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An inside view on Vietnamese specialty coffee production

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An inside view on Vietnamese specialty coffee production: interviewing Marian Takač from Zanya coffee farm

Interview with Marian Takač from Zanya coffee farm

 

 Hi Marian! Hope you are feeling well. 

 Hi Lev! Everything good, thank you. 

 

 Before we start talking about green coffee production, processing and other coffee business related things I would like to ask you several questions about you as a coffee farmer.

 Alright, let's start.

 

 So who is Marian Takač? How did you become a coffee farmer In Vietnam and why? 

 I'm 37 years old from Slovakia. In summer of 2016 I went with 3 friends to Vietnam for a one month vacation, but I never left. At that time I hadn't even tried coffee yet. About 2 weeks into the vacation I met a girl online who wanted to learn english. She was from a mountain village located about 150km away from the place whereI stayed. Even though communication was very difficult, we clicked right away. Turns out she and all her family were coffee farmers for generations from ethnic minority called Kho. Instead of going back home from vacation I decided to meet her in the mountain city of Dalat and the rest is history. She is now my wife and we have an 8 months old boy.

Later she moved away from family and coffee farming to Nha Trang city and we lived there for around 2 years and still didn't do anything with the coffee. As my background is in business and finance I was able to work online remotely and to improve her English so I found her a job at the gym owned by foreigners so she was improving quickly in english.

But I remembered the moment when she first took me to her home village, I was completely shocked by the conditions they lived in. A simple wooden house, no shower, toilet was just the hole outside of the house. I knew she was from a simple household but somehow I always assumed people who work with coffee are rich people, I still had no idea.

We visited her parents home a few more times, and it always struck in my mind, so I slowly started researching and came across that Vietnam is the second biggest exporter with 97% production being robust.

But then I found out that my wife's parents live under 2169m mountain with very rich volcanic soil and here only arabica is grown and farms are located in 1500-1700m. So when I came next time and I saw them taking down heavy bags with cherries from mountains I naturally started asking questions about how much can one hectare produce, how many average kg per coffee tree, but nobody from my family could answer.

It turned out they were selling the cherries for local traders under the cost of production, getting into more and more debt for almost 100 years. These are very simple people without much education living in this beautiful area in isolation, ethnic minority with their own language, traditions and matriarchal society. So next time we came back to the city I started researching everything I could find, I came across the term specialty coffee.

I came across one small cafe where the Vietnamese owner had a small 1kg roasting machine and served only arabica in forms of espresso, cappuccino, cold brew etc...basically a third wave cafe, much different than what you normally can find in Vietnam. So I asked him if he needs some help in cafe, he agreed and my wife started to work there as a barista and he said if she wants to work she need to start drinking coffee It's funny how my wife Lim and also her whole family didn't drink coffee despite being coffee farmers for generations, never actually tasted their own coffee as they always just sold the cherries. After a few days he offered us evening barista and roasting classes and I started drinking coffee too

From the start naturally I was more attached to roasting as I loved the profiles, numbers, graphs and statistics while his roasting machine was connected to the computer.

After one month of learning I bought my own roasting machine and my wife kept working there as a barista for about 6 months. While learning I was attached to the idea of higher quality beans as it was very apparent that Vietnam already has enough bad coffee but I was having a really hard time sourcing any decent green beans with a lot of inconsistency.

One day we went back to the Lim family to the mountains and I managed to get a few kg of beans from one local producer who was trying to make some better quality arabica. That time I didn't know much about the flavour notes but sometimes i got my hands on some foreign beans so i already fell in love with some more fruity/floral notes than just basic arabica i could find in Vietnam with some chocolate,caramel, nutty, earthy notes. So when I roasted the sample from my wife's hometown I was very pleasantly surprised.

Eventually we decided to move everything back to her family, we built our first greenhouse and that year the family didn't sell the cherries for traders but I started to learn everything I could find online about processing. I was looking more into the countries which already have established specialty coffee scenes. I am especially in love with African coffees.

So now it is our 4th coffee season.

 

 That is quite an unexpected coffee farmer origin story! Do you like your job?

 — I still wouldn't say it's my job, despite living here at the farm but more as a hobby because our production is very small, so I'm still financing most of it, maybe one day.

 

 What does your average working routine look like? When does a coffee farmer wake up and go to sleep and what happens in between?

 Typical day in the season starts around 5-6 am, harvesting on the farm, about 5-6pm coffee is brought to the processing facility, where we sort, float the cherries and continue depending on the process of fermentation we want to do. So work can be very late and continue in the morning. I was very surprised how coffee season is. There are no days off, no weekends, no vacation, when there are cherries, they have to be processed. I have a lot of respect for these people as I don't do half as much, they are very strong and patient. 

 

 The harvesting season sounds tough though interesting. Do tell a bit about the farm itself please. What are your main produced lots and in which countries can be bought currently? How do you process your coffees?

 We just built a small processing facility next to our houses and farms. The Lim family is very big and almost everybody is a smallholder with less than 1 hectare, so we are trying to connect people together and work in cooperation. Coffee producing lands are placed at around 1700 masl.

We are using processing methods which I studied from well known specialty countries like Kenya, Ethiopia,Panama etc. Main products are double washed, honey and natural. Vietnam's specialty scene is on the rise, so we sell something domestically to the roasteries, some parts I roast myself and sell locally. Most of the production gets exported to Germany and Slovakia where I also import and distribute it. So we can avoid the middleman. So we can control the whole production chain from seed to cup.

 

 I am sure that you heard of new and experimental methods of green coffee fermentation. What do you think of anaerobic fermentation , carbonic maceration and fermentation with use of lactic acid? Do you produce coffees using these methods?

  Yes, I also tried some anaerobic, carbonic or lactic fermentation processing. But as a producer who was learning on the go I made a lot of mistakes and over fermented some coffees. Since then I understand how thin the line is between successful and bad processing and that if something is processed with anaerobic fermentation it doesn't necessarily mean it will be good coffee. There is still a lot to explore in the coffee world, but for now I probably prefer nice clean washed coffees over some "fancy fermented" ones but I definitely follow trends and want to give people what they want and enjoy.

 

 It is widely known that Vietnam produces a massive amount of robusta but I know that Zanya produces not only robusta but also arabica coffees.  What are the main struggles with producing and selling coffee in Vietnam in general? Do you genuinely get fair prices for robusta produced?

 We currently do not produce any robusta, or commercial coffee, we strictly focus on specialty grade coffee, but i'm looking more into fine robusta space having already my favourite highlands robusta growing areas from elevation 1000-1200...I think a lot of people wouldn't believe how good high altitude robusta can be, hopefully we can showcase that in the future.

 

 Before switching to Specialty arabica topic I would like to ask what are the efforts of Vietnamese coffee farmers on improving the quality of robusta coffees?  Does the government help coffee farmers in any way? 

 Yes there are some very high scoring robustas in the country by CQI and SCA, over 85 points. I think the government still mostly sees quantity as a priority and doesn't really understand that the quality of coffee can bring extra value, but we are working hard to change that.

 

 Being a part of the green coffee industry in Vietnam, how can you describe it? 

 Right now it's a really great place to be, all these new "third wave" roasters, cafes, workshops...amazing to watch how the young generation is transforming this industry. Though because of covid pandemic this progress slowed a bit.

So good quality coffee is getting more and more appreciated but there is not a lot of it, that's why domestically it can be sold a lot of the time for higher prices than export, as Vietnam has a very big tax to import green beans as the government wants to push coffee out of the country and not inside. So decent Ethiopian green beans which you can get for 10 usd in EU or US here would be almost double the price.

 There is also a Vietnam Specialty Coffee Association operating. What is happening in Vietnam regarding the specialty scene and are you as a farmer involved? Are there any regular meetings of coffee producers and specialists at festivals, fairs or exhibitions?

 — Yes we are connected with few of these associations, in the last two years there have been restrictions due to covid, but there definitely will be some events very soon.

 

 Now to Specialty coffee. Honestly I have never tasted a Specialty arabica coffee from Vietnam. What are the main qualities of Zanya specialty coffees and is it hard to produce it? If it is not a secret what are the main export markets for such a high quality and rare product?

 Our main benefit is the area, with coffee processing you can try to do everything clean, good controlled fermentation and drying process, storage etc...but you will never add anything that is not there. So 90% of the profile is the coffee cherry, farm, soil, variety and terroir itself. As people in this area lived long years in isolation near the forest, maybe catimor which is widely planted all over the country mutated with original varieties of bourbon and typica brought by french people. We haven't done the genetics testing yet so it's really hard to say. But in general coffee from this area has nice apple, peach or orange acidity with some fruit and floral notes, still some chocolate and caramel...usually scores between 84-87 points for different processing.

 

 To sum up our interview, what can you share or maybe tell our audience? Maybe a sort of message?

 I just want to say and put me as an example, that there is a very thin line between somebody who has no idea about coffee and somebody who becomes very passionate about it. Before covid started i was doing a lot of coffee tours for tourists traveling in Vietnam.

I would especially like to raise awareness of how starting a coffee production chain can be really unfair, especially for those people who do the hardest part of the job. And I can imagine coffee is 99%+ times grown by very simple people, so this would be the case in most parts of the world. I would like to attract attention to the matter of unfair payment for farmers' work.

I would like to use this knowledge to visit some farms both in Vietnam and other countries and maybe try to improve the production and also help connect to sell the coffees. As they might have a similar gem like we have here at Langbiang Mountain and they didn't know about it for decades, everything was processed into cheap quality blends, instant coffees etc. 

 Thank you Marian, that was interesting and useful! Hope we will see more of Zanya at CoffeeIndustry.online soon. Can't wait to try them. Have a good coming season!

 Thanks for having me this time! 

 

Hope this interview was interesting to read and maybe helped you to delve into coffee from the perspective of the farmer. If you have a story to share or would like to raise awareness of some topic do not hesitate and contact us by this email adres:

Coffeeindustrylevv@gmail.com.

Enjoy your day and your cup of coffee friends!


by Lev Volodarsky