When Vietnam first emerged on the world stage of coffee in the early 1990s skepticism was high as to just how much and how fast this relative newcomer could grow. Time would soon enough prove skeptics wrong, and most in the coffee industry has since learned not to underestimate the South East Asian powerhouse. By the 1999-2000 crop cycle Vietnam surpassed Colombia as the world’s 2nd largest producer after Brazil and the coffee industry at large believes Vietnam will maintain its dominance in robusta as Brazil does in arabica. Much has been written and many myths have been created about Vietnam during the last 20 years – most of which simply are wrong and many of which have led to a stream of misunderstandings and confusion over Vietnam. In a special series written for the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal I will take an indebt look at Vietnam’s coffee industry, from the harvest outlook, the country’s key producing regions, and for the first time tell the unique story behind how the impressive Vietnamese growth came along.
By Maja Wallengren
It’s the middle of the harvest and coffee is found everywhere in Buon Ma Thuot, the center of Vietnam’s main coffee region in the south-central Dak Lak province. From small drying patios with green coffee to enormous concrete fields filled with coffee cherries, the delicious grassy smell of freshly processed coffee is filling the air.
Located in the Vietnam’s Central Highlands, the province Dak Lak is by far the biggest producer of coffee and this is where the initial boom in plantings first took place almost 40 years ago. Industry sources estimate that between 35 and 40 percent of all Vietnam’s coffee is produced in Dak Lak, while the neighboring province of Lam Dung is home to between 20 and 25 percent of total output. Add the Central Highland provinces of Gia Lai, Dak Nong, Binh Phuoc and Kon Tum, and the Vietnamese coffee belt accounts for 90 to 95 percent of the total national production in any given year. Smaller pockets of arabica coffee are found in central Quang Tri and the northern-most provinces of Son La and Lai Chau.
Coffee production in Vietnam can be traced back as early as 1856 when French colonial rulers identified areas around the city of Dalat in Lam Dung province as ideal for coffee growing, planting traditional arabica varieties like Tipica and Bourbons at 1,400 meters altitude. Soon after arabica production would also spread to the central region around Khe Sahn in Quang Tri province.
But contrary to most of the reports which during the past two decades have been published about Vietnam’s rapid surge in production, the efforts that would see Vietnam surpass Colombia in production number took close to 30 years from the first new plantings started in earnest at the end of the US-Vietnam War in 1975. The first visible signs of growth would start to emerge between the 1982-83 cycle when production stood at 330,000 bags, and the 1994-95 cycle when production hit 3.5 million bags. From then on the figure continued to rise; to 5.0 million bags in the 1996-97 cycle and to 6.9 million bags in 1998-99 harvest, before exploding to 11.6 million bags in the 1999-2000 coffee year.
“We wanted to be able to compete with Indonesia because that was the biggest producer in Asia, and we calculated that a volume of between 6 and 7 million bags was what would be realistic to sell to our socialist partners elsewhere in the world. This was all based on barter trade agreements as this was how our markets worked at the time,” said Doan Trieu Nhan, the former head of the Vietnam Coffee and Cocoa Organization, Vicofa, and the chief architect behind Vietnam’s “Coffee Development Plan” behind the coffee boom. But by the 1990-91 cycle when …
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