BUON MA THUOT, VIETNAM
— When most people think of coffee they do not usually think of Vietnam. But, this year the Southeast Asian nation surpassed Brazil as the world's biggest coffee exporter. Almost all are robusta beans - a lower quality, higher-caffeine variety used to make espresso and instant coffee.
Vietnam's largest coffee company, Trung Nguyen, wants to change the country's reputation as a cheap coffee bean supplier. Chairman Dang Le Nguyen drinks 10 cups a day and wants others to do the same to raise low domestic consumption and coffee culture.
"We have the quantity and quality of robusta, which is number one in the world. But, we are lacking one thing that is the packing industry, display industry, and storytelling industry, to make the world understand exactly what the world needs," he explained. "Vietnam should be a great nation, not only in quantity."
Vietnam's style of coffee preparation was influenced by the French, who introduced the bean to the former colony. But the industry has only taken off in the past few decades and its coffee culture is relatively unknown abroad.
American English teacher John Owens has come to enjoy the strong flavor of the local drip brew.
"I had never heard about it until I came here," Owens says. "I do not think they market it, or they brand it. I think they put it with other coffee."
Trung Nguyen is trying to change that by marketing unique coffee products and is also working with its coffee farmers to try to improve quality and efficiency.
Ma Chuong, who has been farming coffee beans for more than 30 years, says a company-financed drip irrigation system saves on water and labor and is more productive.
"In the first year before we had this system our productivity was only 800 kilograms per hectare. But, in the second year after installing this system, productivity went up to 1,400 kilograms per hectare," she explains. "Last year, from our notes from start to end of harvest, productivity was 2,040 kilograms."
But according to Le Ngoc Bau, director of Vietnam's Western Highlands Agro-Forestry Scientific and Technical Institute, Vietnam's coffee production and exports may soon peak. He thinks the country's status as number-one coffee exporter will not last.
"Firstly, Vietnam's government has no policy to expand the area for coffee," he notes, "In August of 2012 the Minister of Agriculture made the decision to approve the master plan to develop the coffee industry to the year 2020 and our vision up to the year 2030. For this master plan to the year 2020 the total area of coffee in Vietnam will be reduced to 500,000 hectares."
In the meantime, coffee industry insiders say that while exports may level off, they can still work to improve quality.
Ripening coffee cherries at a coffee farm in Buon Ma Thuot, Vietnam. (D. Schearf/VOA)
Farmer Ma Chuong shows the drip irrigation system (D. Schearf/VOA)
Green coffee cherries. (D. Schearf/VOA)
Coffee beans being sorted and cleaned at the factory in Buon Ma Thuot. (D. Schearf/VOA)
Beans being sorted and cleaned at the factory. (D. Schearf/VOA)
Coffee beans being sorted at the factory. (D. Schearf/VOA)
Vietnam's drip style coffee uses a steel filter and press. (D. Schearf/VOA)
Vietnam mainly produces Robusta beans (D. Schearf/VOA)
A Vietnamese-style coffee demonstration. (D. Schearf/VOA)
Dang Le Nguyen, chairman of Trung Nguyen Coffee Company, wants to make Vietnam a "coffee holy land." (D. Schearf/VOA)
A waiter serves Vietnamese-style coffee in Ho Chi Minh City. (D. Schearf/VOA)