The World Coffee Museum in Buôn Ma Thuột honors traditions of the planet’s favorite beverage in its exhibits and demonstrations.
Turbans aren’t everyday garb in Vietnam. This is a nominally Buddhist country, with few Muslims or Sikhs except for a handful of foreign residents in major cities. So it came as a bit of a surprise when I was served coffee by a barista wearing a headdress.
It was all part of the show at the World Coffee Museum in Buôn Ma Thuột. My Vietnamese host, Thông, was demonstrating coffee service in the Ottoman civilization. Although that empire has been defunct for a century, its colorful history lives on, especially in the Turkish- or Ethiopian-style coffee that it spawned.
Thông began his unfiltered preparation with finely ground Robusta. He measured out five grams of coffee into a tiny pot with a gram of sugar, added warm water and set it in a tabletop tray of hot sand (in this modified case, heated from below) to gently boil. After a couple of minutes, he poured it into a lidded espresso cup and served me.
And when I finished sipping, Thông offered to read the leftover grounds. “It is said the Ottoman people can tell your fortune from the coffee,” he said.
The World Coffee Museum — Bảo Tàng Thế Giới Cà Phê in Vietnamese — was opened in late 2018 by the Trung Nguyên (“Central Highlands”) Legend coffee company. Now, three years later, it has just unlocked its doors again after a six-month COVID-enforced closure. Only a couple of kilometers from the heart of Buôn Ma Thuột city, the museum stands atop a grassy mound. Its architecture resembles a side-by-side series of stylized nha dai, or long houses, typical of the region’s Ede ethnic group.
I purchased my ticket at a Trung Nguyên Legend coffee shop beside the access road. (To be honest, I thought the cost of 150,000 dong, about US $6.50, was steep in this economy.) A small tram shuttled me to the museum’s front entrance, where I provided proof of vaccination to be admitted.
The current highlight is a ground-floor parlor that presents the coffee stylings of a trio of civilizations, Ottoman, Roman and Vietnamese. On rotating days (twice each week), a barista demonstrates one of these. Had I arrived a day earlier, I would have experienced Romanesque espresso beverages, including lattes and cappuccinos. A day later, it would have been Thiền (Zen).
The latter is representative of Vietnamese coffee culture of the early 20th century. French missionaries introduced the plant in 1857, and it made ít way to the Central Highlands between 1915 and 1920. Along the way, it was partially assimilated by the Zen tea culture of Chinese Buddhism. The display here includes a replica coffee hut, where various blends of Trung Nguyên’s Robusta and Arabica beans are sold, and a seating and brewing area, where beverages are prepared in traditional manner using tiny burlap sacks as filters.
The soul of coffee
As a place of learning, the Coffee Museum performs a greater educational function. Its opening exhibit, “The Soul of Coffee,” explores what is required to nurture a coffee tree — soil, water and sunlight — along with the human element that goes into planting, tending, harvesting, processing and preserving the fruit.
Exhibits have been selected from a collection of more than 10,000 coffee-related artifacts, many of them transferred from the renowned Kaffeemuseum Burg in Hamburg, Germany. They range from Brazilian cannisters to Dutch coffee vessels, but are largely German. My favorite was an industrial-sized 1894 roaster assembly that apparently was operational in Deutschland, but which hasn’t yet been made to work in Vietnam. So it sits in a sunken basement ready to be activated.
In the Library of the Light, hundreds of books (all in Vietnamese) surround a central reading table. Prominent is a translation of Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends & Influence People. It’s a personal favorite of the positive-thinking, 50-year-old Trung Nguyên Legend company founder and chairman, Đặng Lê Nguyên Vũ, who has a private desk in this very room.
Within the library — and, for that matter, throughout the museum — are posted quotes in Vietnamese, English and French from famous figures in the fields of literature, science, music, even statesmanship. “When we drink coffee, ideas march in like the army,” wrote Honoré de Balzac. “Without my morning coffee, I’m just like a dried up piece of roast goat,” declared composer Johann Sebastian Bach.
Many of the coffee farmers in Đắk Lắk and adjacent Lâm Đồng provinces are from ethnic minority tribes. There are 54 separate groups throughout the country, each with their peculiar dialects and cultural identities. Prominent near Buôn Ma Thuột are the Ede, with more than 300,000 members, as well as Mnong, Hmong, Jarai, Ma, Bana, Thai, Có Ho, Muong and Dao people. The museum displays traditional costumes of each of these ethnic groups, along with descriptions of some of their unique customs.
It could be that some of the Ede or other minority farmers were the first to discover what is known today as cà phê chồn, or “weasel coffee.” In point of fact, it should be credited to palm civets, not to their distant-relative weasels, minks or ferrets. But regardless of the animal, the principal is the same: It’s shit.
Yeah, but it’s good shit. Really good shit. Palm civet shit. The small, furry mammals love the ripe red coffee cherries. As they eat, their digestive enzymes partially ferment the fruit, removing the hull but leaving the excreted seed. Farmers gather the beans and thoroughly wash them before processing. The resulting coffee is rich and mellow, with notes of caramel and chocolate. And very expensive.
In Lâm Đồng province, there is a five-acre coffee farm near Da Lat with 150 resident palm civets to produce this cà phê chồn. Sadly, the animals are cruelly treated and fed a diet of nothing but coffee cherries, with none of the protein they get in their wild diet of insects and small reptiles. So the Trung Nguyên company has devised a technique to produce its own imitation weasel coffee free of excrement, with a flavor that nearly duplicates the original.
You can ask for a cup in the World Coffee Museum’s own luxuriant café, its windows opening to a colorful nearby Buddhist pagoda.