Coffee, tea and We

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Fair trade beverages in Vietnam come with several feel good factors

A friend bought a packet of Fairtrade Vietnamese coffee at the Betterday retail outlet

in Xuan Dieu Street, Hanoi. She commented that it was excellent coffee but she had reservations about the fair trade part. So I decided to check out its credentials.

The result was a bonafide A+ report card.

Dominic Smith, advisor to the MDI Joint Stock Company, which owns the Betterday brand and shop, explained that to be allowed to use the distinctive Fairtrade logo the producers, processors and manufacturers of products had to endure a rigorous, on-site certification inspection by a representative of the Fairtrade Labeling Organization based in Germany.

Successful certification means that the products have been produced and processed according to the highest international standards of food safety and health (they must meet European agricultural standards for food safety and chemical use) as well as high social, labor and environmental standards. Importantly, this includes a guaranteed minimum price for farmers and social premiums to improve the lives of farmer groups.

The growers and their methods must be approved and their group has to pay 1,400 euros (US$2,100) for certification while the processor, packer and wholesaler is billed 2,800 euros. These costs are significant for a small business and the effort involved - including providing technical assistance to farmers - is significant. Thus anyone considering a Fairtrade venture has to be committed.

Dominic is an Australian and he and his Vietnamese wife Nguyen Tuyet Minh, the company director, have worked in various capacities in sustainable development and NGOs in Vietnam. The motto of their company is development through pro-poor business.

Their coffee beans are high quality Arabica sourced from an ethnic Thai farmer group north of Son La Town and from ACEP, a local NGO working in central, mountainous Quang Tri Province where unexploded Vietnam war ordinances are a menace to agriculture. ACEP is assisting a cooperative of the Van Kieu people, one of the smallest ethnic groups in Vietnam, to become economically viable.

Most people associate the Vietnamese coffee industry with the Central Highlands, and Buon Ma Thuot in particular, where Robusta coffee beans hold sway. When confronted with coffee from areas way off the usual coffee map they tend to be skeptical, but once they smell and taste Betterday's Arabica, they are won over. A lot of foreigners have a prejudice against Vietnamese coffee because of its fatty and/or chocolaty taste. Dominic explains that this is mainly due to the use of Robusta beans, and a roasting process that includes the addition of flavors, including butter and cocoa.

Betterday roasts its own beans and stores them in airtight bags that have a valve that allows CO2 to be expelled but prohibits oxygen from entering and spoiling the coffee flavor. The shop's staff will grind the beans according to the customer's preference.

Japanese expats account for a lot of Betterday's Vietnamese Arabica coffee customers. Many Europeans opt for the more familiar taste of Fairtrade South American or Ethiopian beans that the outlet also sells (They cost much more, though).

Cost benefit analysis

I did a cost comparison and was amazed that the company sells locally produced coffee at prices equal to that sold by most reputable Vietnamese retailers. It has a much better taste than the stale grinds at supermarkets.

Koto, the restaurant that trains street children, serves the Son La coffee to its customers and a few grocery stores have both types on their shelves.

One beverage led to another so I asked about the tea on display, especially the black leaf tea. I've almost given up on black tea because of the rubbishy taste of tea bag teas and the poor quality found in most loose leaf packets. Dominic urged me to try their Snow Mountain variety, called Snow Mountain because the dried leaf tips have white flecks (and of course because it is grown in mountainous areas). After just one sip I was, and remain, sold. I am buying it for all my disenchanted tea drinking friends in Australia.

The tea is grown by a group of Mong farmers in the mountains near Lai Chau Town. The export market is the US and Europe. Over Christmas his special festive blend sold out and his experiments with adding essential bergamot oil for an Earl Grey blend have been well received.

I casually mentioned to Dominic that I like Vietnamese green tea, although it quickly becomes too strong in the pot and that I still salivate over the delicate tea I'd drunk a few years ago in the small town of Binh Lu that sits in the shadows of the Hoang Lien Son range, east of Sa Pa. Dominic said that they source some of their green tea from a Mong community in the mountains near Mu Cang Chai, in much the same region. I had to try that too and loved its subtle tannins.

The community is remote and from Mu Cang Chai is reached over rough roads by mountain motorbikes. There is no electricity and the people are not too long removed from traditional slash and burn agriculture. The group, like most mountain people, originally grew tea bushes for their own domestic use and when they decided to take the financial risk and join with the fair trade ethos, Dominic and Minh had to hire experts to teach them the finer aspects of tea cultivation. Their dried and packaged tea is exported to markets in Europe and Asia.

More information on this venture can be found at www.mdivietnam.com.

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