Sustain­able coffee: Made in Vietnam

Deli­cious, organ­i­cally grown coffee is the passion and pursuit of one coffee grower in the Central High­lands of Vietnam. Aeroco Coffee, with its focus on sustain­able produc­tion, want to show the world their passion for Viet­namese coffee. The Furrow joins them on a tour of their Ea Kao Lake plan­ta­tion to learn how they’re changing the coffee land­scape.

A row of ten drying tables stand in the sun with dark red beans spread out across one of them, yellow-gold beans on another, and light-brown beans on a third. The scene is complete with two workers processing the day’s harvest; removing the seeds (beans) from the coffee cher­ries that the plan­ta­tion organ­i­cally grows to produce premium and speciality coffee.

Drying the coffee beans is a lengthy process.

The beans have to be turned every half an hour so that they can dry evenly.

Nguyĕn Vũ Tú Anh, coowner of Aeroco Coffee, grabs a handful of yellow-gold beans from the table and lets them cascade through her fingers. “We turn the beans every half an hour,” she explains. “That way they can dry evenly.“ After a day or two, the mois­ture level is low enough to start the next stage, which is a final drying in a green­house, then we store them in an air-condi­tioned envi­ron­ment,” she adds.

Nguyĕn Vũ Tú Anh is the coowner of Aeroco Coffee.

The harvest is early for the time of year and Nguyĕn’s husband, Lê Dình Tu, left their Ea Kao plan­ta­tion early in the morning to super­vise the harvest at their second plan­ta­tion in Kon Tum, more than 250km (155 miles) to the north. “We normally start harvesting in November,” she explains. “But the beans have ripened earlier than normal because of the warm weather over the past few weeks.”

Ruled by the weather

Nguyĕn and Lê’s lives have revolved around coffee for the last eight years. They grow robusta coffee from 13ha at their Ea Kao loca­tion – close to the provin­cial capital of Buôn Ma Thuôt – and 8ha of arabica at their Kon Tum loca­tion.

“Arabica beans grow best at higher alti­tudes,” Nguyĕn explains. “That is why we built the plan­ta­tion for those types of beans in Kon Tum, which is at an eleva­tion of around 1,000m (approx. 3,280ft). We grow the robusta beans down here at around 500m eleva­tion (approx. 1,640ft).”

Green arabica beans – they are grown at higher alti­tudes.
Robusta beans grow at lower alti­tudes.

And the weather rules, Nguyĕn explaining that yields are highly depen­dent on the weather, and vary per hectare and year-to-year. “On average we get between1,500kg and 1,800kg/ha of arabica, and 2,000kg to 2,200kg/ha of robusta.”

Growing organic coffee for biodi­ver­sity

Both the Ea Kao and Kon Tum plan­ta­tions look different to more tradi­tional plan­ta­tions sitting across the hill­sides in endless straight rows. Nguyĕn has her reserves about tradi­tional, inten­sive cultivation.

The Ea Kao and Kon Tum plan­ta­tions look different to more tradi­tional plan­ta­tions.

“That requires a great deal of crop protec­tion prod­ucts and fertiliser,” she says. “We decided to grow organ­i­cally.” She acknowl­edges that in compar­ison to the tradi­tional plan­ta­tions their organic system looks rather untidy – but the ‘untidi­ness’ is what makes it a haven for biodi­ver­sity.

The plan­ta­tions grow in a three-layer system. Grass is the first layer and protects the soil. The coffee plant is the second layer, the third layer is a pepper or fruit tree.

Nguyĕn explains that the coffee plants are inter­spersed with other trees, such as pepper and fruit trees, as part of a three-layer system. “The first layer is grass, preventing the soil from drying out and providing shelter for small crea­tures. The second layer is the coffee plant, and the third layer is a pepper or fruit tree.”

Further bene­fiting the system, in some places, is a fourth layer comprising of an even bigger tree to provide shade for every­thing beneath it. The layered system means that they don’t have to rely solely on commer­cial plant protec­tion prod­ucts or fertiliser. “This way, we support biodi­ver­sity and make use of organic protec­tors,” she says.

We make use of organic protec­tors and support biodi­ver­sity that way.

Nguyĕn Vũ Tú Anh

Currently, they grow three vari­eties of arabica and one variety of robusta, with the entire produc­tion and sales chain in their own hands. “We do every­thing ourselves,” she says proudly. “We pick, shell, dry, roast, process, package and sell… every­thing. And they’re not wasteful, making use of the whole plant. We use the shells are to make compost, and we draw tea from the flower petals.”

Producing better viet­namese coffee

Fertiliser is what got every­thing started. For years, while Nguyĕn worked as a lawyer in Ho Chi Minh City, Lê  trav­elled throughout the country selling fertiliser. Through his conver­sa­tions with growers, and what he saw at their plan­ta­tions, he noticed the overuse of chem­ical inputs.

“Everyone was just throwing them on their land without thinking,” he says, speaking from an online call. “It did lead to profits in the short term, but because I had been in the busi­ness for so long, I also saw the effect it was having on biodi­ver­sity.”

I thought it was a shame that viet­namese coffee beans are primarly used for instant coffee. We can produce much better coffee!

Lê Dình Tu

More­over, he explains it was exhausting the soil with growers needing to use increasing amounts of fertiliser. It also struck Lê as remark­able that Viet­namese coffee was not very well respected inter­na­tion­ally, despite its past and current posi­tion as a major player in the world market (see box).

“Viet­namese coffee beans were exported primarily as raw mate­rial for instant coffee,” he explains. “That was mostly due to insuf­fi­cient quality. I thought it was a shame – we have the exper­tise and the possi­bil­i­ties to produce much better coffee.”

Coffee cher­ries are drying in the Viet­namese sun.

High labour costs

It has not been a easy road for them, cultivation is expen­sive, primarily due to the cost of labour. Most tradi­tional farmers harvest once during the harvest season, but Aeroco workers go into the fields five times a year. “It’s labour-inten­sive,” says Nguyĕn. “But it’s good for the bean quality.”

Pulling a refrac­tometer out of her trouser pocket, she puts a red coffee cherry in it. “We can use the refrac­tometer to measure the mois­ture content of the cher­ries, if it’s around 18% the cher­ries are ready to be picked. Just look at the red colour,” she continues. “We only pick cher­ries with this kind of colour. If you only harvest once during the harvest season, you will get the red and the unripe green cher­ries – one harvest saves on labour costs, but it’s not good for the quality.”

Compar­a­tively, the cost and price of their organic coffee is higher with customers paying 600,000 VND (€23.69 or £20.86) for 500g of beans. “Our coffee is 1.5 to 2 times more expen­sive than regular coffee,” says Nguyĕn.

And for foreign customers there are addi­tional costs, like trans­port and import levies. “At the moment, we sell about 80% of our coffee locally, and we export 20%. We’re seeing a trend of increasing demand for organic prod­ucts. We are already selling our coffee to coun­tries like the United States, Germany, Japan and Korea.”

Aeroco sells their coffee prod­ucts to coun­tries like the United States, Germany, Japan and Korea.

Nguyĕn and Lê’s efforts are already being rewarded, and last year they won the Vietnam Amazing Cup 2022, an award presented every year to the best ‘speciality’ coffee growers. “It is another step forward and acknowl­edge­ment that we are on the right path,” Nguyĕn concludes.

Sustain­able rela­tion­ships

The company has 15 employees, increasing to 30 during harvest, with a strong belief that sustain­ability extends to the rela­tion­ship between employer and employee. At the plan­ta­tions, women and men form the work­force in roughly equal numbers.

“I think it’s impor­tant that women are able to work too,” Nguyĕn says. “That is why we are very flex­ible with working hours. Some of the women work here in the morning so that they can be at home in the after­noon when their chil­dren get home from school. I want to give them a good income so they can provide for their fami­lies. Workers who are satis­fied also contribute to a good product. I put a lot of effort into ‘sustain­able rela­tion­ships’.”

A woman is selling her prod­ucts directly on the street.

And this ethos is reflected in the part­ner­ships they have with their three contracted coffee growers, signed to five year contracts. “Many farmers want to produce coffee in a more sustain­able way, but many of them don’t know where to start,” she explains. “They also want a good guar­an­teed price.

“We show them how to grow coffee ‘our’ way and provide the coffee plants, machines, equip­ment, and fertiliser. We also ‘hire out’ employees to them, and guar­antee the purchase of their product.”

A big dream

But the mission has only just started and is far from accom­plished, according to Lê. He hopes that one day they’ll have their own research and devel­op­ment centre. Looking closer ahead, next year, they plan to estab­lish a growing area where they can exper­i­ment with 80 vari­eties of beans. Their aim is for slow and steady growth.

Lê’s big dream for the future is that Vietnam will achieve inter­na­tional recog­ni­tion as a producer of high-quality coffee, and that Aeroco will have a big part in that. “Farmers could be doing so much better in many places,” he says. “I want to be able to say with pride that this coffee was made in Vietnam.”

Viet­namese coffee culture

Ever since the French Jesuit mission­aries intro­duced coffee beans to the Central High­lands of Vietnam at the end of the 19th century, coffee cultivation has seen unpar­al­leled growth.

Vietnam has 705,000 hectares of coffee plan­ta­tions, and over the past decade the Central High­lands have become the most impor­tant coffee growing area in the country. And with half of the country’s coffee cultivation n the province of Dak Lak, the coffee acreage in the province has quin­tu­pled since 1990.

Sustaining produc­tion, is the volcanic soil and the mild climate which creates the perfect condi­tions for growing coffee. Average year-round temper­a­ture is 26 degrees celsius with an average rain­fall of 2,000 mm (approx. 80 inches) every year.

In terms of trade, Vietnam is now the largest exporter of robusta coffee beans in the world, and the 15th largest arabica beans exporter. The Viet­namese people primarily drink robusta coffee with its high caffeine content, often adding ice and sugar or condensed milk.

For the Viet­namese, coffee isn’t just coffee, it’s an impor­tant social activity. People meet up, drink coffee, and chat. Coffee is now very much a part of Viet­namese culture, with a coffee shop on nearly every street corner.