A short article entitled “Quality of Vietnamese coffee poor” (pdf) appeared recently on a Vietnam news site. It notes that Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer of coffee, but that 89% of its crop is low-quality robusta. And it adds, “The reason is the massive use of inorganic fertilizer, water, insecticide and poor processing technology.”
Where do these beans end up? In your cup, if you buy cheap coffee from one of these large corporations.
Nestlé (Nescafe, Taster’s Choice) buys 20 to 25% of Vietnam’s coffee. Kraft (brands include Chase and Sanborn, General Foods International Coffee, Gevalia, Maxwell House, and Sanka) is another major buyer; at a 2003 shareholder meeting, Kraft Chairman Louis Camilleri said that the firm buys coffee in Vietnam that does not meet even minimum ICO [International Coffee Organization] standards, the first admission from a major company regarding purchase of sub-quality beans. At the Folgers web site, Proctor & Gamble admitted to buying Vietnamese coffee: “We purchase our coffee beans from all over the world, including Vietnam. The percentage of beans from any one country varies all the time, depending on availability.” (Note that Folgers is now owned by Smuckers, but probably uses P&G’s sourcing avenues). Sara Lee/Douwe Egberts (Chock Full o’Nuts, Hills Brothers) also buys coffee from Vietnam and is in a partnership with Kraft in that country.*
Kenneth Davids at Coffee Review sums up the problem with most robustas in today’s market:
Apparently with the support of the World Bank, robustas recently have been planted in very large quantities in Vietnam. These are mass-produced coffees at their most dramatic: stripped from the trees, leaves, unripe, ripe and overripe fruit and all, and dried in deep piles. All of which means the essentially bland, grainy robusta character is topped off with an assortment of off-tastes, mainly musty/mildewed and fermented. These coffees sell for considerably less than all other coffees, including better quality robustas. I am told that production costs for Vietnamese robustas are about 20 cents per pound or less, compared to, for example, production costs of 80 to 90 cents per pound for the excellent “100% Colombia” coffees competing in the supermarket. And now the current episode: Commercial dealers and roasters have learned to steam the often foul-tasting Vietnamese robustas, removing the waxy covering of the bean and muting (but not entirely eliminating) the offensive flavor notes.
And you can get the gist of what they taste like from Sweet Marias, which sells some for educational purposes only.
To read about the human and environmental toll of coffee in Vietnam, read this article from Tea & Coffee by Mark Pendergrast, author of the outstanding book, Uncommon Grounds. The article includes a history of coffee in Vietnam, and describes how more than a million acres of the Vietnamese highlands were planted in mostly robusta coffee in the late 1990s, land which was abandoned after the drop in coffee prices, “leaving the exposed soils to the torrential rain. Erosion, siltation, land slips, flash floods, and water shortage are the obvious results.”
It’s enough to convince you to seek out sustainable coffee.