Meet the men behind Dalat’s specialty coffee industry
The specialty coffee industry in Dalat is going through unprecedented changes. It has evolved from a collection of simple family businesses struggling to sell their yearly crops and keep up with world trends to a complex business with sophisticated entrepreneurs helping the local community get the right beans to the right market at the right time at the right price.
Here we meet four of the men who are behind the changes in the Dalat specialty coffee industry.
Cuong Van-Dinh, A Vietnamese-American, is the owner of CentroFarms Plantations (www.centrofarms.com), the first vertically integrated specialty coffee in Dalat, combining growing and harvesting on his plantations, roasting, packaging, and domestic and international distribution. His “heritage plantation” just outside of Dalat is widely considered to be home to some of Vietnam’s finest Arabica trees, with origins dating back to the first trees brought to Vietnam by the French in the 1800s.
How far back does your involvement in Dalat go?
Cuong: My father was a senior engineer in the train company before and during the war, and as a child, we would come up to Dalat to spend our holidays at the old French colonial villas near the train station. It was then that I began to appreciate the natural beauty and economic potential of the area. When I was older and began to get involved in the coffee business in America, I thought it would be worth taking another look at Dalat from a coffee point of view. My brother and I decided to get involved in the coffee business here in Vietnam, and purchased a plantation just outside Dalat with some amazing Arabica trees.
How do you see your company, CentroFarms, contributing to the change in the specialty coffee industry in Dalat and in Vietnam?
Cuong: We have the unique ability to control the entire process of coffee production, including growing top grade Arabica beans on our Heritage Plantation, selectively harvesting the beans at the right time, roasting and packaging at our roasting facility in Dalat, and distributing both domestically and internationally. We also support the local coffee community in Dalat by working with them to purchase their finest Arabica beans. We would like to consider ourselves the leading vertically integrated specialty coffee company in Dalat. We have seen the industry in Vietnam change dramatically, especially now with the entrance of major domestic and international retail chains. We have decided to focus on what we do best – production, roasting, and distribution, and feed into the retail giants rather than compete directly with them.
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Joshua Guikema, together with his wife Rolan CoLieng and their mountain tribe village community based near Lang Biang Mountain just outside of Dalat, is growing and producing some of Vietnam’s best specialty grade Arabica coffee beans – www.Facebook.com/khocoffee
What is the story behind your coffee?
Joshua: Our exact region is where Arabica coffee trees were first introduced to the native K’Ho mountain tribes in the 1890s during the early days of French settlement in the central highlands of Vietnam. The mountain tribe people have been cultivating and preserving the unique old world heritage coffee tree varieties for over a century.
What makes good coffee?
Joshua: High density coffee beans come only from high altitude growing regions. Coffee grown under shade trees have more body and aroma than coffee grown under full sun. The unique Arabica coffee strains we grow add a variety of flavors. Clean washed processing methods, and correct roasting makes for a good cup of coffee.
What makes your coffee special?
Joshua: We selectively harvest at the peak of ripeness and separate varietal lots of different red, purple, yellow cherry coffee trees, then we process the beans with an obsession for quality. Our endeavor is focused on producing the best quality coffee in Vietnam and dedicated to sustainable farming practices to improve the economic development of our community.
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Will Frith is a barista trainer, roaster, production specialist, quality control technician, equipment repair person, researcher, consultant and a good listener from Olympia, Washington. His work in Dalat includes quality control, roaster and barista training for La Viet Specialty Coffee and fi-lan-thro-pe (www.filanthrope.org), along with consulting and support for them and others in Lam Dong and Ho Chi Minh City. He continues to consult his Dalat and HCMC coffee friends from his new home base of Singapore.
What is your role in developing coffee exports from Dalat?
Will: A common misconception is that I want to export coffee. Of course I would love to help to empower someone doing great work to get their coffee to an international audience, but my main goal is research and skill sharing. I want to learn about what’s possible for specialty Arabica being grown in Vietnam. Dalat has the conditions that have worked in other countries to produce good Arabica, so it seemed like a good place to start. After I’ve gathered enough information, I can then make a decision about what I want to do next. While I’m at it, I can offer my skills on the downstream side: as a quality control specialist, coffee roaster, barista trainer and coffee researcher.
What have you learned so far in your research?
Will: I’ve learned that we have a long way to go, mainly because of the quantity-first orientation, which pushes producers into high-yield agriculture methods and goals. This usually involves chemically-intensive practices that leave the land barren after only a few years. Not only is this an environmental disaster, it leaves producers with land that is unproductive, sapped of its valuable mineral and organic content. It basically comes down to short-term, yield-based approaches and long-term, sustainability-based approaches.
I’ve also learned that there is indeed a ton of quality potential for Dalat’s Arabica, for producers who are interested in pursuing the high-quality approach. There are no guarantees of course, so I would only advocate this approach for those who are passionate about quality and who can afford to take the types risks involved.
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Michael Wood is the Executive Director of an international charity called fi-lan’thro-pe. Their work involves empowering coffee growing communities in India, Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam in order to improve their livelihoods through improving the quality of coffee, integrating low-external-input/bio-diverse farming practices, and connecting communities with sustainable buying relationships to ensure long-term growth and ethical trading practices. Currently, fi-lan’thro-pe is working with the Vietnamese government to develop a Vietnamese Arabica conservation center which includes quality analysis labs, sustainable farming and processing training centers, experimental coffee processing facilities, and more.
What do you do in Dalat?
Michael: We work with a diverse group of coffee farmers, livestock farmers, processors, and roasters. We support and train coffee farmers to reintegrate long-term sustainable techniques not only to increase the quality of their coffee and decrease costs of coffee growing, but in order keep their soil and ecosystem healthy for decades to come. We then work hard to facilitate market linkages between farmers who could use coffee’s waste as organic feeds/fertilizers, coffee processors who wish to improve their quality and traceability, and roasters who seek to share the best coffees and its story with the people of Vietnam and beyond. While there are very few “old world” Arabica coffee farms left here in Vietnam, they have some seriously delicious coffee and Vietnam should not forget these gems as lost to a bygone era.
What do you see in the future of Vietnam’s specialty coffee?
Michael: Well, this is going to be a long and difficult path. There are very few “old world” Arabica trees left. Those which are found are scattered amongst newer Catimor varieties (higher production, but lower quality). But, in Vietnam and across broad sectors, there is an amazing spirit and energy which is pushing for a quality over quantity approach to coffee. The most cost effective way to achieve this quality in agriculture is to pursue long-term sustainable growing methods. So, for the future of specialty coffee in Vietnam I see Vietnamese coffee as potentially leading the world in sustainable coffee production, re-introducing itself to the world as a source of quality, and creating opportunities for farming communities as well as supporting the incredible growth in Vietnam’s-own coffee culture.