Coffee drinkers across the globe have been drinking Vietnamese coffee for decades, though often unknowingly. The country is the world’s second-largest exporter of coffee after Brazil, but the vast majority of the beans are the robusta variety, most commonly used to make instant coffee or non-origin commodity blends. “Vietnam has always been the low-quality stepchild of coffee,” says Will Frith, co-owner of BEL, a coffee lounge with wine in Hồ Chí Minh City, and the coffee roasting and consultancy company Building Coffee. “In some ways it sounds unfair, but it also somewhat earned that position by producing tons and tons of volume without a focus on quality.”
French missionaries brought the first arabica coffee plants to Vietnam in the mid-1800s, adding robusta plants about half a century later. Production was small and mostly served to supply the colonial communities there. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the Vietnamese government catalyzed the mass production of coffee to strengthen the economy after the war. But the focus remained on robusta production for its disease-resistant, high-yielding capabilities. Today, robusta is grown throughout the higher altitudes and temperate climates of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, with the Đắk Lắk province producing a third of the nation’s overall coffee supply. Though arabica beans still comprise a small percentage of the country’s production, the variety is being increasingly grown in smaller lots from the Central Highlands, like Đà Lạt in the Lâm Đồng Province, and up through the mountains of northern Vietnam.
Recent years have seen the narrative shift from quantity to quality, with efforts by the government to implement more sustainable farming techniques, and specialty coffee professionals in Vietnam and abroad championing the country’s beans. Combined with information sharing and innovation in cultivation and processing, coffee producers have begun to take charge of their product, improving the quality of both arabica and robusta beans. “Coffee has been improving everywhere, so now people are curious about an origin that they haven’t really tried much from,” says Frith. “Anything you can imagine coffee-wise is happening in Vietnam. The world is only just becoming aware of it.”
5 to Try
Hung Farm, Greater Goods Coffee Co.
Greater Goods in Austin features Vietnam’s highest-scoring specialty arabica available in the U.S. The Hung Farm’s Catimor variety from Đà Lạt in the Lâm Đồng Province is roasted light-medium to accentuate the slightly tart flavor profile of craisin, blackberry, and toasted nuts. $26/12 oz., greatergoodsroasting.com
House Blend, Portland Cà Phê
Portland, Oregon’s Cà Phê uses a 50-50 mixture of arabica and robusta beans from Đà Lạt for their house blend, which is roasted medium-dark for a coffee with low acidity and earthy flavors of nuts and dark chocolate. $18/12 oz., portlandcaphe.com
True Grit, Nguyen Coffee Supply
Nguyen Coffee Supply in Brooklyn is a vocal advocate for the growth of high-quality robusta, and offers a medium-roasted, 100 percent peaberry, single-origin version from Mr. Ton’s farm in Đà Lạt. Labeled True Grit, it’s the strongest of their selection. $16/12 oz., nguyencoffeesupply.com
Vietnam Lotus, Mostra Coffee
San Diego–based roaster Mostra Coffee offers a regional arabica blend from Đà Lạt that remains one of their most popular. The medium-roasted Vietnam Lotus highlights flavors of dates, baking spice, and butterscotch. $23/14 oz., mostracoffee.com
100% Arabica, Lang Thang Coffee Company
Straight from Tay Nguyen in the Central Highland, Lang Thang sources roasted coffee from their family’s own production facility in Saigon for this full-bodied yet bright take on arabica coffee. $17/16 oz., langthangstore.bigcartel.com