Vietnamese coffee is a stronger brew than most foreigners expect to find here. The author learns about its robust beans with the help of a South African friend.
I’m a coffee drinker. I have been for more than 50 years. But when I moved to Vietnam in 2019, I discovered a whole different beverage than I thought I knew and loved.
The difference is in the bean and the way it’s produced. Vietnamese java is stronger and more bitter than the typical American brew. It has a higher caffeine content: A single cup may be sufficient to kick-start the day.
When I came to this country, one of the first things I noted in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) was the prevalence of a “coffee culture.” It seems that every city block has a coffee shop, sometimes as many as a half-dozen on each side of the street. These are where average citizens gather, especially young people, not in a neighborhood pub. Most of these cafés are tiny, just big enough for patrons to enjoy conversation while waiting for the grind to filter through a four-part aluminum phin into a pool of sweetened, condensed milk. More often than not, the brew is consumed iced in a glass: cà phê sữa đá.
When it comes to coffee, I’m neither a farmer nor a scientist, but I’m forever inquisitive. I like to know how things work, why they are the way they are. And I’m not the only one. I found a mentor in Buôn Ma Thuột, the main city of Đắk Lắk, Vietnam’s leading coffee-producing province.
Rock ’n’ roll coffee
I’ll never accuse Christiaan (Kalfie) Bredenkamp of having clouds in his coffee. To the contrary, his clouds are coffee. The 30-year-old native of South Africa believes he can make Vietnamese cà phê the next big thing in the Cape Town beverage scene. To that end, he has founded The Good Life Coffee company with a goal of exporting his product to the Cape of Good Hope.
“The way they make it here (in Vietnam) breaks all the rules of what people say makes good coffee,” he said. “It’s so strong. It’s rock ’n’ roll coffee. And I love that.”
The two main types of coffee in the world are Arabica and Robusta. Americans (and, apparently, South Africans) tend to prefer the former, as Arabica is considered to have a smoother, sweeter taste, often with notes of chocolate or berries. But in Vietnam, Robusta accounts for about 97% of production. And in Đắk Lắk, which accounts for about one-third of that total (1.8 million tons a year), the coffee is of a particularly high quality.
Coffee was introduced to Vietnam by French missionaries in 1857. It made its way to Đắk Lắk and the Central Highlands region (encompassing the small cities of Buôn Ma Thuột, Da Lat and Pleiku) during the First World War era. And it succeeded beyond farmers’ wildest dreams.
Today, about 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) are cloaked in coffee. Vietnam has become the second-leading coffee producer and exporter in the world, after only Brazil. Most of its production (that not consumed domestically) goes to Europe, Russia and Japan, at an average annual value of about US$3 billion.
Throwing a punch
Kalfie has college degrees in clinical physiology and psychology. In Vietnam he has worked for two years as an English teacher. But he hasn’t lost sight of his entrepreneurial goal.
“In Cape Town, the coffee culture is about trying artisanal kinds of things,” he said. “For something to be considered a good coffee, it had to be a certain bean, creamy or chocolaty or caramely.
“Here, the way coffee is served, it’s super bitter. It has a burnt flavor, a little more smoky than a normal coffee, and I quite like that. They really roast it heavy, almost like moer coffee in South Africa. It was always the best.” [Moer, Kalfie explained, means “throwing a punch.” I imagine it’s like the old chuckwagon coffee of the American West.]
Iced coffee was not something he drank in Africa, Kalfie said. But he quickly got used to the balance of bitter and sweet in cà phê sữa đá. In the coffee business, he wants to apply that same principle of balance in choosing and blending beans:
“The most important thing for me is to get a bean that is consistent, and has a specific taste — something Robusta, but with less bitterness and a more inherent sweet aspect to accentuate the chocolate flavor. The beans I settled on are roasted in a honey process.”
Keeping a secret
The ancient volcanic soil of the Central Highlands makes it fertile ground. With an altitude between 800 and 1,000 meters (2,600 to 3,300 feet), Đắk Lắk is ideal for Robusta production. Lam Dong province, with its hub at Da Lat, is less humid and higher, 1,400-1,600 m (4,600-5,250 feet), so it is better suited to Arabica.
Kalfie notes fundamental differences in size, taste, caffeine content and yield between the two families of beans. Now, he is buying whole beans and making his own blends of Robusta and Arabica by trial and error. “My current ‘Good Life’ blend is more Robusta, made for sữa đá,” he said. “I have another blend that’s more Arabica. What’s the ratio? Well, that’s my secret.”
His goal, said Kalfie, “is to get a lot of coffee into South Africa and introduce Vietnamese coffee. It needs to be a nice product. I envision roasting my own beans and opening my own coffee shop.”
The café element is important. The same blend “can taste different in different coffee shops,” he said. “The way it is brewed is key. What kind of filter do they use? What temperature is it poured at? How fast does it drip? The usual Vietnamese roast is really thick. It takes some experimentation.”
If you’re craving a South African’s Vietnamese coffee, but you don’t plan a trip to the Central Highlands anytime soon, you can visit Instagram — @tgoodlifec — or email Bredenkamp at email@example.com. Prices and shipping costs are listed on the Instagram handle.
I had occasion last week to visit a 10-hectare (25-acre) coffee farm near Buôn Ma Thuột, not far from the Sêrêpôk River. Spire-like pepper trees, their vines trailing tiny green corns, rose amidst the dense grove, making my ramble an obstacle- impeded adventure.
The shrub-like coffee tree — trimmed to about 2 meters (6 feet) in height to facilitate the harvest — takes about four years to begin producing its white flowers, and another season before its fruit (“cherries”) emerge, changing in color from green to red as they ripen. Normally the harvest occurs in September and October, but this year heavy rain, cooler temperatures and a COVID-wary labor shortage resulted in a later-than-usual harvest. Even so, it seemed there were more green cherries (hard and bitter) than red (soft and sweet) on the trees.
In mid-morning, I found a half-dozen men and women amidst the foliage, engaged in the labor-intensive process of strip-picking. They spread a canvas on the muddy ground beneath the bushes and pulled their gloved hands along each branch, removing all fruit (regardless of its degree of ripeness) onto the ground. Then they poured the contents of the canvas into a large bag and moved on to the next shrub.
Before the end of the day, these “cherries” would begin dry processing. They would be sorted and cleaned by winnowing, then laid to dry upon mats extended across decks or patios. It may take a month of raking and hand-turning before they are ready for dry-milling: not so dry as to become brittle, but not so moist as to draw mildew.
At this point, the dried cherries are ready for hulling, sorting, grading and bagging. A hulling machine removes the outer layers of fruit and dry skin in a single step. Then the green seeds, or beans, are cleaned and sorted by size, density and color, and prepared for export.
Beans must be roasted before they are ground into the fine powder that is steeped in hot water and filtered into a cup, making what is arguably the world’s favorite beverage.
In Vietnam, there’s no argument.