How an entrepreneur defends Vietnam’s oft-overlooked coffee beans – LX


Since Sahra Nguyen founded a company to import coffee beans from Vietnam, the Brooklyn-based entrepreneur has been on a mission: to bolster the reputation of the robusta species, which makes up the majority of Vietnam’s crop.

Robusta crops are high yielding and the beans contain twice as much caffeine, 60% less sugar and oil and less acidity. They are more resistant to disease and pests, able to withstand higher temperatures, and they grow at lower elevations. These characteristics have become more important as climate change threatens coffee crops.

Many coffee connoisseurs argue that the bitter Robusta is inferior to the more dominant Arabica, which accounts for most of the world‘s coffee production. But Nguyen disagrees. Robusta coffee is delicious, she says. Ask his customers.

Sahra Nguyen at Shared Roasting in Brooklyn, New York with a bag of robusta coffee beans imported from Vietnam.

As CEO of Nguyen Coffee Supply, she works in a shared roasting facility in Brooklyn to produce different roasts, one of which is 100% robusta, another is a blend of robusta and arabica, the two main species of Coffee.

“When you roast [robusta], it’s trickier because you have less oil to work with,” Nguyen said. “From a flavor experience, it’s going to be a lot bolder, dark chocolatey and nutty.”

Coffee and climate change

The price of arabica beans soared last year as drought and then frost destroyed crops in Brazil, leading to a global shortage at the world’s biggest supplier. The International Coffee Organization estimates that a third of the country’s Arabica crop for the 2021 to 2022 growing season has been lost.

Overall Arabica exports are down – 80.8 million 60 kilo bags in the 12 months to February 2022 from 82 million bags last year – but Robusta exports are up – 48, 6 million bags against 47.5 million bags, according to the organization.

“Coffee is sort of an indicator species, I would say, of climate change because it is very sensitive to different environmental thresholds in terms of temperature, water, humidity, shade,” said Selena Ahmed, professor assistant and researcher at Montana State University. “Each of these different environmental factors has a real impact on the productivity and ability of the coffee plant to produce truly delicious beans.”

As weather conditions change, harvest seasons come earlier or later, and some places become wetter or drier, it becomes more difficult for farmers to plan when they are going to harvest, Ahmed said. Areas suitable for coffee production are moving to higher altitudes, but farms cannot always move up mountainsides, she added.

Sahra Nguyen and a team member from Nguyen Coffee Supply made roast coffee in Brooklyn, New York.

Wild coffee trees, from which coffee trees grown on farms come, are already in trouble. Aaron P. Davis, a researcher at the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens, found in a 2019 study of 124 wild coffee species that at least 60% are threatened with extinction. A second study reclassified wild Arabica from a species of “least concern” to “endangered”.

This is important because when domesticated coffee trees have been threatened by disease or pests, growers have relied on wild coffee trees to develop hardier versions of the crop. But climate change threatens both wild and domesticated crops, so farmers may not be able to use this strategy as climate change progresses.

For example, wild Arabica grows in Ethiopia and South Sudan, but due to rising temperatures, deforestation and shorter rainy seasons, the number of wild plants could drop by at least half. over the next 70 years, Davis and his researchers found.

Robusta beans on the left and Arabica beans on the right.

Robusta is the most heat-tolerant species of coffee, but a 2020 study found that its optimum temperature range for production is lower and its temperature sensitivity is higher than previously thought. . Its production could decline significantly as temperatures rise with climate change, the study authors wrote.

Moreover, while “the development of robustness has brought substantial economic benefits to Vietnam, it has caused extreme environmental damage, including deforestation and loss of biodiversity and damage to groundwater,” Davis said.

Robusta beans or bust

Before starting her business, Nguyen worked as a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker and spent a lot of time in cafes. She said she was puzzled when she asked baristas about the Vietnamese coffee on the menus. It was usually Vietnamese style, with condensed milk, but it didn’t taste like the coffee she remembered as a child, and the beans never seemed to come from Vietnam.

Sahra Nguyen roasts coffee beans at Shared Roasting in Brooklyn, New York.

In fact, Vietnam is the second largest coffee exporter after Brazil. But since most high-end coffees use arabica beans, the industry has categorized Vietnam and its robusta beans for making cheap products, like instant coffee.

“If the industry says, ‘Just make cheap coffee and that’s what we’re going to buy you,’ they’re going to make cheap coffee,” she said.

Nguyen is trying to change that. The coffee is improved by organic farming with all natural, pesticide-free biofertilizers, and by better harvesting, when the coffee cherries are picked by hand only when they are red and ripe, she said. It takes more time and work.

“If it’s not [for specialty coffee]they just grab all the grains from the branch, whether they’re green or red, because they go into that mix,” she said.

The farm that Nguyen uses for his coffee is organic and run by a fourth-generation farmer in Da Lat, in the central highlands of Vietnam. She visited in 2016 and established a direct trade partnership with the farmer, whom she met through her aunt. Most of Nguyen’s extended family is in Vietnam, although her parents fled by boat during the war and she grew up in Boston.

Making a difference, one bean at a time

Nguyen Coffee Supply, founded in 2018, is the first roaster in the United States to import single-origin Robusta and Arabica beans from Vietnam. One of Nguyen’s goals is to celebrate Vietnamese coffee heritage and improve the reputation of robusta beans in specialty coffee circles so that farmers can benefit from them.

Sahra Nguyen at Shared Roasting in Brooklyn, NY, where she roasts Robusta and Arabica coffee beans that she imports from Vietnam. Nguyen is trying to raise the profile of robusta beans that make up the majority of Vietnam’s crops.

Last month, it raised $2.6 million in seed funding from a group of investors. Its coffee is sold online and in-store and is served in restaurants. One is Saigon Social in New York, which opened just as the coronavirus shut down the country in 2020. Its owner, Helen Nguyen, says she loves robusta beans and their low acidity. She was opening a pop-up restaurant at the same time that Sahra Nguyen was researching and developing her roasts.

“I was very lucky to be part of this process,” she said. “Whenever she tested certain batches, she gave us samples.”

During the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, Nguyen Coffee Supply raised $45,000 for the Vietnam COVID-19 relief fund, and for Earth Day 2021, it donated 1,000 trees, according to the development report sustainable 2021 of the company. The company is also beginning to try to measure its environmental impacts – energy and water consumption, emissions, effluent and waste – in the United States and Vietnam.

“[Robusta is] not immune to climate change, of course, but it is more resilient,” said Sahra Nguyen. “It can be grown in warmer temperatures than Arabica. It can also be grown at different altitudes, in different climates and altitudes. There seems to be more opportunity to expand robusta farming even as conditions change. »

Meghan McDonough contributed reporting, photography and video production.


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