Vietnam’s Robusta Bean Is The Key To Our Sustainable Coffee Future  | Vietcetera
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Nov 17, 2021
CultureViet Kieu

Vietnam’s Robusta Bean Is The Key To Our Sustainable Coffee Future 

Sahra Nguyen, founder and CEO of Nguyen Coffee Supply, is on a mission to bring respect to Vietnam’s most abundant but long misrepresented coffee bean.
Vietnam’s Robusta Bean Is The Key To Our Sustainable Coffee Future 

Sahra Nguyen is the founder and CEO of Nguyen Coffee Supply. | Source: Sahra Nguyen

The global craft coffee industry is at a pivotal crossroads. Recent studies have shown that the effects of climate change are likely to reduce the area suitable for growing coffee by up to 50% by 2050, pushing dozens of species towards extinction and even making your beans taste blander.

What’s rarely mentioned is that this research pertains mostly to the popular, arabica bean, the favored bean for American consumers. Its cousin, the robusta bean, offers a far brighter future.

Robusta beans get their name because they grow robustly, thriving in plenty of different climates and elevations — as opposed to the extremely finicky arabica. Robusta’s higher caffeine content acts as a natural pest repellent, making them less prone to crop failure and easier to grow organically. Best of all, robusta beans taste delicious, offering the bold-yet-smooth, nutty, and chocolate-forward flavor that is essential to time-honored coffee traditions in countries like Italy and Vietnam, which is incidentally the world’s largest producer of robusta.

With robusta’s higher resilience and growing potential — and its relevance to so many coffee-drinking cultures — it’s become my mission to shed light on harmful stereotypes about the bean and celebrate its potential to help make the future of coffee more sustainable.

Brewing the ‘Fourth Wave’ of Coffee | Source: Sahra Nguyen

Demystifying the ‘inferiority’ of robusta

If you peruse your grocery aisle or pop down to your favorite craft coffee roaster, you’re likely to find plenty of bags touting that they are 100% arabica, and none even mentioning the robusta name. Worse, ask a coffee aficionado about robusta beans, and they’ll tell you that they are inferior and even undesirable. This narrative is so prevalent that even the most casual coffee drinker would likely tell you that arabica is better without being able to explain why — maybe you feel that way yourself.

To me, this is like saying that a cabernet is automatically inferior to a pinot noir, regardless of quality, growing and production practices, and personal flavor preference. As the founder of Nguyen Coffee Supply, the first roaster in the U.S. to import single-origin Vietnamese robusta beans and treat them with the same care and craft that arabica gets, I’ve seen minds change time and time again when folks try a good robusta.

It’s made me wonder: How can an entire variety of coffee be outcast from the specialty coffee industry?

Part of this is because the gatekeepers of the coffee industry have a vested interest in keeping robusta down. It’s likely that you’ve had coffee made with robusta beans before, but didn’t know it. It’s often used for instant coffee or included in espresso blends without being labeled; with the top three importers of Vietnamese coffee being Germany, the U.S., and Italy, there’s a good chance your common brews include robusta. By keeping robusta invisible and making the market believe it’s an inferior product, companies are able to continue buying it at the low cost they’re used to.

Vietnam is the second top coffee-producing country in the world, yet most people are unaware when they’re drinking Vietnamese coffee. | Source: Sahra Nguyen

How xenophobia hurts Vietnamese coffee farmers

In addition to economic exploitation, I think the true reason robusta isn’t taken seriously is rooted firmly in xenophobia.

Vietnam is the second top coffee-producing country in the world, yet most people are unaware when they’re drinking Vietnamese coffee. Prior to Nguyen Coffee Supply, you’d be hard-pressed to find single-origin Vietnamese beans in the craft coffee space. Even when you order a trendy Vietnamese iced coffee, it’s most likely made with beans from South America or Africa with sweetened condensed milk added (ask your barista next time!). It seems Vietnamese iced coffee only gets trendier and trendier, yet Vietnamese coffee beans (and farming communities) are left out of the conversation entirely.

This is blatant cultural appropriation — businesses profiting off the cultural cachet of Vietnam and Vietnamese coffee without Vietnamese people actually benefiting from the transaction (in addition to discrediting the real farmers behind the beans here). Why can’t they just call it their Ethiopian blend with sweetened condensed milk? Coffee from Vietnam has been rendered so invisible that the Vietnamese farmers I work with have a saying: “Cà phê Việt Nam có tiếng, nhưng không có miếng.” Translation: “Vietnamese coffee has fame, but no fame.” They recognize that the world relies on their beans but doesn’t appreciate them for it at all.

As a first-generation Vietnamese American who has dedicated my life to activism and increasing visibility for my community, this phenomenon is not new to me. There is a constant devaluing of Asian food and culture in America. You see it when people expect Asian food to always be cheap, balking when pho dares to cost more than $10 but never questioning the price of a plate of pasta. You see it when people think of Asian products as weird, gross, or niche — until white people lead the charge in making them cool (case in point: the rise of matcha). Ultimately, this prevents Asian producers from being able to elevate their products and elevate their livelihoods. And this lack of regard is directly related to the anti-Asian violence we’ve been seeing an uptick of — when you devalue Asian culture, you devalue Asian lives.

I’m not saying you have to love Vietnamese robusta coffee. Like I would say to those who suggest that arabica is better simply because the establishment says so: your coffee is a matter of personal preference and taste. But I am saying that if you care about the long-term sustainability of coffee, it’s time to reassess some deep-seated beliefs about all coffee beans.

Buy from brands that respect diversity, transparency, and cultural integrity. | Source: Sahra Nguyen

Brewing the ‘Fourth Wave’ of Coffee

I firmly believe the fourth wave of coffee is brewing, and it’s rooted in exploring Southeast Asia, cultural integrity, and sustainability via the resilient robusta bean — a collective effort to expand the idea of what good coffee can be. The future of coffee is tied to the rise of robusta.

The next wave needs to involve breaking down preconceived notions about hierarchies of coffee, understanding that one type isn’t inherently better than another, and it’s all about how it's treated — and helping farmers around the world create the best coffee possible with an investment of money and knowledge. It needs to involve being open to new regions and varieties, especially those from under-appreciated regions like Southeast Asia. It needs to involve shifting consumer demand to unlock pathways for farmers around the world to find ways to continue growing and thriving in the face of change, which I believe will involve a greater focus on the resilient robusta bean given it has a lower barrier to entry and is more economically viable in the long run.

As with any major systematic change, it really starts with a dialogue. Ask yourself and the people in your life who drink coffee: Why do I believe certain coffee is better than other coffee? Why is it that we don’t have a more prominent global coffee brand from any of the countries that actually grow coffee? Why is it that we consistently divorce the product from the source, ignoring the people and the culture that created it? Ask the brands you purchase coffee from where the beans came from — particularly if a drink is labeled as being rooted in a particular culture.

And then, speak with your dollar. Buy from brands that respect diversity, transparency, and cultural integrity. Be willing to pay a higher price for higher-quality product, giving producers the ability to put real care into what they create. And, hey, maybe give robusta another try. Ultimately, it will lead to a better — and happily caffeinated — world for many years to come.