2015 Vietnam Siphonist Challenge

 Serious siphon setup for The Workshop's Van Anh

Serious siphon setup for The Workshop's Van Anh

A couple of months ago, Dung (founder of The Workshop in HCMC) and I had an idea to bring the burgeoning Vietnamese specialty coffee community together for some friendly competition. The details weren't really worked out for some time - these competitions can take on a variety of formats, from very detailed and strict with pages of rules for competitors and judges, to simple "throwdown" formats where judges simply pick the best of two or three cups.

As Dung began to include more people from the community, it was more apparent that they wanted to have something closer to an international standard competition. Organizers Ms. Tiep, (The Cupping Room), Mr Phi Bay (Nam Long Coffee Company), Mr Hung (Bosgaurus Coffee), and Dung called upon an experienced World Siphonist Championship judge, Wong Ching Ching, for help with the competition format and judges' calibration. Ching Ching joined us for the week prior to competition to work out the details and calibrate the judging panel. This would not have been possible without her guidance. Joining us on the judging panel were UCC's Ho Chi Minh City office cuppers, Mr Baba and his assistant Mr Chau.

The international competition format allows 15 minutes for the competitor's routine, in which she will prepare a siphon brew for each of the four sensory judges, along with a signature drink course that utilizes a fifth siphon brew to make the main ingredient. The rules are many, and very particular, so it's a challenging contest.

 Competitor Thai Son putting on his game face before his routine

Competitor Thai Son putting on his game face before his routine

Since this was the first year, and the first organized competition for many of the siphonists, we adjusted the format just a bit. The time allowance was extended to 20 minutes with a maximum of 30 possible bonus points for finishing early (along with a penalty for going over 20 minutes, and disqualification after 21 minutes). We also decided that three sensory judges were enough for this year's challenge. Since I was the only volunteer with any coffee competition judging experience, the team pushed me to the front to act as Head Judge, whose job is to be sure sensory judges are grading drinks fairly and stay calibrated throughout the day. This meant that I was present for every single competitor's routine, tasting a slew of yummy drinks.

 Sensory Judges (Baba, Tiep, and Chau) are ready for the next competitor

Sensory Judges (Baba, Tiep, and Chau) are ready for the next competitor

A total of 18 competitors from various parts of Ho Chi Minh City (one flew from Hanoi to join!) gathered for an intense day of preliminary rounds. The pool of judges were worn out after the first day, which lasted over 12 hours of continuous routines.

Many participants were competing in their first coffee competition and did an impressive job in the realms of professionalism, cup quality, and hospitality. Some brought out the big origins (Kenya and Ethiopia showed up more than once), while many stuck to presenting Vietnamese coffees. Signature drinks varied from chilled to iced to hot, some combining lime zest and coconut water with the coffee, others with cascara, and others with tea. 

 Some serious Signature Drink stuff

Some serious Signature Drink stuff

Five finalists came out on top, to battle it out the next day - three of the five were from The Workshop!

 Van Anh, Huong (both from The Workshop), Son (freelance trainer), Truc (Nam Long Coffee), and Truong (The Workshop) were this year's finalists after a long day of performances.

Van Anh, Huong (both from The Workshop), Son (freelance trainer), Truc (Nam Long Coffee), and Truong (The Workshop) were this year's finalists after a long day of performances.

Finals day showed the competitors at their best, but there could only be one Champion - Mr Thai Son, a freelance trainer, came out on top with tasty drinks, great service, while taking advantage of the bonus points for finishing early (less than 15 minutes!). Truong, of The Workshop was first runner-up, with Truc of Nam Long Coffee as second runner-up.

 The top three with the judges. Specialty coffee's future in Vietnam looks bright and smiley!

The top three with the judges. Specialty coffee's future in Vietnam looks bright and smiley!

In the week following the event, I noticed many of the judges and competitors hanging out at The Workshop, chatting at the brew bar like old friends. The high from the event was still in the air, and didn't seem to be fading but quite the opposite. There's already talk of the next event - everything from "brew-offs" to espresso throwdowns. They've definitely caught the bug, and it's not going away any time soon

The best thing to come out of this competition was the feeling of community and collaboration, that competing companies and baristas can come together for the common goal of elevating the efforts of those who simply want to make coffee better. And I can definitely support that.

What a Trip


April has kept me moving constantly, with The New Black opening an additional location in the lobby of Centennial Tower (along with planning for two more locations in the coming months) and the SCAA Event in Seattle testing my ability to adjust to two time shifts in a matter of a couple of weeks.

 Yana is stoked for the new bench

Yana is stoked for the new bench

I was able to squeeze in a visit to Olympia, where it was great to catch up with good friends, and to make sure I drank from the locally-famous artesian well in the middle of downtown. I have a superstition that leads me to drink water from this well every time I visit Olympia.


I had carried a few samples of my favorite Vietnamese arabica coffees with me for my visit to Olympia Coffee Roasting Company. The response to the coffees was very good, and the crew at OCR were impressed with how much the coffees had improved over the previous harvest. We had finally found some Vietnamese coffees that qualify as specialty! Now for the hard work of improving even more and increasing the volume so that the cost of production comes down to a sustainable level that can compete on the global market. As I've said before, I'm really surprised at how quickly these particular coffees are showing improvement, and I'm excited that the potential is beginning to realize itself. After a few days in Oly, I headed north to Seattle.

The SCAA Event is specialty coffee's biggest trade show and conference, with over 12,000 attendees this year. It's also like a big coffee family reunion, giving me a chance to catch up with many old friends while making some new ones, it's really the best snapshot of what's going on in the industry. New technology, new coffees and roasting companies, familiar ones and people looking to connect walk the trade show floor for three days - having hundreds of conversations in the process. It's nearly impossible to simply cross from one end to the other without running into half a dozen people who want to chat, a very welcome diversion.

On the first morning, I was a guest barista at Modbar's booth, pulling shots of Olympia Coffee's Sweetheart Espresso, a new project that highlights one coffee roasted with a profile different to their previous espressos that highlights sweetness. This Sweetheart iteration was from Burundi, sourced in collaboration with The Long Miles Coffee Project, which is worth a separate post on its own. The coffee was indeed very sweet, full of sugary dark fruit.

At Modbar's booth, many of the people I had hoped to bump into just showed up, which made finding them much easier than picking them out of the giant crowds. I spent many more hours just hanging out and helping the lovely Modbar folks explain their technology to the stream of people who were eager to learn more. It was there that I got a chance to hang out and brew coffee with a coffee hero of mine, George Howell, and his daughter-green coffee buyer, Jenny. They were keen on learning more about the pour over unit, which allows the user to program a brew, essentially automating the process to mimic a hand-poured filter coffee. It's nearly as easy as hitting "record" and "playback," repeating timing, dispensing volume, pulses, delays and temperatures. Pretty dang cool. They were impressed with the machine, and of course the coffee was good. Jenny brought some of their Ethiopia Kochere for brewing, and was packing a VST Refractometer to measure the results. "Can I be your friend?" was what I wanted to say, but instead I asked if I could have a photo with them and they obliged my inner coffee fanboy.

 The Howell family and me with a big stupid smile.

The Howell family and me with a big stupid smile.

I saw so many great people, awesome tech, and of course tasted so many delicious coffees. It would be ridiculous to recount all of the details here. The highlight was seeing Sasa Sestic win the World Barista Championship. I had the pleasure of judging him for the FHA 2014 World Barista Challenge finals, where he placed 5th overall. The Challenge is based on WBC rules and regulations, but is a separate event sanctioned by a different organizing body [FHA]. I remembered his presentation and coffees were so delicious and was honored that I had once been served by a reigning champion. He remembered me and was happy that I was there to witness his crowning moment. His presentation was amazing, presenting new ideas that I'm sure we will see more of in the coming year. Sprudge did a decent summary of his victory, so I need not repeat it here.

 Still in shock, Sasa is still his ol' friendly self. So proud of him.

Still in shock, Sasa is still his ol' friendly self. So proud of him.

The day after the show, I boarded a plane headed for Singapore to begin training a new batch of The New Black baristas in preparation for our next outlet openings. I've been able to catch up with many of my coffee friends in Singapore, and it's good to see that everyone is making progress in their respective roles. Coffees are improving everywhere, and that's good news for everyone.

UCC-Olam-La Viet Producer Contest

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend and assist for Dalat's first arabica-only producer competition, held in the lobby/reception area of the old Dinh II hotel. The event was organized by La Viet's Quang Tran, with UCC and Olam contributing the funds and authoring the competition format. The finalists won cash prizes, and the top lots were purchased by UCC with Olam's assistance for logistics and shipment. La Viet handled the processing and packing.

UCC and Olam chose the cupping panel, which included three people from the UCC Vietnam office, Armando Sierra from Olam's Lam Dong office, Quang Tran of La Viet, and Dung Nguyen of The Workshop in Saigon. Over 30 samples of the region's best catimor/arabica blends were submitted, with 21 making it into the competition. The judges definitely had their work cut out for them, with nearly 5 hours of cupping.

 Samples await while UCC's Shunta Baba briefs the volunteer staff.

Samples await while UCC's Shunta Baba briefs the volunteer staff.

Quang tapped me to help with the front-of-house operations, where we put together a brew bar and espresso bar, along with a generous spread of snacks available to all attendees. The reception was excellent, with many producers and their family members having their first proper cappuccino and pour over that day. Many from Vietnam's fledgling specialty scene also showed up, with some folks eager to have a go at making their own filter coffees, and even a couple of aspiring baristas who were curious about the espresso we were serving (an arabica blend from Dalat, of course).

 The espresso and brew bar, loaded with snacks. At the top is the cupping panel in action.

The espresso and brew bar, loaded with snacks. At the top is the cupping panel in action.

The event was well-attended, with nearly 200 people visiting throughout the day and many nervous growers pacing the halls awaiting the results. At the end of the day, the hard-working judging panel retired to the sidelines while the points were tallied. The top lots came from a mix of familiar faces and new, and I look forward to seeing more from those who participated, especially now that they had a chance to network and chat with one another throughout the day.

In first place was one of my favorites, Mr Thanh An Le, or "Mr An" as we call him at La Viet and The Workshop. He has produced some of the most consistently good lots of bourbon, typica, and catimor I've had from Dalat. Mr Son (from my last post), good friend of La Viet and Mr An, placed 6th with his catimor.

 And the winner is Mr An (right)!

And the winner is Mr An (right)!

After the winners were announced, there was a buffet open to all participants and attendees. Many drinks and smiles were shared, and good times extended into the night.

I can confidently say that this event (hopefully the first of many) was a success, and I hope that the enthusiasm and spirit of community it encouraged can sustain itself for years to come. It's already inspired some of us to plan a more specialty-oriented competition, which I'll have details about soon when we're ready to announce it.

Post-Tet Dalat Coffee Trip Round-Up

After spending a chill New Year with friends at home, I headed to Dalat to catch up.

 Josh Guikema, of K'Ho Coffee, at the entrance to the K'Ho Cafe, about 20km from Dalat

Josh Guikema, of K'Ho Coffee, at the entrance to the K'Ho Cafe, about 20km from Dalat

My first stop was Josh & Rolan at K'Ho Coffee. Josh is an American and his wife Rolan is a member of the K'Ho Cil tribe. The K'Ho Cil community grows coffee near Lang Biang Mountain, and Josh and Rolan (along with their friend Nick) have been bringing that coffee down to Saigon through periodic events. 

I met Josh back in 2013 when I first moved to Dalat. Back then he was just getting started in the village, trying to find customers for the green coffee that was being grown. Now he's helped them create a branded roasted coffee product for sale at their farm. They also have a cafe in Lang Cu Lan Village.

The next day Josh recommended that we hike to the summit of Lang Biang to get a better view of the area. The lower half of the hike was rocky pine forest with coffee farms around the base.

 Coffee plants in bloom and Lang Biang Mountain in the distance

Coffee plants in bloom and Lang Biang Mountain in the distance

The hike took about four hours, and it was tough enough that we took a nap at the summit. From up there you could see the entire Lang Biang plateau, which is where the majority of Lam Dong Province's arabica coffee beans grow. 

 There's coffee beans in them thar hills

There's coffee beans in them thar hills

Josh's long term vision for the K'Ho Coffee brand is to capture as much value from coffee sales as possible for the producers, hence the roasted product. 

Next I spent a few days with my friend Quang and his crew at La Viet. We roasted coffee for orders, which gave me a chance to get to know their new 20 kilo CRM roasting machine. Quang convened a group of producers and I led a discussion about specialty coffee that included an introduction to the concept of specialty, its place in the market, sustainability, and the importance of a transparent, open network of collaborative players in the developing industry. There was a mix of familiar faces, including An & Son, and newcomers who Quang has been networking with over the last year. Overall, the spirit of the discussion was lively and inquisitive. The producers shared their different perspectives and techniques regarding coffee growing and processing. We had a long discussion about various wet processing approaches. A lot of information was shared and I could feel the beginnings of a strong producer community forming before my eyes.

 La Viet's Quang Tran at the producer meet up last week in Dalat

La Viet's Quang Tran at the producer meet up last week in Dalat

I ended up holding an impromptu barista training for a few people at La Viet's warehouse the next day. There's a lot of curiosity among Quang's staff and family about brewing technique, including his Uncle Son, a coffee farmer. I touched upon the basics for consistency and hygiene and, predictably, everyone was super excited about latte art, though I did have a few passionate pour over artists as well.

The next day I visited Son's farm in a suburb of Dalat near the old Cam Ly airport. Son is pretty much the most passionate coffee farmer I've ever met. He had noticed that some of the trees on his land were larger than the others with very big fruit and seeds, so he marked them all with white flags and instructed his pickers to keep them separated. He produced about 200 seedlings from these trees this harvest along with a few samples of the green coffee for me & Quang to taste and begin to identify. 

 Son with a bunch of cherry from the larger trees

Son with a bunch of cherry from the larger trees

The first thing I noticed when I arrived at Son's farm was a new covered parabolic drying patio and wet milling area:


Son's coffee has been the most consistently clean and delicious that I've had from Dalat, and his continual improvement gives me a lot of faith in what he's going to do in the future. 

Roaster Training at The Workshop Saigon

 Defect day at The Workshop Saigon roaster training

Defect day at The Workshop Saigon roaster training

To start out my training contract with The Workshop, I had to get to know the roaster on my own. I effectively became the production roaster for a couple of weeks, both to orient myself to the machine and to work on some roast profiles for the shop. Luckily, the roaster was manufactured by my friend Sebastian Heinemann's company Coffee Pro Direct (website only viewable outside of Vietnam). I'd already had some interaction with his machines, so it was fairly easy to get re-acquainted.

This also gave me the opportunity to use roasting software for the first time as a production roaster. In my work as a roaster so far, I've relied on a decidedly analog approach, using nothing more than my senses, a roast log, and my intuition. We decided to download the open-source (free!) Typica software and install the probe ourselves (with a little help from Sebastian). I was a little scared at first because it was something new, but also eager to learn how the data I received could improve my own roasting and that of my clients'. It's very basic software but extremely useful.

For the entirety of the training we focused on one single coffee, a Typica blend from Dalat, so as to eliminate variables and focus on the relationship between the roaster and the coffee. I started training The Workshop co-owner Dung, La Viet employee Phong and barista Truong on the small 200g Lysander lab roasters, teaching them to exert control during certain points in the roast in a very basic, hands-on way. We spent two full days on the Lysanders learning the basics and theory of roasting, and about roasting defects. Roasting defects day is always fun because we get to roast badly on purpose.

On the third day I acquainted my students with the production roaster, and the systems involved in operating it. My goal was to set up a solid system for roasting that included keeping it clean throughout use, properly warming up the roaster, and the importance of planning that day's batches ahead of time. We made sure to cup at the end of every day to drive home the lessons learned, and to build the practice into their daily system through repetition. This also allowed me to help build the cupping practice for all of the staff, including baristas, who also joined us for cuppings.

 Proud Phong & Truong driving the big machine by themselves.

Proud Phong & Truong driving the big machine by themselves.

The last week of training has been the most fun, as I've given them team challenges in roasting, where they have to plan out a roast together, then see the batch through without changing their plan in any major way. They've been very good students, and have solved the problems and challenges I've given them quite quickly.

Today was all about profiling. We needed to find the sweet spot for this Dalat Typica, as we had had trouble getting much sweetness out of it without also highlighting an earthy flavor that previous batches seemed to suffer from. I was impressed with how they worked together to solve the problem on paper before they even loaded the batch into the roaster. The resulting coffee had a nice creamy body and flavors of milk chocolate and red apple, with a long sweet finish. The rest of the week will be spent practicing and refining their roasts on this and a few other coffees. My hope for the training is to set up and habituate a positive feedback loop involving a roast plan, batch samples & cupping, and adjustment. As always, my goal as a trainer is to render myself obsolete, and the talented crew at The Workshop isn't making my job very difficult in that respect.

WORK, The Workshop, and Lots of Work in General

I'm now splitting my time between Saigon and Singapore, but I've moved my life (and my cat) back to Saigon, which doesn't suck at all. I just returned to Vietnam from Singapore, where I supported one of my New Black baristas, Lin Nur Azlina, at the Singapore 2015 Barista Competition. For a first-time competitor, Lin did splendidly, and did my chosen home of Olympia, Washington proud by using Olympia Coffee's La Pastora Kenya Process.

The competition itself was fierce, with 2008 and 2009's champion (and, spoiler alert: this year's too) John Ryan Ting of ARC killing it. Plus, Dennis Tang, co-owner of my personal favorite Singapore coffee roasting company Nylon, competed too, as did Hee Wei using Nylon's Bokasso.

 Tuan @WORK Saigon (photo from WORK's fb)

Tuan @WORK Saigon (photo from WORK's fb)

While I was working full-time in the big city-state of Singapore, my friends and colleagues here in Saigon were up to all kinds of new stuff. WORK Saigon has expanded to a second location at the glassy Bitexco Tower, just upstairs from the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in a shopping mall. The gig is a partnership with AIA (an insurance company) and the design is a knockout. Plus, owners Tuan and Laure managed to find a barista with roasting aspirations, and he's keeping the place well stocked with espresso, pourouver and even Robusta offerings (for the ca phe sua da, naturally). 

The Workshop is kicking their coffee program up a notch, and I am excited to help where I can. For the next few weeks I'll be acting as the interim production roaster while training a few of their staff and one of their partners in roasting. I can't wait to see what roasting talent is waiting among their current barista staff, all of whom have proven themselves super solid and excited to learn more.

 Maybe the only photo of me, Quang, Dung & Truc all together (photo by  Thee Calvin Godfrey )

Maybe the only photo of me, Quang, Dung & Truc all together (photo by Thee Calvin Godfrey)

My good friend Truc over at the former [a] cafe (relax, it's just a re-brand) has launched [a] coffeehouse, a sleek new shop that still manages to retain the location's warm and friendly origins on a great alley between two busy Saigon traffic arteries. Truc is also roasting his own coffee, and like The Workshop, has begun to offer international coffees. A few weeks ago Truc brewed me a solid Esmerelda Geisha from Panama. I had a great time spending a few days with his new barista staff getting them ready for launch.

After a quick trip to northern Thailand for the holidays, I also had a chance to check up with Quang at La Viet up in Dalat. Quang has moved a workshop/laboratory down from the mountainside coffee farm and into the city of Dalat. His hope (and mine) is to be able to connect buyers and cafe owners to quality control technology when they visit Dalat without having to make the ~20km trek up to Me Linh to visit his pristine farm and processing. We also spent a few hours on a coffee farm picking cherry to use in a wild little experiment with fruit shrub. The result was tested out (favorably) on our extended specialty crowd at a secret cafe in our friends Greg & Minh's vintage shop, Antique Street, on Le Cong Kieu. Kelly and I served pour-overs and cold brew along with the shrub and we were quite pleased to meet a bunch of new people at the event. Hopefully there will be more to come!

In the meantime, I'm getting used to living in Saigon again while still developing the menu and focusing on QC for The New Black. I must admit the less demanding schedule is most welcome. I spend most mornings at The Workshop even if I'm not working there, and it's a great feeling to see just how far Saigon's little specialty scene has come in the two years since I returned.

The New Black

 Via thenewblack.asia

Via thenewblack.asia

For the better part of a year I couldn't talk much about the project I was hired to work on in Singapore. It was killing me, because so many of its components - Modbar! Steampunk! EK43! The best roasters in the world (according to me)! Sexy design! - were on the leading edge, and I was excited to be right in the middle of it.

The New Black is an incredibly ambitious attempt to revolutionize takeaway coffee in one of the world's most robust economies. Singapore is sleek, beyond clean, and obsessed with what's new. Singaporeans have been known to line up around the block for a much-blogged about restaurant, and have wholeheartedly embraced specialty coffee. The island is studded with amazing roasters and cafes that would sit well among the best of Sydney and San Francisco, including Common Man Coffee Roasters, Nylon, Papa Pahleta, and Strangers' Reunion, to name but a few. Sprudge has a great recent overview of some of my faves.

Instead of adding another roasting operation to Singapore's already top-notch community, The New Black - headed up by designer Phoa Kia Boon and partner Spencer Forhart, of 28 Hong Kong Street success - decided to curate a collection of the best roasters from around the world. And they hired me to do it. 

Along with my obvious picks like Olympia and London's Workshop, I went on a fantasy binge, scoring Tim Wendelboe, George Howell, Sweet Bloom, Small Batch, and Verve, among others, for our concept store opening. Those first few weeks of coffee samples rolling in were some of the best I've spent in my career. I was given the enviable task of compiling a specialty coffee candy store, and it was pretty much solely up to me to pick which offerings to carry. Plus, the menu is designed to rotate and feature new roasters, further allowing me unlimited access to everything I had just spent a year in Saigon only dreaming I could score a few dozen grams of.

A huge part of my job was hiring and training a team of baristas who could work a Steampunk while making eye contact. I lucked out with our flagship baristas, all of whom are among the top of their class in Singapore and have given The New Black an immediate reputation for customer service.

Singapore is widely acknowledged as being populated with workaholics , hence, sick coffee bars in the lobbies of corporate buildings. The New Black plans to crop up in the CBD where office types are keen to score high quality brew without having to venture out to the specialty shops that dot the more affordable neighborhoods.

The culminating experience of my year in Singapore was a valuable one, teaching me more than I could have learned on my own about retail and the wider Asian market outside of Vietnam. What's happening in this part of the world is exciting, and I can't wait to see what comes next.



Ho Chi Minh City (partial) Update

In the year that I wasn't actively writing here, so much happened that I really can't catalog it all (and I'd probably forget something crucial). Instead of boring you with recounting details, I'll just log things as they come to mind. The crew at Eastgate was great for a while, but problems with staffing and management led to a bleeding of talent that kept me in a cycle of repeating basic-level barista and roaster trainings for months. This wasn't going to be a sustainable effort for the business or myself, so I had to make an exit. They lost most of the key staff I had trained, and there were some major implementation gaps on the part of the management. I suppose I hadn't sufficiently convinced the director to make the plunge to go 100% specialty. He tried to be all things to all people and wouldn't stick to a cohesive menu, combining pictures of latte art with economy rice meals and stuffed as many different things into the place as space would allow (and then some). They're still operating, and I had a decent espresso and cappuccino there just last weekend. It's a cluttered space, with no real cohesive vision, but is surviving and hanging on to some staff now (they've gotten rid of one of the more caustic members of management).

Long, one of my best roasting students, makes a damned good cappuccino at Eastgate.

Truc at [a] cafe has really taken a keen interest in both pour over and roasting small batches, 200 grams at a time. He buys small bags of coffees from East Africa and Latin America through a retailer based in Japan. From time to time he will invite local coffee geeks for special tasting events, exposing them to the wild world of Kenyan and Colombian coffees (and others). He is an avid collector of brewing equipment and often has Chemex, Siphon and Cold Drip on offer.


Yours truly with Duy and Quang of La Viet, geeking out over some samples during a porch session.

The real excitement comes from my buddies Quang and Duy, formerly of Golden Bell. They've formed a specialty coffee company called La Viet, which translates roughly to "is Vietnamese." La Viet offers roasted and green coffee and are the most legitimate coffee company in the South. I'll have to do a separate post about them, but they're really making a name for themselves while they shake up the local scene. These guys really make me feel good about the future for coffee in Vietnam.

Duy, cooler than a fan with his Minsk.

Never Forget (you have a blog)

This post is for myself more than anyone else. Self-reflection and affirmation ahead. Reader beware: It's hard to believe a year has flown by  since I last (half) updated this blog. I would try to come up with an impressive excuse like, "I'm just soooo busy working on projects" (which is true), but that's just an excuse.

What I'm learning about myself is that my creative output comes in bursts, and when I'm working a lot, those bursts come less frequently. And when I've been working on the same project for over nine months, it's hard to find things to write about. It doesn't help that the project is very secretive and I can't share anything about it...

So, will I continue to add to the noise of the internet? Yes. Will I do it in a predictable and consistent manner? Unsure. So, The best I can shoot for is to remember that this is here to catalog my coffee experiences and that I need to be a better steward of my word collection. For now, at least I have some fun toys to play with...



Quang and Duy of Golden Bell sip at A Cafe's "The Journey of Coffee," which featured coffees from Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia and India. So much has happened since moving to Saigon in April, I don't know where to begin...

New friends are always an interesting place to start. The crew at Eastgate Bakery and Cafe have been a dream to work with. There's a culture of learning among staff and management so strong that some folks are coming from other departments (upper management, accounting, bakery, kitchen, waitstaff) for coffee training. They're working to build a small roasting company from the ground up, with retail locations and wholesale operations on the horizon.

Currently, I'm putting in hours at Eastgate with an apprentice, getting him up to speed to eventually take over production roasting. After some time, there will be a Quality Control department, training and education lead, production facility and new coffee brand.

They'll get their own post soon - they will be exciting to watch as they get this project off of the ground.

[a] cafe, a comfy cafe tucked into one of my favorite neighborhoods in Saigon's district 1. Truc Nguyen is a well-known Vietnamese visual artist who has taken a keen interest in coffee, especially in the craft aspects. He is a fan of glass cold brew towers, pour overs and siphons, with an eye on learning more about roasting coffee. Truc and I collaborated with Michael Wood and Cana Little (fi-lan-thro-pe) to create a tasting event at [a] cafe that showcased coffees from around Asia. The event made it onto a morning news show!

Other things of note (which will all get their own posts soon!):

Coffee Academy (Coffee Lab)! Roasting Machines made in Vietnam! New Coffees!

A Trip to the USA! and more...

Vietnam Barista Championship - Post post

Getting ready for the competition This post comes a bit later than the competition (end of April!), but I should at least make a small post for posterity. The judging panel consisted of many folks from the Singapore Specialty Coffee scene, two from Vietnam, and one from Hong Kong. Vietnam expats included Nat Paolone, trainer for Lavazza, and myself. We were led by Head Judge Ross Bright, of Spinelli Coffee Roasters.

Other judges included: Pamela Cheng, of Bettr Barista Coffee Academy. Danny Hor, of Kaffa Kaldi. Darren Chang, of Smitten Cafe (former Singaporean Barista Champion). Danny Pang, of Academy of Coffee and Wine and SCAE-certified Barista Trainer. Michael Ryan, an Australian barista based in Singapore with Jimmy Monkey Coffee Bar (which houses Singapore's first Slayer Espresso machine). It was really a pleasure to meet all of these folks and I look forward to connecting again, whether here or in Singapore.

The pressure is on, some of the competitors performed beautifully.

Baristas from all around Vietnam's coffee industry participated, giving their best to the three-day event at the Convention Center in Saigon's District 7. This semi-annual event has been gaining steam over the last few cycles and the judges who were at previous Vietnamese competitions say that the participants have really improved every time.

The competition is based on the World Barista Championship rules and regulations, format and structure. Competitors must prepare four drinks in each of three categories (espresso, cappuccino, signature beverage) for four sensory judges, while being watched by two technical judges and a head judge, all in under 15 minutes. The barista must demonstrate proficiency with the equipment and ingredients, excellent customer service skills and of course, coffee and preparation knowledge. One big difference for this competition vs the ones in the US I've judged was the coffee sponsor element. Competitors were required to use the sponsor's coffee (Perfetto, based in Australia with operations in Vietnam). I suppose that in a country like Vietnam, where coffee with additives (butter, artificial flavor, sugar, chicken fat, fish sauce!, among other things) is the norm, it's safer (for the judging panel and the equipment) and more competitive to level the field by striking this variable. Otherwise, who knows what will be in the espresso blends being presented. It is a coffee competition. This actually made it quite a bit easier for the sensory judges to stay calibrated, because we were very acquainted with the coffee by the time competition routines began. We were judging the baristas rather than the coffee, though tasting the same coffee for two-dozen competitors became a bit boring and lacked the sparkle I was used to in the US.

_, receiving second place overall, prepares for her routine.

Some of the baristas really impressed me with their technical abilities, customer service and quick hands. Latte art is definitely well-developed here, as every competitor was able to pour basic patterns (while others poured very advanced ones in their tiny cappuccino cups). Signature drinks varied from super-simple (a hot water ginger extraction with a touch of simple syrup plus espresso) to overdone (I believe I counted 12 ingredients for one competitor's sig drink). Others had over-decorated the glasses to the point that there was no way to consume the drink. The general critique I had about the signature drinks is that they were all created for super-sweet toothed people. The flavor of the espresso rarely stood out and was even more rarely complemented by the ingredients. It seemed that most of them were geared toward people who didn't like the taste of coffee. The few who kept it simple and coffee-focused came out on top, and the finals were a breeze to judge.

The winner was Ho Quoc Tuan, of Highlands Coffee. His routine possessed the quiet calm of a craftsperson who takes pride in their work, and has a true love for coffee. Second place was "Ken" Ngan, of Cafe Me in Ho Chi Minh City. Trung Truong, of Tuno Coffee in Ho Chi Minh City, took third place.

The most important takeaway, of course, was meeting so many good coffee people! I'm sure they will begin to show up on this here blog (I know, I'm sooo early-2000s)  in due time.

Some of the judges for the competition with the 2013 Vietnam Barista Champion.

Saigon, Dalat, Saigon

The Dalat Fortress, my abode for the last three months. Rooftop dining rooms made for great sample roasting a cupping areas.
The Dalat Fortress, my abode for the last three months. Rooftop dining rooms made for great sample roasting a cupping areas.

Three months have gone by since my arrival in Dalat, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam. This time has shown me quite a bit of promise for Vietnamese coffee, along with the challenges that producers and processors face. It has really opened my eyes to the realities that must exist in most coffee producing areas, forcing producers to weigh the opportunity costs between quality and quantity. A lack of market access really makes the former a difficult task, while the reward and ease of the latter makes high-yielding, high-input monocropping the more attractive option. It takes a special producer, someone who really loves the craft involved in quality production, to choose the quality route. This is what I've found to be true, that the farmers who absolutely love coffee, those who have a passion for producing the best quality possible are the ones who will lead the charge toward value-improvement and sustainability, which, as I've learned, is the only path if Vietnam is to keep its status as a coffee producing country for more than a couple of decades. The issues were outlined at the Coffee Outlook Conference, which I covered in an earlier post.

View of the Dalat Fortress from the front gate, my home for the last three months.
View of the Dalat Fortress from the front gate, my home for the last three months.

Now my time in Dalat has come to an end, as I have done what I can to make some solid connections and found some really promising producers to visit over the next few months. Now I'm in Ho Chi Minh City, searching for retailers who are interested in a high-quality, locally-produced coffee to showcase in their shops. I'll be looking for folks who want training to up their coffee game, along with exporters who can be a part of the process. I'm making some headway, and meeting some really passionate folks who are interested in the approach I'm promoting, who I'll write about as projects develop.

I'm a little sad to be leaving the mountain paradise I've gotten used to, but am excited to learn another side of the industry I've chosen to study. Saigon can be relentlessly hot and chaotic, as it is a densely populated city of nearly 10 million, with tropical heat and a sea of motorbikes zooming in every direction. With the rainy season setting in, heavy downpours lasting only an hour can put a damper on an entire day if my timing is wrong. I am enjoying the opportunity to go swimming often, and my social life has multiplied exponentially. Pros and cons to every situation, I can't wait to see what the next few months have to bring.

I've gotten used to the comfort of this perfect outdoor perch, where the majority of my reporting has been produced, along with more than a fair share of relaxing and reflection...
I've gotten used to the comfort of this perfect outdoor perch, where the majority of my reporting has been produced, along with more than a fair share of relaxing and reflection...
Saigon, my new home for now. Tons of things to see and learn, I'll explore the cafe culture and see the potential for a locally-based Specialty Coffee scene.
Saigon, my new home for now. Tons of things to see and learn, I'll explore the cafe culture and see the potential for a locally-based Specialty Coffee scene.


After three hours of set-up, roasting and labeling, the samples will rest until the next day's cupping. Between visits to producers and mills, and receiving samples from Indonesia and other Vietnam provinces from Michael Wood (fi-lan-thro-pe), there were about 20 lots to assess. While roasting, many of the coffees showed great potential. Some of the Catimor samples even caught our attention. Roasting took about 10 minutes for each sample, and I really got to know my little portable Lysander, finding the sweet spot after about 3 roasts. The roaster behaved very much like other sample roasters I've used, though we had to use a metal colander for cooling. With the two of us, we were able to develop a work flow that involved Michael weighing and taking moisture readings, stopping to help cool each sample to keep me constantly roasting.

We set up the cupping in one of the rooftop dining rooms at the Dalat Fortress where I had been staying for the last three months.

We set up in a rooftop dining room at my digs for the past three months, a place I had dubbed the "Dalat Fortress." Upon grinding the samples, the room filled with beautiful aromas (and a few not-so-beautiful ones). Made up of mostly Catimor samples that Michael had collected over the past eight months, having the same cultivar really helped us to tease out differences in agricultural practices and processing. The samples ranged from "disqualified due to defects" to 78-86 points.

Son La, in the North, has historically gotten all of the attention of Arabica-seekers. The sample we had was from OLAM (Singaporean processor) and it looked very well-graded. It smelled pretty good, but barely made 80 points. ACOM, a processor with a facility in Lam Dong province, was represented by a "Specialty Arabica" sample that scored 79 points.

Michael's Indonesian samples ranged from funky to delicious, all scoring in the 80-85 point range. One sample, called Brastagi, was among one of the cleanest samples I've tried from the region, with sweet, maple syrup low-end, dried red fruits and citrus with a floral aftertaste. He was very proud of this one. fi-lan-thro-pe has been working with these Indonesian producers for over a year, trying to find market placement among Specialty buyers and roasters.

Next up were some Dalat-area Catimor samples. Here's where the producer/processor passion began to shine. One sample in particular, a coffee from the Dan Kia area near Lang Biang Mountain, was one of the highest-scoring lots on the table, landing at 84.5 points. Clean, bright and heavy, this was the hybrid cultivar's shining example. Michael described the farm as one of the most pristine and well-managed plots he's ever seen in Vietnam, with the producer, a K'ho ethnic minority man, treating the trees like his own children. We really can't wait to get some finer varieties planted on his plot, as we think he'll really treat them with respect and love.

One group of samples came from a special processing experiment Michael and a friend have been playing with, using different concentrations of clay in the water used for washing the mucilage from the wet parchment post-fermentation. With four levels of separation for this coffee from a Lac Duong, Lam Dong, producer, we expected the densest one to score the highest, coming from the assumption that denser coffees were better. It was actually the middle two samples that showed the most promise, both scoring in the 83-84 range, while the softest and densest samples were a disappointing 80 points.

The star of the table, though, was an ungraded Bourbon from Cau Dat (near Dalat), a sample given to us by a friend in Ho Chi Minh City, Hiep Pham Khanh, who has been trading coffee in Vietnam for over 20 years. He had found this coffee, along with a Typica from the same producer, and has been roasting it at his house for the past couple of years. The sample was ungraded, so Michael and I did some hand-sorting to produce a "sorted" and "unsorted" lot. The unsorted lot tasted pretty good, and received a score of 82 (mold taints held it down). The sorted lot was very good, earning an 85 with its mild cherry acidity, heavy body and a sweetness that lingered long after tasting. This sample has been responsible for my enthusiasm about the potential of Vietnamese coffee, and has me looking for Bourbon trees every time I visit a farm.

Honorable mention also goes to a Hiep-sourced coffee from Cau Dat, an ungraded Typica that scored 83 points during this session. With a crisp citrus acidity, medium milk chocolate body and floral aftertaste, this coffee has shown me that there is more than just one note to the Vietnamese Arabica song. It really has me wondering how other cultivars will fare in this reasonable climate, with good management and processing.

I've since roasted both the Typica and Bourbon a few times and have really been enjoying it both iced and hot, brewed with Chemex filters in a Hario V60. These are a great start for what I think will be many years of great finds and projects, highlighting the reason I came here in the first place and giving me some solid footing for that start. I'm stoked for the next harvest, which begins in the Fall.

Feral Typica seedlings on a Dalat plot just waiting for a loving home.

Cau Dat Farm Visit

Cau Dat from Mr Khanh's plot The ride into Cau Dat took me to a side of Dalat I had yet to see, full of hills and greenhouses, lakes and streams, passing through at least half a dozen hamlets on the way. I was excited to see the area, as the best lots of Typica and Bourbon (and even Catimor for that matter) that I tasted were from Cau Dat. At over 1600m asl with a mild, dry climate it is easy to see why. Not many regions in Vietnam consistently reach this elevation, making this small mountain hamlet ideal for quality Arabica cultivation. Before the government initiatives for high-yield varieties, Cau Dat had quite a bit of Bourbon, Mocha and Typica production, making a name for itself among regional aficionados. Some producers have held onto a few of these trees, rightfully believing they made their blends taste better.

This trip had a few objectives: 1. Establish contact 2. Assess quality and potential 3. Make recommendations and plans for further action. Joining me were Ross Worley and Thao Thach Tran, of Children's Library International, who were in the region to assess the need for one of their library projects. Michael Wood, founder and agronomist for fi-lan-thro-pe, was also in-tow. Once there, we made contact with Mr Khanh, a local producer who is keen on always learning more about coffee and farming techniques.

Mr Khanh met us at the local market and led us to his house, which was tucked into a quiet street surrounded by coffee plots. Upon entering his house, Khanh handed us a Fair Trade info pamphlet he had been studying with a few of his neighbors, saying that he planned on setting this up for himself and a small group of peers. He said that they are interested in the value-added approach, pursuing quality improvements and certifications to help make their crop worth the additional effort.

After a winding, narrow-path motorbike ride, we arrived at his plot, located on the ridge across the valley from his backyard. There is an irrigation pond on-site with a system of hoses networked across the farm. About a year ago, he cleared a nice, nearly flat area for new plantings of Catimor.

Some of the 2-year old trees were already producing lots of flowers, and the jasmine aroma was everywhere. Between the rows of coffee, potatoes were planted to produce a small cash crop while the trees reached production capacity (with the added benefit of breaking up the soil for microbial and moisture penetration).

A young Catimor tree full of blooms

Right away, though, Michael noticed some issues with the young plants. Besides trees being planted too closely together, the soil is thick with clay and lacked organic matter. He also pointed out curled and sad-looking leaves, which he said was a Calcium deficiency. The plants also showed signs of phosphorus over-use, which can burn the roots, inhibiting nutrient uptake, weakening the overall plant structure.

Khanh's new plot

We went down into the main plot, which was full of 7-10 year-old trees planted very closely together. This is where we noticed some Typica and Bourbon trees, and Khanh could see our interest. A few trees still had ripening cherries, so we began to harvest them, looking for signs of berry borer and other pesky critters. Overall, the trees seemed pretty pest-free, and Michael recommended a few things they could do to combat what was there. We only noticed a few leaves affected, but there were signs of coffee leaf miner presence. This isn't usually a big deal as long as it doesn't get out of hand, and that they're pretty easy to find and squish in the leaves.

Telltale sign of Coffee Leaf Miner

In the farmhouse, there was a pulper and some screens, which gave us a picture into the processing practice - semi-washed (honey), pulped and put on screens in the sun for drying. There isn't enough fresh water on the farm to do washed processing, so some logistical maneuvering will be needed if he wishes to pursue this avenue (he's definitely interested).

We also noticed bags of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The conversation began to get a little frank, and Michael began to lay out a plan for conversion to organic practices. He broached the subject by asking an older gentleman, Khanh's neighbor, if he remembered when Vietnam used traditional agriculture practices; which were organic by default, mainly because of limited access to outside inputs. The man nodded his head and smiled, saying things were rather antiquated back then. Khanh said he was spending a few thousand dollars per year on chemical inputs alone, so he was definitely interested in hearing more about the approach. Among bits about a cohesive organic composting program, Michael talked about beneficial fungi and microorganisms, and how just three people can provide enough urea to supply one hectare of land. Using chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides were killing the land's ability replenish itself and provide nutrition to the crop. Excessive weeding, he says, is unnecessary because weeds can pull nutrients from the soil that coffee roots can't. Some weeds, when well-managed, can also preserve moisture by reducing evapotranspiration, providing rich organic matter when tilled under. Here's another chance to promote perennial peanut as ground cover and for the abatement of less-desirable weed growth.

Chewing on these conversations, we realized that this was going to be a community effort, as the infrastructure necessary to convert to a composting program requires a little capital (which Khanh's group is willing to invest in once we divulge a plan). We'll definitely have to visit a few more times to hash out a plan before harvest begins.

We headed back toward Khanh's house, to the nursery where he's propagating Catimor seedlings. Pretty well-maintained, the nursery is lush and green with seedlings, and ideas began to develop about trying to bring back more Bourbon, Typica and Mocha seed stock from the main plot.

Michael Wood, of fi-lan-thro-pe, checks out the nursery.

Our next trip will be in a couple of weeks, when we'll begin to label the better cultivars and prepare for lot separation, along with further discussion of a plan for conversion to an organic composting program. This will limit the amount of chemical inputs, provide rich fertilizer and save this small group of growers thousands of dollars per harvest, all while promoting healthier soil and trees. As they gear up for Fair Trade certification, Khanh's group has the potential to make a real difference in their community, and we're glad to be useful for this effort in any way we can.

Golden Bell Facility and Farm

The facility viewed from a corner of the farm.
The facility viewed from a corner of the farm.

After the Coffee Festival and Conference, the Trung Nguyen Company gave Kelly and me a private car and driver to get back to Đà Lạt (what luxury!). They really know how to treat guests... Instead of heading straight home, though, we took a detour to Golden Bell S Coffee's farm and processing facility and farm in Mê Linh, near Lâm Hà, in Lâm Đồng province, where we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening touring the grounds of the cleanest, most well-organized farm and facility I've seen in this country (in the world, really, but I haven't been everywhere...).

Up a dirt road near a small town, the facility was visible from more than a couple of kilometers away. It was majestic, sitting like a modern castle atop the highest mountain ridge in the area, and I was eager to get there much faster than we could go. On the way, we caught glimpses of neighboring farms, with cracked clay dirt, weeded into desert conditions with trees so close together the branches were tangled. I couldn't imagine trying to harvest in those coffee thickets. As soon as we arrived at the grounds, though, it was a different world - healthy, well-managed trees and soil, plenty of space and fresh air.

Located on about 14 hectares, the farm is owned by a group of local Buddhist Monks who have welcomed the Taiwanese group to build a facility and consult them on everything from farm management to retailing their product (the only condition being that the farm maintain strict vegetarian practices, down to the food consumed on the farm. Workers must leave the grounds when they wish to consume meat). The main plot is composed of 7-year old Robusta and Catimor trees and serves as the first stage of a project towards building a Specialty-grade system. The group wishes to show the monks that their system will work on their current product before asking them to remove the lower-value trees to make room for better varieties (a fair, long-term approach). Across the valley, the monks own a 6 hectare plot where the Golden Bell group are propagating and planting better, non-Catimor Arabica varieties. This Fall-Winter harvest will be this plot's first production year.

The trees were pruned and spaced well, with wells dug around the base of each one to prevent erosion and water loss. Shade trees have been planted among the coffee, along with perennial peanut as ground cover. Full transparency is another condition placed on the group by the monks, as they wish to share everything they're practicing with neighboring farms. The neighbors thought the GB group were crazy the first month they were there, pruning and stumping trees, believing they were going to decrease the yield too much! Then, during the last harvest, the neighbors asked how GB got such huge, healthy cherry development. Now, they have the neighbors' attention and are being watched every day with curious eyes.

Some of the trees were in bloom and the air was unbelievably fragrant, making our stroll back to the facility a dream-like journey through a jasmine paradise.

We were asked to remove our shoes and offered slippers upon entering the processing facility. It was so clean it looked as if they were just setting up when, in fact, they were just finishing up the previous harvest.

The cleanest, most well-organized processing facility I've ever seen!
The cleanest, most well-organized processing facility I've ever seen!

The entire facility, including the equipment, is the brainchild of Kuo-Kuang Cheng, a Taiwanese engineer, inventor and coffee enthusiast. He's designed all of the equipment to handle small amounts of production (as little as a couple of kilograms at a time), to encourage experimentation at every step, with a goal to making all of the equipment affordable to small estates and cooperatives around Asian coffee regions. This isn't just a processor, but a learning center, and they welcome guests year-round. The staff is stoked to show visitors anything they want to see, highlighting the facility and farm's full-transparency approach to operation and information.

Mini cherry separation tank and pulper.
Mini cherry separation tank and pulper.

The cherry separation machine utilizes both floating and size sorting techniques, beginning separation at the cherry stage. Each product from this part of the process is pulped separately and fermented with pectinase in small stainless steel bins.

Sonic demucilager.
Sonic demucilager.

Following the fermentation stage, the coffee is fed into a sonic washing and demucilaging machine, which cuts down on water usage during washing.

Drying Machine
Drying Machine

After the remaining fruit pulp is removed, the coffee is placed onto racks and mechanically dried on low heat to 30% moisture content.

Vented drying racks for parchment coffee.
Vented drying racks for parchment coffee.

Drying is finished to 12% moisture content on vented racks, which are loaded and brought to the marble rooftop drying patio. These racks are rotated and agitated every hour or so, until drying is complete.

Yue-Wen and Kuo-Kuang with the Dry Hulling Machine and modified Polisher.
Yue-Wen and Kuo-Kuang with the Dry Hulling Machine and modified Polisher.

One problem that Yue-Wen and Kuo-Kuang has identified is combination dry huller-polishing machines, which tend to heat the green coffee as it is peeled and polished (usually quenched with water, which leads to curling and uneven moisture content between seeds). Their solution was to polish just after peeling in smaller amounts, which tempers the heat produced in the process. A modified McKinnon polisher was the only piece of outsourced equipment in the processing facility.

Size Sorting Machine
Size Sorting Machine

After polishing, the green coffee is sent to the density sorter, which separates the product into three screen sizes - 18, 16, 14 and below. The density sorter is Kuo-Kuang's design, with slats across the layers to help each bean stand up on end to properly separate. There are wooden balls on the lower levels to keep the coffee moving along.

Density Sorter
Density Sorter

Learning from his experience in the cotton processing industry, Kuo-Kuang combined a vibration table and blower to complete the density sorting process to 80%+ accuracy.

Green Coffee Storage Racks allow for airflow between bags and humidity control.
Green Coffee Storage Racks allow for airflow between bags and humidity control.

The second floor of the facility contained a mezzanine with hand-sorting tables, micro-batch roasting and processing areas, along with a glass-walled conference room. On the third floor, green coffee in burlap was placed onto racks (rather than pallets) to increase airflow between layers and to mitigate humidity buildup. The cupping and training lab is also located on this floor.

The cupping and training center was the largest, cleanest and most decked out lab I've seen.
The cupping and training center was the largest, cleanest and most decked out lab I've seen.

Larger than most family-sized apartments in Vietnam, the lab had everything an aspiring coffee nerd could need to test and assess the product, conduct training sessions, cup coffee and hold public events. Yue-Wen graciously offered this space to me for my experimenting and assessment needs. This was the highlight of my day. The space had a Lysander sample roaster, and a small fluid-bed roaster, an espresso grinder and Grimac Diadema Delux 2-Group machine (E-61 groupheads and good steaming capability), on which I of course made a few lattes for the staff, who were hungry for further espresso training. In return for this generous access, I plan to offer training to their baristas here in the near future. Yue-Wen was also kind enough to invite me to conduct processing and roasting experiments here later during the next harvest, which I will definitely take him up on!

Under construction, the waste water recycling system and tree planters for shade and wind-break.
Under construction, the waste water recycling system and tree planters for shade and wind-break.

Still under construction, the waste water recycling system combines anaerobic and aerobic techniques for use in their irrigation systems. There were about two-dozen planters in which trees will be placed to act as a wind-break and shade system. Tough grasses were planted along the edges to prevent soil erosion.

The roof had a huge marble drying patio and a breath-taking view.
The roof had a huge marble drying patio and a breath-taking view.

The rooftop patio is constructed of marble tile (to reduce odor absorption) and has a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and valleys. This wasn't my only visit to the facility, and I have cultivated relationships with the staff and group directors since the first trip (including the monks, who happen to share my dietary outlook). I look forward to being a regular visitor and collaborator in the years to come!

View of the plot from the facility.
View of the plot from the facility.

Buon Ma Thuot Coffee Festival, Coffee Outlook Conference

Overall, hope for the future. Proof that sharing is the only way forward.

(Warning - long post)

I approached the 2013 Coffee Outlook Conference with equal parts skepticism, curiosity and hope for Vietnam's coffee future. The country faces many issues ranging from overproduction, poor processing, soil depletion, environmental degradation, drought and climate change, aging coffee trees (many planted in the 1990s), and high loan interest rates. Economic sustainability seemed to be the largest concern, as with most producing countries, coffee farmers are struggling to break even. Some have abandoned coffee in search of more lucrative crops (various other fruits and vegetables are easier to grow, harvest, process and bring to market. Coffee is a labor of love).  Vietnam's government, however is beginning to take heed and is getting involved in many coffee initiatives to better support producers. This isn't pure altruism, as the country has a lot to gain from its status as one of the top coffee producers. There are many steps that coffee takes on its way to the port, and that means tax and fee revenue for government institutions. When the coffee crop suffers, so does this revenue stream.

The conference was divided into four sessions: Overview and Outlook for Coffee Sector, Innovation and Institutional Reform for Commodity Sector, Sustainable Coffee Production, and Processing to Add Value.

The Overview and Outlook segment pointed to the fact that Vietnam's level of production may have peaked last year, due to  the aforementioned issues. Though this year's harvest is looking to be a big one, interested parties were forced to acknowledge that aging trees and fewer returns from the stressed-out soil are inevitable. More than one speaker said that measures must be taken to promote sustainability and add value to the country's output in order for growers to have viable income to continue.

Among the speakers was Carl Carvone of TechnoServe Ethiopia. His presentation was focused on East Africa's relatively low yield (compared to the rest of the coffee-producing world), laying out opportunities to increase the yield and the consequences of inaction. East Africa has 1.5 million hectares, while only producing 600,000 tons. This is an average of just over 400 kg of green coffee per hectare, compared to the world average of 1,250 kg/ha. He pointed to the age of the trees, with most nearly 30 years old and many more being well over 50. Most of Ethiopia's semi-forested and forested trees are over 80 years old, with many over 100! "Most farmers are not actively managing their coffee - they just harvest it."

Carvone's presentation presented some good arguments in favor of helping farmers to manage their coffee plants, namely by employing Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). The major challenge in this regard is the initial investment. Growers won't see a return on their investment for three years, he posits, as equipment investment would be about $28 (pruning shears, hacksaw, hoe), while year two would result in a yield-based loss of $78, and $40-60 for replanting and inputs for the first three years would be required. According to Carvone, the payback timeline wouldn't be realized for 7 years,  "longer than many farmers are willing to wait."

"Good returns are possible for financiers who are willing to take a long-term view," he says, leading to a 25% return in 10 years, a very attractive investment. This model isn't without difficulty, either, as traders couldn't be sure that all of the volume increases will make it through their channels (side-selling, etc.). Bankers would struggle to work in remote areas and understand coffee specifics, while the Ethiopian government has a mixed record for transparency and financial management. A multilateral approach is feasible, but would require buy-in at the top levels.

A solution he proposes is to pay the farmers to invest and replant, and recoup costs through a sales levy and a scheme wonderfully laid out in detail during this part of his presentation, which I won't rehash here (feel free to ask, and I'll be happy to share the numbers).

The last part of the presentation was titled "Consequences of Inaction," in which farmers, government and coffee roasters would feel the loss in big ways. For farmers, coffee isn't a competitive source of income and they would be better off switching to other farming and non-farming activities. The government would feel the pinch through the loss of foreign revenues, the loss of jobs and the impact on the local economy. Coffee Roasters would have a hard time finding 10 million bags of East African Coffee, as most other regions are experiencing declining yields as well, while larger producers (such as Vietnam) just aren't producing the fine Arabicas to replace this huge void in the Specialty market. "Co-investment is the only option," he says, with required cooperation between Farmers, Governments, Roasters and Financial Players. Roasters can help by expressing clear purchase needs and committing, combined with co-investment (donors, public-private partnerships, etc).

Other speakers went on to highlight Vietnam's current challenges while proposing solutions toward sustainability (economic more than environmental). The presentations were very numbers-heavy, information available via some Google searching if one is so inclined.

The second segment, "Innovation and Institutional Reform for Commodity Sector," included solutions for increasing domestic coffee consumption and institutional support for Farmer's Unions and distribution of resources on sustainable production practices. There was discussion of the need for a Coffee University, such as the one in Italy, where one can attend and gain a much broader perspective and deeper understanding in many areas of the coffee production chain.

As the day went on, the conference began to run behind schedule, causing the moderators to combine segments three and four, which worked well together anyway: Sustainable Coffee Production and Processing to Add Value.

The need to improve processing at every level was acknowledged by every presenter, and greater participation in this step by growers was encouraged. Of course, infrastructural investments by government agencies were deemed crucially important.

Speakers addressing the issue of Sustainability raised some good points, particularly in the realms of certifications. Representatives from the 4C Association and UTZ were present to speak about the benefits of certifying, especially concerning access to markets. A representative from a farmer's association challenged the certification model, saying it is unfair to put the cost of certifying on the grower, who sees the least profit along the production chain. His concerns really shook some of the panel into silence until Wim Spieringhs, of UTZ, highlighted the fact that certified coffee sees markets that others don't. Gaining access to these value-added markets was a sure way to ensure visibility and a higher price for a grower's coffee. These certification logos help a product to stand out on the shelf, and are worthwhile investments in the short and long term, according to Spieringhs.

Although this answer satisfied most of the attendees and panel, the farmers didn't seem satisfied with that offering. It's not difficult to see why having growers take on the cost can be a bit unfair, although many certification agencies charge some fee to every transaction along the chain. Organic Certification, for example, costs both the grower and the roaster, who must undergo regular, stringent inspections along with relevant fees (not sure about brokers and importers, and I imagine processors must undergo inspection and fees to some degree). Maybe this is a topic for another day, but wouldn't a non-profit certification agency make sense, funding itself through development aid programs, grants, etc. - rather than making money off of the very people they're designed to help? Some agencies may already operate this way - so the question "Why must YOU be a cost to the grower?" should be directed at them specifically. (I'll be doing some research about certification agencies, institutional and cost structure - for RFA, Organic, Fair Trade, UTZ, 4C, et al. Some info available through the SCAA). Perhaps agencies should work together with governmental departments of agriculture to find a solution?

The most exciting presentation was entitled "Sustainable Coffee Production in the Context of Climate Change in Vietnam," by Dr. David D'haeze of EDE Consulting (Dak Lak office).

Dr David D'haeze, of EDE Consulting. Sustainability superstar.

The first section, "Challenge - Coffee Supply Endangered," begins with a graph that shows the continued, upward trajectory of Demand along the plateauing Supply. He reminded the attendees that the demand will only increase more dramatically as the global population grows, while climate change combined with a lack of appropriate support services will make coffee production more and more difficult.

D'haeze's second point, "Climate Change Predictions in Vietnam and the Central Highlands," outlines current meteorological predictions for the coffee producing regions throughout the country. By 2060, temperature increases of 0.8 - 2.7 degrees Celsius are expected, and by 2090 the country should expect 1.4 - 4.2 degrees C increases. During the rainy season, a 33% increase of rainfall is expected by 2090, with +2-14% more extreme rainfall events. A decrease in dry season rainfall is predicted to be at around 62%. River flows are expected to increase in the North while decreasing in the South.

For the Central Highlands, specifically, days above 25 degrees Celsius are currently around 80 per year. This is predicted to be at around 94 by 2020, 134 in 2050 and 230 in the year 2100. Evapotranspiration will also increase, +8.5% between 2040 and 2059; +14.47% between 2080 and 2099. Groundwater levels will begin to decrease by 2020, "due to overexploitation and the decrease in groundwater recharge.

He presented three slides containing maps of Central Highlands Land Suitability Predictions, which displayed regions suitable for coffee production. The changes between the three were rather dramatic, particularly between 2020 and 2050, with areas shrinking by half. The altitude migration (currently 300m+ asl to 600m+ asl by 2050) of coffee farms will lead to land scarcity for producers looking to continue growing coffee.

The next slide, entitled "Vulnerability of Coffee Production in General and in Vietnam," was a flow chart showing the effect of increasing Temperatures and Wind, and the changes in Drought and Rain. These variables will affect plant metabolism, the instance of pests and diseases, and soil health, which will in turn affect price, yield and production costs. The top of the chart was simply labeled "Income." If a grower can't see coffee as a viable crop, most will simply stop producing coffee and switch to other crops or industries. This fact was not highlighted in the earlier slide which showed the increase in demand for coffee along side the plateauing of supply. The other side of the plateau, sadly, will be a decrease.

He went on to give specifics concerning the interplay of these variables and the coffee plant. Rising temperatures and higher maximum temperatures will lead to Flower Abortion (leading to fewer fruits) and a higher evapotranspiration rate (increasing the demand for irrigation). Irregular and heavy, intermittent rains will lead to poor flowerings and fruit set, increased erosion and difficulty in drying coffee post-harvest, which will lead to lower quality.

This is where Dr. D'haeze began to show his stuff. "Recommended Adaptation Tools," his next slide, recommended short, mid and long-term adaptations. "No regret measures" for the short-term included the use of ground cover (with a picture of Professor Paul Olivier's favorite, Perennial Peanut) and more efficient irrigation techniques (he mentioned Israel's use of drip irrigation, among others).

For the mid-term, he recommended that the industry begin to experiment with Centralized Drying, Drip Irrigation, the application of Hydro-polymers (which, mixed with the soil, would retain water more effectively - although he warned everyone not to just start using it, as studies haven't been completed yet, and it may have adverse effects), along with Crop Diversification and Shade Trees.

In the long-term, he suggested that the industry interests begin to cooperate more effectively to help collect more data on climate, groundwater levels and pests - cicadas in particular, which have ravaged some of the forests and are beginning to attack coffee trees (I immediately thought about cicada killers, a wasp-like insect that thrived in the Texas Gulf Coast where I grew up. They seemed to keep cicadas in check without terrorizing humans or other animal populations).

"Further Information" included a collaborative website called "The Coffee & Climate Toolbox, an extensive resource for coffee growers and other vested interests. Always a work in progress, he asked everyone to visit the site, offer data and give feedback.


In the context of climate change, the coffee growing world comes together in sharing similar concerns.

My synthesis and ideas are really inconsequential, as I'm in the research phase right now. But I do think the answers lie somewhere between working to improve the quality of Robusta for the commercial market and going full-fledged specialty with the Arabica production, using the value-added approach to make its production worthwhile. Being better-suited for much higher altitudes, it's my assumption that there shouldn't be extreme competition for land between the two varieties, as Robusta can grow at much lower climates, tolerating more heat than the delicate Arabica family.

More to come! If you really want to keep reading, visit the Coffee and Climate Toolbox and engage the global coffee community. As I've said before, no single person or entity can do the good work that coffee requires. It takes many people and organizations (pretty much all of us) striving together to make this work. Collaborate!