A 165-year journey of coffee history in Vietnam

Common knowledge Written: Hữu Thắng


15:18 13/09/2022

CFRR- In 2021, Vietnam ranks second in terms of output on the world coffee map, but few people know about the 165-year journey since the first coffee seed was sown in Vietnam…

Coffee was first introduced to Vietnam by French missionaries in 1857 in the northern provinces. From the first seeds, it developed with a system of plantations such as Chi Ne (Lac Thuy district, Hoa Binh province), Xuan Mai (Chuong My district, Hanoi), Son Tay (Son Tay town, Hanoi) …which were almost the largest zone in Indochina at that time.

Origin of arabica in the North

Coffee has come a long way in Vietnam over the past 165 years and has been selected as one of the main industrial crops with the second highest export value after rice. An interesting figure, in 2021, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vietnam’s coffee exports still reached 1.52 million tons (worth approximately 3 billion USD) and made Vietnam to be the second country in terms of output on the world coffee map.

Vietnam is the country with the first and largest coffee plantations in the Indochina region.

In the photo: Coffee plantations in the North in the 1930s
Photo: ManhHai – Flickr; – L’Indochine, par Henri Gourdon (1876–1943) – Galilica

Arabica (coffea arabica) is the first coffee variety introduced into Vietnam. Arabica has been grown around Catholic churches in the provinces of Ninh Binh, Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, Ha Tinh… and then continued to be grown in some central provinces: Quang Tri, Quang Binh …

During this period, coffee was processed under the brand “Arabica du Tonkin” and imported to their country by the French. However, at the time, coffee was still cultivated in a nomadic way, so the yield was unstable and decreases sharply from about 400-500kg/ha in the early years to 100-150kg/ha in the later years.

In 1908, the French continued to bring two other coffee varieties to Vietnam: Robusta coffee (Coffea canephora) and Jackfruit coffee (Coffea excelsa). Since then, new coffee plantations have continued to be cultivated in other areas in Ha Tinh (1910), Yen My (Thanh Hoa, 1911), Nghia Dan (Nghe An, 1915).

Coffee nursery in Phu Tho circa 1920-1929.
Photo: Manhhai – Flickr; Collection of the Museum of Human (Musée de l’Homme) – code: B-536-GG

The turning point of the Central Highlands coffee land

Around 1925, coffee began to be grown in the Central Highlands. This is a turning point of the coffee journey in Vietnam. The Central Highlands has become a famous place for coffee with the largest coffee growing area in Vietnam since then.

The reason why the Central Highlands was chosen to develop coffee is because this land is large enough and at an altitude of 500-1000m above sea level. The climate of the Central Highlands is located in the Tropical Savanna, sub-equatorial monsoon, cool climate all year round, with two distinct seasons. The rainy season is from May to end of October and the dry season is from November to April, in which March and April are the two hottest and driest months.

The Central Highlands soil has also advantaged with five highlands of basalt soil, a nutrient-rich soil for coffee. Basalt is a type of soil that develops in warm, humid, temperate climates and is created from the process of weathering metamorphic rocks; with the advantages of having better drainage capacity than other types of soil, loose, fine-grained, high lime content, aluminum iron and also high acidity. After the Central Highlands, coffee continues to be grown in the Southeast provinces from Binh Phuoc to Dong Nai.

“Vietnamizing” the name of coffee varieties

In the 1930s, the total coffee area in the country was about 5,900 hectares with an output of 1,500 tons of green coffee. At this time, there were three main varieties of coffee grown on farms across the region: Arabica (typica variety), canephora (robust) and liberia (excelsa) coffee. Vietnamese gradually get used to coffee varieties through their tree and leaf morphology and skillfully Vietnamize the names of coffee varieties: Tea coffee (arabica), robusta coffee and jackfruit coffee (excelsa).

The photo depicts women in Phu Tho in the 1920s-1929s with the caption Caféier “Chari” (coffee tree “Chari”).
Photo: Manhhai – Flickr; Collection of the Museum of Human (Musée de l’Homme) – code: B-561-GG

By the early 1960s the North had grown about 10,000 hectares of coffee on state-owned farms. Coffee grown here is mainly tea coffee with a yield of about 400-600kg/ha and fertile lands can reach 1 ton / ha.

The biggest drawback to tea coffee cultivation in the North is the harmful effects of pests including borer (xylotrechus quadripes) and coffee rust (hemileia vastatrix). In addition, the northern climatic conditions are relatively harsh with winter, cold lasting from 4-5 months, which makes it difficult for coffee plants to grow in this area. Many regions experimented with growing coffee but later had to cancel due to too many difficulties and inefficiencies; only jackfruit coffee grows well, gives a good yield, but the commercial value is low.

The first instant coffee factory in Bien Hoa

The first instant coffee factory in Vietnam and Indochina countries was built by Mr. Marcel Coronel (France) and his wife, Ms. Tran Thi Khanh in Bien Hoa (Dong Nai) in 1968. The factory was named Coronel with capacity 80 tons/year. In 1975, Coronel was renamed Vina Café factory.

In 1975, the coffee area in the South was about 10,000ha, of which the largest was in Dak Lak (7,000ha), Lam Dong (1,700ha), Dong Nai (1,300ha). Coffee varieties grown mainly in these areas are robusta coffee, while tea coffee is mainly grown in Lam Dong with an altitude of 700m to 1,500m above sea level. From this time until 1986, many coffee farms have sprung up, but the yield is not high. In 1986, the total coffee growing area was about 50,000 hectares with a production volume of 18,400 tons.

With the success of the public-private partnership in the 1980s-1990s

In 1980, the coffee development program in Vietnam was developed by the cocoa coffee company under the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry and was approved by the Standing Council of Ministers.

This was followed by a series of coffee production cooperation agreements signed between Vietnam and other countries: the Soviet Union (20,000ha of new coffee plantations), the German Democratic Republic (10,000ha), Bulgaria (5,000ha), Czechoslovakia (5,000ha) and Poland (5,000ha).

In 1982, the Vietnam Union of Coffee Enterprises (LH-XN-CPVN) was established with the participation of three military divisions and a number of companies under the Ministry of Agriculture, localities: Dak Lak, Gia Lai, Kon Tum. The coffee development program was expanded in the Central Highlands and Southeast provinces. The type of coffee chosen to expand the area is robusta coffee, a coffee variety that prefers hot and humid climates and is especially less susceptible to the harmful effects of rust.

Viet Duc Coffee Enterprise was built in the late 1970s in Cu Kuin district, Dak Lak province by the capital of cooperation between Vietnam and Germany.
The enterprise manages most of the coffee area in the area and some surrounding areas. In 1984, this enterprise split into six farms and then transformed into a one-member limited liability company under Vietnam Coffee Corporation.

Photo: Vietnam Agriculture

In 1986, LH-XN-CPVN, was supported by ministries: Agriculture, Planning, Finance, Foreign Trade, etc., organized a Conference on Coffee Development in Farming Households in the Central Highlands, Central Coast and Southeastern Coast Provinces; Also known as the First People’s Coffee Conference. The conference introduced new policies; At the same time, the rising price of coffee in the international market has helped Vietnam’s coffee industry develop more strongly.

Until the late 1980s, Vietnam introduced the catimor coffee variety of arabica coffee into cultivation on farms. This is a plant resistant to rust which has significantly increased the yield of arabica. It is also the basis for The Vietnam Coffee Corporation to develop a long-term development program for arabica coffee in Vietnam.

Coffee production has steadily increased by 20% to 30% per year since the 1990s. In the late 1990s, Vietnam became the leading coffee producer in Southeast Asia, ranking second in the world for green coffee exports (after Brazil). About 500,000 small coffee gardens from two to three acres spread across the climates suitable for coffee in Vietnam. These have contributed to a sharp turnaround of the Vietnamese economy.

During the renovation in the 1980s and 1990s, the coffee industry was nationalized and thrived in the Central Highlands provinces; private enterprises are also supported to develop and replicate. The cooperation between growers, producers and the state has resulted in the branding of finished coffee as well as the export of retail products. Prominent among them are brands such as Trung Nguyen (1996), Highlands Coffee (1998) …

Robusta imprint on Vietnam

In 30 years (from 1986 to 2016) coffee production in Vietnam has increased nearly 100 times. From 18,400 tons in 1986 to 900,000 tons in 2000 and reached 1.76 million tons in 2016. In which, 90% to 95% of coffee production is exported annually.

The coffee habits and tastes of Vietnamese are mostly from filter coffee with the main coffee variety being robusta.
Photo: CFRR

In 2021, Vietnam’s coffee exports reached 1.52 million tons, worth approximately 3 billion USD. Although it decreased by 2.7% in quantity compared to 2020, it increased by 9.4% in value. Coffee value increases because world coffee prices increase. Notably, in December 2021, the export price of coffee reached the highest level since June 2017.

The average yield of Vietnamese coffee is about 2.3 tons/ha/year, significantly higher than many other coffee producing countries in the world, even Vietnam is the country with the highest robusta coffee production in the world. The reason for this impressive number is Vietnam has chosen to cultivate robusta with high intensity, yielding more seeds than arabica. This promotes profits for coffee farmers, as many coffee farms, Vietnamese farmers harvest more than 3.5 tons per hectare.

Although the first coffee imported into Vietnam was arabica, the key to the success of Vietnamese coffee over the past time is still robusta. Robusta has a lower price tag than its cousin, arabica. However, robusta is easier to grow, has lower production costs, and is more resistant to many pests and diseases. In addition, with robusta, while fertilizer and water input changes can affect yields, they will not affect plant health, while the health of arabica plants can be significantly compromised if these changes are made.

Return of arabica

The statistics of millions of tons of coffee exported each year by Vietnam whether it has really marked Vietnam on the world’s quality coffee map is another story.

Currently, Robusta varieties account for 92.9% of the total coffee growing area, while Arabica varieties only contribute no more than 5% of Vietnam’s total production. However, robusta is mainly exported as raw, unprocessed green coffee, which does not help to mark Vietnam as a specialty coffee region with good varieties, seeds, … in the world. Robusta only gives an impression of quantity, but not an impression of quality like arabica.

In recent years, from policy to research, Vietnam has sought to improve the quality of coffee exports, focusing on the expansion of arabica coffee production areas. At the same time, in the trend of developing specialty coffee in the world, the way to enjoy, the pleasure… coffee has since expanded to unlimited national borders. Visitors to Vietnam have also started looking for specialty coffee; and also, a lot of domestic users choose specialty coffee to use.

Since then, arabica, instead of being mainly grown in the provinces: Quang Tri, Son La, etc., has tended to expand to the regions: Da Lat (Lam Dong), A Luoi (Thua Thien Hue), Mang Den (Kon). Tum) …

A lot of coffee farms with good quality arabica beans are forming in many areas in Vietnam. I
n the photo: Coffee plantations intercropped with many other fruit trees at an altitude of 1,600m in Lam Dong.
Photo: CFRR

Instead of maintaining the arabica seeds brought from the earliest days in 1857; Many coffee farms have researched and switched to many high-quality arabica varieties to bring better economic efficiency. However, all these moves are just the beginning. Because the time to harvest Arabica coffee is at least three years, so the conversion of varieties must mainly come from companies and enterprises with available economic potential, but it will be difficult for farmers to convert. Besides, arabica often has two types of stem borer disease (xylotrechus quadripes) and coffee rust disease (hemileia vastatrix)… because that reduces arabica production. Anyone who wants to convert from robusta to arabica in addition to economic potential must also have scientific knowledge to be able to understand the “diseases” that arabica has and treat.

Consumers’ habit of enjoying more flavors and different ways of making coffee helps Arabica gain a larger market share in Vietnam.

Khe Sanh Arabica coffee brewed with pour over.

Photo: CFRR


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