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From Plant to Pour: Rethinking Vietnamese Coffee

Saigoneer will never see coffee the same way again.

The first thing we did when returning from our trip to Bao Loc’s coffee plantations was order new coffee phins for the office, as we refuse to go back to the street coffee that has been fueling us for years. After enjoying the splendors of fresh coffee roasted just feet from where we sat at the Belvico headquarters, there is no turning back.

“We met through shit,” Linh explains with a laugh. After graduating from university in Saigon, the Bao Loc native returned to his hometown where his parents and siblings farm coffee. Linh landed a finance and logistics job for a large coffee conglomerate that sourced its fertilizer from chicken manure. That’s how he met Kay, a Belgian with an entrepreneurial spirit, who settled with his family in Bao Loc to set up a poultry supply chain business in Vietnam. Kay had a vision to raise the profile and prestige of Vietnamese coffee, and Linh had the know-how. They thus decided to create Belvico, which stands for Belgian Vietnam Coffee

“I did it for selfish reasons in the beginning,” Linh says when describing the transition from his work with industrial-size coffee production to Belvico’s smaller, more mindful operation. He simply wanted his family’s land and farms to be more valuable so they could live more comfortable lives. Linh went on to explain the astounding realities of growing coffee in Vietnam. 

Despite being the world’s second-largest coffee producer, much of Vietnam’s harvest isn’t actually consumed as coffee. Rather, it’s processed to extract caffeine that is added to energy drinks, sodas and medicine. This means that the flavor of the beans is inconsequential, which leads to farmers caring very little about the quality of their crop. Moreover, because caffeine develops before the coffee fruit ripens, it is often harvested unripe and dried in the open with no concern for food safety. Such conditions understandably mean the coffee is sold for very cheap: VND33,000 - 35,000 per kilogram. But if one is more careful about how they grow and harvest the beans so it can be enjoyed as coffee, it can fetch VND75,000 per kilogram. This was what Linh hoped to help his family achieve.

To proceed with Belvico, Linh realized he needed to learn more about coffee, and he thus participated in several courses led by SCA (Specialty Coffee Association), earning certifications in roasting and tasting. The more he learned, the more his views on sustainability and eco-friendly farming evolved. Not only was it more ethically responsible and a means to make more money, it produced much better coffee. Linh wanted to share this knowledge with people in Vietnam and raise the profile and quality of the country’s coffee. 

Bao Loc features gorgeous rolling hills and a temperate climate similar to nearby Da Lat. After learning the history of Belvico, we spent the day driving around the city with Linh, marveling at the striking red soil and the multitude of motorbikes, trucks and even a tractor laden with coffee beans. Around noon we made it to his family’s coffee fields on the outskirts of town, where his brother was busy collecting bright red coffee beans. For the best flavor and aroma, they need to be taken only when ripe, and hand picking the cherries from the tree limbs is arduous work that puts in perspective just how much labor goes into a single cup of coffee. 

Belvico understands that it is difficult for one person to be good at everything, and when dealing with something like coffee that requires so many steps, you need to trust the experts. Therefore, Belvico doesn’t actually grow their coffee, but instead purchases it from 10 different local growers that Linh’s father knows from his role as the director of the local agriculture commune. Once grown, the beans are meticulously examined, with only 30-50% meeting the company's strict standards. Those that don’t make the cut are sold to mass-market vendors. 

One of the first stops of the day was a coffee processing plant. Before it’s roasted and consumed, coffee needs to be dried and cleaned. The cheapest, most widely used way of doing this is to simply dry it on the street or wash the beans in large tanks. This method, however, strips the beans of the flavorful mucilage and requires a lot of water. Instead, 90% of Belvico’s beans are honey processed, which leaves the mucilage intact, while they are dried in greenhouses that ensure ideal temperature and humidity for 10 to 15 days.

 

Once the beans have been processed, they make their way to Belvico’s roasting facilities and Linh gets to use his expertise. He prefers medium roast because it properly highlights body, aroma and flavor. Bao Loc grows almost exclusively robusta beans, while nearby Da Lat produces arabica. The former is the strong, sweet, caffeine-filled variety most commonly consumed in Vietnam, while Arabica is a more floral, sour type consumed abroad. Belvico roasts both varieties as well as a blend that draws the best elements from each.

 

Linh explained the differences in the beans while roasting was underway, filling the room with glorious fresh coffee fumes. We couldn’t anticipate the first pour more, and it surpassed our already high expectations. “If it's a good, complex coffee, you should discover something different with each sip,” Linh said as he prepared each type. And it’s true! As the coffee moved across the different sectors of our tongues, waves of flavor came and went. The arabica was light, bright and sour, while the robusta had a nutty, caramel and chocolate quality to it with a bit more bitterness. The blend balanced the two perfectly, with the different profiles complementing one another for an exceedingly nuanced and satisfying experience. 

If it weren’t for COVID-19, we would have been tasting the coffee in Belvico’s new facility near a much larger roaster imported from Turkey. In addition to construction and shipping delays, the company has had to adapt to a variety of challenges brought about by the global pandemic. Their core business model, for example, had been selling the roasted beans to hotels and resorts. Unfortunately, as those places look to cut costs amidst financial hardships, some have been transitioning to cheaper coffee. This has forced Bevlico to pivot and reach out more directly to customers and work with smaller coffee shops. Their roasts can be ordered from their website and social media pages

Linh explains that the coffee connects with people who understand that you get what you pay for. Considering the many people and processes involved in producing a cup of coffee from plant to pour, it’s impossible to spend VND10,000 for a cup and have a quality product that isn’t made with short-cuts, including adding dangerous chemicals or substances. The people that understand this are also often the people that care about environmental stewardship and appreciate the new product that Belvico offers. They are the only company in Vietnam to use entirely biodegradable bags. While they resemble typical coffee bags, everything from the seal to the waterproof inner-lining to the air vent will break down completely in nature. It’s a small touch that really reveals the ethos and priorities of the company and their commitment to doing things the right way. 

From packed cafes to busy street vendors, Vietnam’s love of coffee is on full display wherever you go, and meeting friends or coworkers over a coffee is a routine part of most days. But how often is the coffee itself part of the conversation? Typically it is mere background noise that provides little else besides a jolt of caffeine. A cup of artisanal coffee like Belvico’s is an entirely different story. Its complex flavors and aromas will attract your full attention. One sip and you’ll realize what you’ve been missing out on.