Being the second largest coffee producer in the world, behind only Brazil, you can count on Vietnam to bring a variety of coffee beans to the scene around the world. While the Robusta beans account for 96% of coffee production in Vietnam, there are also some other notable types of coffee beans grown in Vietnam including the Arabica, Peaberry and the Weasel coffee. Let’s take a look at the different types of coffee beans produced in Vietnam, their characteristics and why you should venture out to try them all.
Robusta Coffee Beans
While 20% of the world’s coffee are grown in Vietnam, the vast majority of this contribution is from the Robusta beans. In fact, around 96% of coffee production in Vietnam is of the Robusta variety. This makes Vietnam the leader in producing and exporting Robusta around the world, contributing to 40% of worldwide Robusta bean production.
This high proportion of Robusta is not simply a coincidence. Coffee was first introduced to Vietnam by the French colonists around the 1850s. Initially Arabica type coffee was introduced, however it was a tricky crop to grow requiring very specific environmental conditions and intensive care. As a result of these challenges coffee farming started off small in Vietnam. Then in around the early 1900s the Robusta coffee variety was introduced in Vietnam, and this quickly took off due to its down-to-earth characteristics.
Compared with Arabica, the Robusta plant doesn’t require such high altitude, is less labour intensive and is also less susceptible to diseases. Additionally, since the Robusta plants can thrive on lowlands at much lower altitudes (around 200-700m) and can tolerate higher temperatures of up to 29°c, they can be much more widely grown across Vietnam.
While typically grown in more lowland areas, the altitude at which the Robusta plant is grown can significantly affect its flavour. Growing the plants at a slightly higher elevation allows the beans to develop more refined and complex tasting notes. Typically, Robusta plants grown at altitudes of 1000m up to 1500m produces higher quality Grade 1 beans. On the other hand, Robusta beans grown at altitudes around 500m are often lower grade and commonly used for creating instant coffee.
Comparing bean to bean, the Robusta plant produces a smaller, rounder bean than the Arabica plant. Interestingly Robusta beans are also packed with nearly double the caffeine content of Arabica beans. Robusta coffee has a darker and more intense flavour, in part, due to this higher caffeine content. Tasting notes are often characterized as having flavours of dark chocolate and pecan nuts. The dominance of the Robusta beans also explains the darker and stronger flavours people often associate with Vietnamese coffee.
Vietnamese people love these Robusta beans not just because of their flavour, but also because of the economic transformation this coffee plant has brought about following the Vietnam war. With its relative ease to grow, Robusta coffee quickly became the major source of income, becoming the second biggest agricultural export product after rice for Vietnam; this has transformed the lives of many Vietnamese people, giving them access to a the rapidly growing international coffee market.
Arabica Coffee Beans
Despite predominantly producing Robusta beans, Vietnam also produces a significant quantity of Arabica beans. Arabica plants grow best at high altitude where the cooler air temperatures and fertile volcanic soils give a slower growing coffee bean that is rich in flavour. Due to these unique growing requirements only 3% of the coffee beans grown in Vietnam are Arabica, making it a truly unique and artisan coffee experience. In the recent years there has been more investment by the government and increased interest from alternative coffee growers in Vietnam to produce more Arabica beans. This is driven by the preference of foreign buyers, particularly western countries who consume primarily Arabica. We therefore expect Arabica bean production in Vietnam to continue to grow rapidly over the next few years.
There are only relatively few places on earth where Arabica can really thrive. The highest altitude Arabica beans in the world are grown at around 1,500m with these beans known for having floral notes with hints of stone fruit, high acidity and spiciness. In Vietnam, Arabica is generally grown at a lower elevation of around 1,200m. This gives Vietnamese Arabica a more chocolatey and nuttier flavours with a mild, medium-bodied profile.
Domestically in Vietnam, the Arabica beans are typically mixed with Robusta beans to create balance between the rich, intense flavour of the Robusta and the nutty notes of the Arabica. Vi Asia’s Traditional Roast Blend is one example of blending these two bean profiles to create a typical cup of Vietnamese coffee.
Vietnamese Arabica has a chocolatey and nutty flavours with a mild, medium-bodied profile.
Peaberry Coffee Beans
In Vietnam, Peaberry coffee beans (or you might find it sold in Vietnamese supermarkets as Culi – its Vietnamese name) are regularly treated as a different type of coffee beans, even though as per the international standards this is not the case. Peaberry is not a variety as such but a different way in which the coffee bean itself develops on the plant. It is a widely held belief amongst the Vietnamese coffee farmers that Peaberry has a different taste profile to Arabica or Robusta coffee beans. Why is this the case?
While a regular coffee cherry has two coffee beans with their flat faces facing each other, a peaberry is a coffee cherry where only one of the two coffee seeds get fertilized, resulting in one coffee bean developing inside the cherry with an oval shape. As there is only one coffee bean being nurtured by the coffee cherry as opposed to two, it is believed this peaberry bean gets more nutrients and thus has more opportunity to develop a more intense and superior flavour profile. Additionally, the oval shape of the Peaberry coffee bean gives it a quirky, unique characteristics and brings a lot of enjoyment to coffee lovers!
Peaberry cherries can be found in any coffee bean variety (Robusta or Arabica) and are estimated to consist of 5% of a harvest. In Vietnam, as Robusta makes up of 94% of the coffee production, it is understandable that almost all of Vietnamese Peaberries come from the Robusta variety, hence inheriting many of the Robusta characteristics. With double the caffeine content of a typical Arabica, Vietnamese Peaberry has an intense and complex flavour with a light body and sweet aromatic notes of caramel and pecan nut.
It’s undeniable that Vietnamese coffee growers love the strong-tasting profile of the Robusta beans, so they cherish the enhanced flavour of the Peaberry even more!
Weasel Coffee (or Civet coffee)
If you have travelled to Vietnam, you might have heard of one type of coffee called Weasel coffee, which is a very similar concept to the Civet coffee (kopi luwak). A weasel or civet coffee is created by feeding coffee cherries to weasels or civets and the beans are subsequently pooped out by these animals as they cannot digest the beans. The beans are then collected from the poop and harvested. The theory behind this stems from to the traditional belief that weasels or civets can sense which coffee cherries are the ripest, most delicious and with no diseases, so the cherries eaten by these animals and their beans are of higher quality. In reality, there’s no substantial grounds to claim coffee beans picked by animals can be superior to coffee beans picked by seasoned coffee farmers.
This method is controversial not just because of the method by which the coffee beans are harvested (through collecting the beans from the animal’s poop), nowadays these coffee beans are typically farmed with the weasels or civets kept inside the coffee farms to increase yields, raising further ethical concerns about animal welfare. Due to these ethical and sustainability concerns, unfortunately you will not find weasel coffee in our Vi Asia store.
Since its introduction in Vietnam’s colonial past, coffee has become one of Vietnam’s most cherished national treasures as a result of its historical beginning, its contributions to the economy and transformation of many Vietnamese people lives. The rich taste of coffee has now become significant part of Vietnamese culture and society. Coffee in Vietnam is not just another crop, it’s a way of life. It’s a part the culture.
You can go on a journey to taste all different coffee beans from Vietnam with Vi Asia’s Vietnamese Coffee Taster Box containing 4 types of coffee; Robusta, Arabica, Peaberry and the Traditional Roast Blend. Try them individually to appreciate their own distinctive tastes, or, mix and match to create your own blend! Adventure and experience are the way to go when it comes to Vietnamese coffee!