From producing less than two million bags of coffee per year during the early 1990s, Vietnam has emerged as the second largest coffee-producing country in the world.
Despite its significant contribution to the coffee sector, Vietnamese coffee is often considered a lower quality product. This is mainly due to the fact that it is predominantly made using the Robusta bean, which is known for its bitterness and high caffeine content.
Although Robusta is the second-most common type of coffee bean, it is Arabica that is highly prized among specialty consumers. As a result, Vietnamese coffee is widely perceived as ill-suited to specialty coffee.
That said, a growing number of producers are experimenting with other varieties, including Arabica, as well as some that are considered more rare, such as Bourbon. By prioritising quality, these producers aim to restore the country’s reputation in the marketplace.
This provides roasters and cafe owners with a unique opportunity to showcase these coffees in a new light.
Find out more about how to roast Vietnamese coffee beans to appeal to a broader audience.
Understanding the Vietnamese coffee industry
Coffee was first introduced to Vietnam in the 1850s, when the French brought crops to Indochina.
By the 1880s, Vietnam was sowing major coffee plantations and undertaking large-scale production. However, the first World War between 1914 and 1981, as well as the Vietnam War between 1955 and 1975, ground the country’s coffee production to a halt.
Then, in 1976, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam put new economic reforms in motion, which saw the country’s coffee plantations nationalised.
That said, currently only 5% of Vietnamese coffee comes from plantations that are state-owned. The rest is all grown on small-scale, privately run farms.
These growing regions are mainly situated in the Central Highlands, where around 80% of Vietnamese Robusta is grown, as well as in the region’s five provinces of Dak Lak, Dak Nong, Gia Lai, Kontum, and Lam Dong.
These are high altitude regions, commonly ranging between 300-500 metres above sea level. As these areas are consistently warm, tropical, and have low direct sunlight, they provide ideal growing conditions for mass-producing Robusta.
Between 2020 and 2021, Vietnam produced around 29 million 60kg (132lbs) bags of coffee. This figure is forecast to reach 31.1 million by the end of 2022. Even so, it is often overshadowed by Colombia and Ethiopia – countries which, when combined, produce less coffee than Vietnam does on its own.
This may be because around 97% of Vietnam’s coffee beans are Robusta. Its dark roast profile and lower desirability makes Robusta ideally suited to the cheaper mass market, where dark roasts are commonly used to quickly and cheaply create a uniform product.
When this was discovered, Vietnamese coffee was purchased in bulk and roasted for international chains or manufacturers or instant coffee. As a result, the only target Vietnamese farmers have is to create higher volumes.
Rather than focusing on experimental processing or drying slowly to keep quality high, many farmers are practising the principle of “quantity over quality”. However, there are many signs indicating that this is beginning to change.
While the Central Highlands are known for their Robusta, other coffee farms are dotted across the country, some of which are experimenting with other varieties.
Furthermore, an increasing number of Vietnamese coffee farmers are investing in new methods so that their coffee can be sold at a higher price point to the specialty market.
Flavour profiles of Vietnamese coffees
Robusta has a lower sugar content and significantly higher caffeine levels than Arabica.
These properties tend to give it a bold and harsh taste with a strong, earthy flavour. As a result, Robusta is typically roasted dark in order to mask this.
While many specialty coffee professionals reject dark roast profiles, there is a lot to learn from the traditional preparation methods used in Vietnam.
Local roasters and cafe owners use the nutty and chocolatey notes of Robusta to their advantage. A dark roast profile is used to enhance the strength of the coffee so it can take on thick liquid sweeteners successfully.
Going far beyond a simple splash of milk, Vietnamese coffee consumers have paired the drink with condensed milk for centuries. This unique pairing nullifies the bitterness of Robusta while ensuring the coffee profile is still present.
Vietnam has an innovative coffee culture. For instance, other popular Vietnamese coffee drinks include cà phê trứng, also known as egg coffee, which is made by blending egg yolks with condensed milk to create a froth.
Cà phê muối, also known as salt coffee, is made using fermented milk that is whipped with salt, while sinh tố cà phê or fruit coffee, is blended into a smoothie and typically contains avocado or banana.
Building upon this culture of innovation, third wave coffee bars are flourishing across Vietnam. These bars are known for their elegant design and their showcasing of the unique attributes of high quality Vietnamese coffee.
Finding the optimum roast profile for Vietnamese coffee beans
While some roasters and coffee shops may be reluctant to introduce a Vietnamese Robusta coffee to their range, it is important to note that no one coffee bean is inherently ‘worse’.
Just as it is possible to get Arabica of varying quality, it is possible to find premium Robusta produced by pioneering Vietnamese coffee farmers.
Notably, a growing number of specialty coffee professionals across Europe and America have recognised the untapped potential and are experimenting with high quality Robusta beans.
This, coupled with the monumental success of sweet, iced coffee blends, means it is well worth giving Robusta another shot. In terms of roast profile, it is recommended roasters use a dark roast for Robusta.
By roasting Robusta dark, roasters can combat the naturally low sugars and high caffeine levels, allowing the deep nutty and chocolatey notes to shine through. Plus, this allows roasters to create a sweetened blend that is full of body.
By adding an authentic Vietnamese roast and brew style to the menu, coffee shops can intrigue customers and encourage them to discover what Vietnamese coffee can bring to the table.
Additionally, this focus from the specialty coffee community may set a positive cycle in motion: as Vietnamese coffee farmers see a market for high quality Robusta, there will be more incentive to adopt higher quality processing and drying methods.
This will then, in turn, alleviate Robusta’s stigma, helping to re-establish itself in specialty coffee culture.
Roasters and coffee shops who add Vietnamese coffee to their offerings will want to ensure the beans’ inherent characteristics are perfectly preserved up until the last cup. Investing in sustainable coffee packaging with strong barrier properties can help ensure this.
At MTPak Coffee, we offer roasters and coffee shops a range of coffee packaging that is 100% recyclable. Made from renewable resources such as kraft paper and rice paper, our line of coffee bags contains recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable options to boost your eco-friendly credentials.
Additionally, we are able to digitally print custom coffee bags to convey the unique characteristics of Vietnamese coffee. We offer a 40-hour turnaround and 24-hour shipping time, as well as low minimum order quantities (MOQs) no matter what packaging size or material used.