Monica Majors travels to K’Ho Coffee in Dalat to learn how the area’s grinding out some of the best beans in Vietnam. Photos by Vinh Dao.
It can be surprisingly difficult to find a good cup of coffee in the second biggest exporting country of coffee beans in the world. In Dalat, it’s possible to gain an understanding of what goes into a good cup, and it begins with family.
As soon as you leave Dalat city centre, the dramatic, hilly scenery becomes even greener, with plots of artichokes, cabbage, cauliflower, strawberries and coffee stretching on for miles. What makes the soil here unique from that of other production-heavy parts of Vietnam is the altitude, temperature and rainfall. And in the case of coffee, it’s one of only three regions that grow Arabica. Lam Dong province yields the most, covering 16,000 hectares; Quang Tri (North Central Vietnam) has about 5,000 hectares; Dien Bien and Son La in the northern mountainous area currently has about 14,000 hectares, though plans are imminent to double that space. The rest of the country’s 661,500 plus hectares of coffee plantations grow Robusta. Aside from flavour, there is a vast difference in the necessary climates to grow either variety, but in terms of mass-production, Robusta trees produce more than their counterpart, thereby raising the growing cost of Arabica.
Driving west out of the city, I was told to visit a minority village for a good cup of brew. French colonial houses gave way to brightly coloured duplexes that lined the way. The pavements turned to iron-rich dirt, dust dancing around the car, as I arrived at Bonneur ‘C Village. This is one village of the indigenous Koho; a minority population of approximately 183,000 with its own language and Mon-Khmer roots. Here I met the fourth and fifth generations of the cooperative family who organically grow, harvest, roast and sell K’Ho Coffee.
Rolan Co Lieng, 29, and Joshua Guikema, 33, manage the family business out of their humble home built on stilts into the hillside of the Liang Biang plateau. Their vista overlooks much of the 50 hectares that make up the cooperative of 50 houses. As I passed through the showroom, we crossed part of the plantation, waving at the chicken guarding her compost pile. Persimmon and avocado trees, which are used for companion planting to provide shade to the coffee trees, guarded the freshly flowering Arabica.
Inside their home, an earthy aroma of timber and coffee filled the air. Guikema was brewing while Co Lieng and I sat around the table where she presented examples of the boldly-coloured handicrafts the villagers also produce. Guikema married into the matriarchal society nearly five years ago. It was around that time that the business really evolved – partly as a result of the family’s persistence at keeping the product authentic, and partly due to the expanding market for specialist coffee. Traditionally, the farmers would sell the raw seeds (as they are properly called, not ‘beans’), to a bulk supplier who would then blend them with those from all over the region and beyond. Co Lieng went on to describe the meticulous, almost year-long process the families undertake collectively to bring coffee from flower to filter. As she did so their two-year-old son and possibly fifth generation farmer, affectionately called ‘Lee Boy’, bounced between his rocking horse and his daddy’s lap.
Older is Better
When the French colonised Dalat they brought with them Arabica seeds from Africa. In the 1940s Co Lieng’s grandfather, Brai Co Lieng, snagged some of these seeds and sewed them in the jungle. Most of these old African trees still produce today, and are one of the main factors that differentiate K’Ho Coffee from the country’s mass produced varieties and other specialty blends. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) and some of Vietnam’s provincial authorities have major plans to replace these older trees throughout the country, since young coffee trees can yield at least double the amount of their older counterparts. They will be replaced with Indonesian seeds that were first introduced to Vietnam in the 1990s.
The family grow the trees organically, being fertilised throughout the eight month wet season with compost, before harvesting (by hand) takes place in October or November. The Arabica trees cultivated byv Co Lieng and the cooperative produce 100 percent red cherry fruit. This equates to more natural sugar and a longer time for overall processing. Over 20 days the marble-sized fruits dry under the sun, displaying a melange of colours that mimic the vibrancy of the Koho’s weavings. When the fruit is too hard to dent, it’s ready to cure for a few months before the crucial point of the process begins: roasting.
A Good Cup o’ Joe
Each family has a unique method of medium roasting, but all employ a clean process. A November 2015 report by the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service confirmed that there are still small factions of illegitimate ‘dirty coffee’ being produced. Made with other ingredients such as corn or soy beans and roasted with chemicals or butter, the components have been known to turn into carcinogens during the process. While much of this practice has subsided, it can still be found in some ‘specialist’ coffee stalls or street kiosks. The best way to avoid this is to visit trustworthy cafes who procure their beans from transparent producers such as K’Ho – or by buying directly from the farmer.
Guikema and Co Lieng understand it’s important to educate consumers about clean coffee practices. They also offered up the advice that if you are genuinely concerned with the origin and quality of your coffee, to look at the transparency in the different stages of the process or even head out to a farm and join the harvest if possible.
As I sipped on their brew (prepared through a Hario filter) I realised that I have not yet had a cup of Vietnamese coffee that tasted so… right. Its aroma balanced perfectly with the calm taste of a medium roast. There is no need for sugar, milk, or butter, as connoisseurs will quickly bark at you. K’Ho Coffee is soon to be brewed in Saigon, but for now you can pick it up at any of Saigon Outcast’s farmer’s markets. Alternatively, head to LivinCollective or Alpaca in Nha Trang. So when looking around for that right cup, look for organic and family-grown; it’s good on the nose, the palate, the body’s chemistry, the land, small farmers, minority villages and cooperative societies, and the overall economy of Vietnam.