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Although Vietnam is the second largest exporter of coffee in the world, coffee from Vietnam rarely gets much attention. This is partially due to the fact that most of the coffee coming out of Vietnam is Robusta (a coffee species generally considered inferior to Arabica). Also, until recently, there has been little incentive to put quality over quantity for exported Vietnamese coffee. Despite it’s marginalized status as an origin, Vietnamese coffee has an interesting history and it’s own unique manual brewing method (the Phin).
To learn more about coffee from Vietnam, I interviewed Harvey Tong, founder of Phin Coffee Club. Besides his passion for spreading the word about Vietnamese coffee, Harvey’s credentials include: growing up on a coffee farm in Vietnam, having ties to his family run Vietnamese Phin factory and writing his senior thesis on the history of Vietnam economic development through the coffee industry.
Who better to talk about coffee from Vietnam than Harvey?
I found Harvey’s insights to be fascinating, opening up the door to a coffee origin I have not explored much. Below is an overview of the history of coffee in Vietnam, including some discussion on traditional Robusta coffee processing and roasting. Here is a follow up post about brewing with the Phin and Vietnamese iced coffee.
A Brief History of Coffee From Vietnam
French missionaries brought the first Arabica coffee plant over to Vietnam in 1857. Robusta, which makes up about 97% of the coffee from Vietnam, did not arrive until 1908. The French introduced Robusta along with another species, the more obscure Excelsa.
The Vietnam War era brought devastation and depopulation to the best regions for growing coffee. Even today, farmers have concerns about the possibility of coming across live ordinances. Because of the Vietnam War and policies that grew out of it, production of coffee from Vietnam was severely stunted until 1986 when sweeping ‘Doi Moi’ economic reforms made it possible for farms to be privately owned again.
Since the 1986 ‘Doi Moi’ reforms, coffee from Vietnam has seen steady growth (although it has still been subject to the boom and bust cycles that plague many coffee origins). Production increased by 20-30% every year during the 1990’s and Vietnam went from exporting 2 million bags a year in the early 90’s to exporting upwards of 25 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee in 2019.
From the ‘Doi Moi’ reforms of 1986 to the breakdown of the International Coffee Agreement of 1989, all coffee from Vietnam was purchased directly by the Vietnam government. This heavily contributed to a lack of quality in Vietnamese coffee. Since all coffee was purchased at a set price, farmers focused on Robusta coffee for it’s high yield. There was no incentive to focus on growing better coffee or the harder to cultivate Arabica species.
Coffee in Vietnam Today
The economic reforms of the 1980’s brought Vietnam from one of the poorest countries in the world to a more middle ground. Vietnam’s coffee industry has been credited with aiding this important economic change.
According to an International Coffee Organization report on the country, Vietnam’s current economic coffee goals are to maintain it’s position as the second largest producer of coffee and to increase the value of the exported coffee by focusing on quality and productivity.
Privately run farms make up about 95% of the Vietnamese coffee production with the government still running some large (500+ hectares) plantations through Vinacafe. Over fifty percent of the production area for coffee from Vietnam is grown by smallholders with a hectare or less of land.
The Tong Family Farm
I found the specifics of Harvey Tong’s family farm to be very interesting. It helped put a face to the historical account of coffee from Vietnam and assisted my understanding of the challenges many Vietnamese coffee farmers face.
It is estimated that 85 percent of total coffee production area in Vietnam is run by households. Harvey Tong’s family farm is one of those households. Their 30 hectare (about 74 acres) farm is located in Bao Loc city, Lam Dong province.
Although the farm has been in Harvey’s family for many generations, the government took control of it during the re-unification process of 1975. After the ‘Doi Moi’ reforms of 1986, Harvey’s family was able to eventually buy back their farm.
The Tong farm lost a contract with Starbucks because of fallout related to the fair trade laws in the late 90’s. Since then, the family has sold their coffee exclusively in Vietnam— A feat that should not be overlooked as Vietnam has pretty limited domestic consumption (estimated at 1.1 kg/ year per capita in 2018).
Coffee Blossom Honey- The Tong farm also uses honey bees to pollenate their coffee trees and as another source of income. There are hives throughout the farm and honey harvesting season closely coincides with the beginning of the coffee harvest.
The Tong family processes their coffee on site and roasts it in Long Khanh city (about 80 miles away).
Phin Coffee Club
Harvey Tong moved to the United States six years ago to pursue a degree in economics and government from UT Austin. When Harvey moved to Texas he noticed a gap in the coffee market. He saw that there is very limited access to traditional Vietnamese coffee in the United States.
“[To Me] It’s more than just a coffee business, it’s about my family as well.” -Harvey Tong
Vietnam’s manual brewer, the Phin, has gained some traction and a bit of popularity in the U.S. but people are not using Vietnamese coffee with it. Even in Vietnamese restaurants the standard is usually Cafe Du Monde coffee, a New Orleans staple that uses Chicory to get the roasty, bold taste that mimics Vietnamese robusta. Harvey started Phin Coffee Club as a way to highlight Vietnamese coffee and to bring his family’s coffee to the United States.
How is Robusta Coffee From Vietnam Traditionally Processed and Roasted?
Another fascinating aspect of coffee from Vietnam is its processing and roasting methods.
The majority of coffee from Vietnam is dry processed. The coffee cherry with the seed inside is laid out on tarps or raised beds to dry. Dry processing generally gives coffee a fruitier taste and takes less equipment and water. The seeds (coffee beans) are removed after the fruit has dried.
The Tong family uses a large underground clay oven to dry process their coffee. The wood heated oven gives the coffee a smokier taste (which is something most people prize in Vietnamese coffee, especially when brewed traditionally and mixed with condensed milk).
Vietnam’s traditional roasting process is also pretty unique. According to Harvey, most Robusta coffee does not stand up well to the same roasting methods as Arabica coffee. The traditional way to roast Robusta coffee in Vietnam is to combine the roasted coffee with an oil or butter that adds some depth of flavor.
The Tong family uses Rambutan wood to fuel their coffee roaster. They cook down a combination of cacoa beans, avocado oil and sea salt for two weeks and then combine it with the coffee right out of the roaster.
Vietnamese Coffee- Two Common Questions
You may have a few thoughts about Vietnamese coffee like Phin Coffee Club sells. Here is what I would say about the two most common questions.
- Harvey’s coffee is roasted in Vietnam, shipped to Texas and then shipped to destination from there. Is freshness a concern?– Prior to the U.S. pandemic response, Harvey had plans to open up a shop in Austin and roast his coffee in house. He has put that goal on the back burner for now. While fresh roasted coffee is always the goal, there is very limited availability of this type of Vietnamese coffee. If you are interested in experiencing traditional Vietnamese coffee, Harvey’s coffee is worth a try (especially if you are currently using Cafe Du Monde).
- How does it taste? Should I be worried that this coffee is Robusta?– I hope to write a more in depth post on Robusta vs. Arabica. For now I will say that you are probably not going to be doing a pour-over with this coffee. It is roasted specifically for the Phin and for brewing Vietnamese style coffee. I wouldn’t recommend it for other purposes (except maybe cold brew). It makes a great cup of Vietnamese Iced Coffee and I am experimenting with a cold brew recipe.
There is a lot more to coffee from Vietnam than I covered in this post. Processing and roasting methods as well as coffee quality vary considerably across the coffee growing regions. There is also quite a lot that could be said about how Vietnam fits into the global coffee market.
I owe Harvey a special thanks for taking the time to talk to me on the phone and piquing my interest about coffee from Vietnam. In addition to giving me background information and brewing tips, Harvey sent me a Phin and some Vietnamese coffee to play around with.
Odds are you have had Vietnamese coffee in a blend or in instant form but you may be interested in trying some traditional Vietnamese Robusta coffee. Head on over to Phin Coffee Club and check out what Harvey is doing. Let me know what you think.