Festival highlights ambitions for egalitarian coffee

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A coffee snob finds hope for flavor and equality at a coffee festival in Vietnam's coffee capital

Artist perform at the opening ceremony of the 4th Buon Ma Thuot Festival in Dak Lak Province on March 9

I arrived at the Buon Ma Thuot Coffee Festival with a headache and low expectations. The headache was from the harrowing bus trip I had just taken from Da Lat, and my expectations from my stubbornly American coffee sensibilities. Having spent just under three cumulative years in Vietnam, I have learned to treat Vietnamese coffee with a fair amount of skepticism. Bitter, strong robusta roasted with chemicals and additives and usually in instant form, it has almost uniformly wreaked havoc on my taste buds and my nerves.

You could call me a coffee snob. In fact, I think it's technically what I'm considered, preferring specialty arabica from Ethiopia and Guatemala, ground fresh and brewed using a Kalita cone. The Vietnamese stuff sold on the street coined "a delicious oil spill" by an American friend makes my stomach churn.

But the coffee in Buon Ma Thuot was different. And it was everywhere. During the four days of the coffee festival, much of it was free. The more I tried it, the more I liked it, and by the end of my stay I was equally caffeinated and charmed by the agricultural pride of the central highlands.

Sponsored by coffee giant Trung Nguyen in the province that produces nearly fifty percent of the country's coffee, the festival was an energetic mash-up of cultural event, industry conference, and populist extravaganza. Attended by impressive numbers of dignitaries, ambassadors, locals, foreigners, and celebrities, it was easy to forget at times that I was 330 kilometers away from a metropolitan center.

My first night in town I headed to the Coffee Party at Trung Nguyen Coffee Village, an expansive visitors center with beautiful grounds and classy places to sit and enjoy a cup. The centerpiece of the village is its coffee museum. Just a small part of a larger German collection, the museum is full of coffee industry relics. Grinders, roasters, brewers, coffee cups, canisters, and memorabilia are displayed below poster-sized photographs of plantations and workers in Africa. Clearly aware of coffee's history, the museum conveys a deep respect for the art and work of coffee-making.

Bridging the gap

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My host in the coffee museum was the amicable Le Vien Duy. An employee of the Trung Nguyen Group, Duy was the first to fill me in on an ambitious plan I'd hear about several more times during the festival: for Buon Ma Thuot to become the coffee capital of the world. Predicted to take over 100 years, the plan was conceived by Trung Nguyen chairman Dang Le Nguyen Vu, who showed up in international news recently for challenging American coffee consumers' taste. Vu was quoted by Bloomberg as saying of Americans, "Their level of coffee appreciation is probably not yet high, but we'll work on that." It's a risky way to engage American consumers, but Vu seems to be leading with some pretty daring business instincts.

Vu sees a troubling gap between the coffee producing and coffee consuming peoples of the world. This point was reiterated often during a presentation at the opening Coffee Party, accompanied by a list of ways to respond to the problem. Though none of the solutions directly addressed the issue of wealth inequality between producers and consumers, at least there were frank analyses of the current state of affairs.

Along with the presentation, the opening Coffee Party featured a sprawling banquet of grilled food and coffee stations representing several different countries. It was here that I tasted the finest Vietnamese espresso I've had yet. Creamy, nutty, with a hint of fruit, it was expertly pulled by a barista on an Elektra machine modeled after an antique vertical boiler.

Sustainability

The next morning, I visited the huge exposition that ran during the entire festival. At first the diversity of vendors and booths was overwhelming. Furniture, agricultural machinery, green coffee, civets in cages, and 60-kilo production roasters crowded the narrow walkways between booths while blaring pop music competed from opposing speakers. After making a couple of laps around the park, I stumbled on the large booth of Golden Bell S Coffee, a Taiwanese-owned farm and processing facility in Lam Dong Province, just outside of Da Lat. Along with incredible espresso this time a clean, bold, and chocolaty arabica - I encountered Dr. Yue Wen-Wang, from National Taiwan University. Singularly focused on developing specialty-grade arabica and robusta coffee in Vietnam, Dr. Yue has trained his pickers to choose only the best cherries, and all his employees to hand-sort and cup coffee in a professional lab. He shared the collaborative attitude and optimism displayed by many I met in Buon Ma Thuot, certain that the national coffee industry's potential for quality and sustainability has yet to be realized.

The following day presented a rare opportunity for industry professionals to congregate and discuss the country's outlook. Coffee conference participants varied in their perspectives, but all touched at least briefly on issues of sustainability, farmer livelihood, and the need for investment in the Vietnamese coffee industry - all points raised previously by Chairman Vu in Trung Nguyen Group's missives.

Presenters at the conference enumerated the challenges faced by Vietnam in maintaining its global market share. Both foreign and domestic organizations emphasized the need for quality in every stage of production. The high-yielding Robusta stronghold that Vietnam currently enjoys lacks consistency in its processing and picking techniques. Farmers pick cherries that aren't ripe yet, and only since climate change has threatened the country's largely full-sun coffee plantations have coffee interests responded with shade-grown practices. Industry representatives also expressed concern about the environmental consequences of its agricultural practices, noting that especially during a drought, water usage by coffee farmers is unsustainable. Trung Nguyen Group's own presentation at the conference focused on ways to advance agricultural technologies and build a global coffee logistics center in Vietnam, tactics that align with the company's strategic plans for the development of its brand.

Trung Nguyen Group handed out thousands of free books during the festival, and emphasized the innate creative and inspirational properties of coffee. Packaging for its Lengendee cruelty-free civet-mimicking brand, for example, features quotes from famous coffee drinkers from history. This emphasis on health and spiritual wellness is something new from the coffee industry, and when combined with the upbeat attitude found in Buon Ma Thuot, gives me a lot of faith in Vietnam's potential. It's a novel approach, and in a market dominated by only a few major coffee corporations, a little creativity can go a long way.

It will be interesting to watch the Trung Nguyen Group and the coffee industry develop after 2012, a year that saw Vietnam thrust into the first position for world production. Vietnam may not be able to hold that position, since several unique global conditions allowed it to pass Brazil for the first time, but it's obvious that the industry is hungry for market share. Chairman Vu has plans to open a coffee shop in the United States, challenging that market share on its own turf. If he leads with the energy and tact I witnessed at the festival, it may not be too long before Americans are aware of Buon Ma Thuot.

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