Every day, my home smelled like fresh coffee.
Ben then traveled to the U.S. and studied to become a Certified Q Grader. This is a recognized qualification certified by the Coffee Quality Institute. The Q Grader certification indicates someone can assess Arabica coffee simply through smell and taste.
Ben is only the second person in Vietnam to become a Q Grader, after Nguyen Huu Long, who owns Shin Coffee in Saigon.
After Ben completed his studies in America, we gave him three tasks. We wanted him to create a 100 percent arabica blend, a 100 percent robusta blend, and an espresso blend. To make these, we were tasting and experimenting every day. For example, we kept trying different roasting techniques by altering temperatures. All the hard work paid off in the end!
What are the biggest challenges in sourcing coffee in Vietnam? How have you dealt with them?
The biggest challenge is sourcing enough arabica. It is out there, but it is hard to find. We have to visit and work with farmers in rural areas that, oftentimes, cannot even read or write.
Vietnam is the world’s largest robusta coffee exporter. Only 4% of the exported coffee from Vietnam is arabica. Not only is robusta easier to grow in different climates and altitudes, but it’s also cheaper and thus popular with discount coffee sellers. On the other hand, arabica can only grow at over 1,100 meters elevation. This makes growing very tough.
So we go looking for farmers that grow arabica organically. They’re usually small communities, or single families. We don’t use a middleman but source directly. We pay them well for their beans, give them advice on farming techniques, and show them how to roast coffee. This allows them to sell their product at a higher price to shops.
Actually, we financed roasting machines for the first farmers we worked with. Since then, they’ve been able to sell directly to coffee shops. And the demand for their beans is so high that they can’t supply to us anymore. By helping them, I guess we did ourselves out of a supplier!
Tell us in more detail about how you came to work closely with local farmers, and your relationship with them today.
I’m an idealist and a risk-taker. I want to challenge myself with everything I do, both personally and professionally. And when I see an opportunity to help others while still doing good work for my customer base, instead of wondering whether I should help someone, I’m already thinking about how I can.
We start by training our farmers how to increase production. Like I already mentioned, we did such a good job supporting the first group that they grew beyond us! Right now we work with 23 arabica farms and 18 robusta farms. We pay better prices than other companies for their coffee, and are committed to bulk purchasing long-term, so this gives them reliable incomes.
I want to improve the situations for these farmers. It energizes me to see the changes in their lives when we work with them. This, in turn, motivates my staff, because we see the work we are doing directly with farmers has such a positive impact.
I can’t deny that this is a good marketing story to share with customers, but that is not why we do it. In fact, we have barely begun to advertise this work to the public.
How would you describe the coffee scene in Vietnam? Are there any emerging trends or businesses to watch out for?
One trend that’s on my radar is salt coffee, which I’ve not yet tried, but I’ve heard a lot about it from friends. I can see it becoming more trendy in the coming years.
Coffee’s always been big here, and it keeps growing. Even Italian coffee has made its way to Vietnam and more and more Vietnamese drink it regularly. Thanks to the increased availability of arabica beans, consumers also have access to coffee that is healthier, less caffeinated, and higher-quality.
What’s next for Hoi An Roastery?
We’ve grown so fast. Already, we have eleven stores open in Hoi An, including our four Cocobox branches. There are still one or two spaces I’m looking at in Hoi An Old Town, but the demand for shopfronts is high so it’s tough to buy at the moment.
Our next step is to grow with a franchise partner throughout Vietnam. At the same time, we have some franchise deals in the works in South Korea.
Who should we speak to next?
I would recommend speaking to Ms. Megumi from Sapo soap products. She is originally from Kyoto, Japan, and has been in Hoi An for ten years. After suffering from chemically-caused skin problems from local products, she decided to create her own natural soap. She’s incredibly passionate about what she does.