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Origin Focus – Vietnam – Part 2

Vietnam holds a pivotal position on the global coffee stage as the world's largest producer of Robusta coffee beans. This significant role directly influences the pricing and availability of Robusta coffee worldwide. Furthermore, Vietnam is also the second largest producer of coffee in the world behind Brazil, so if you trade coffee at all (even if you don’t trade Robusta), you still need to know what’s happening in this origin.

To understand Vietnam’s coffee production, we need to know its harvesting cycle and production geography. In this article, we analyze the Vietnam coffee production landscape by examining its producing regions, weather, harvesting calendar and how these factors relate to the global coffee markets.

Crop Overview

Vietnam’s climate and low-altitude elevation are most suitable for Robusta cultivation, and they excel at this, producing ~28-32m bags annually. However, Vietnamese farmers also produce a notable ~1 million bags of Arabica per year.

Vietnam is an “October crop” origin following the Northern Hemisphere calendar but harvesting generally takes place in November. Most of Vietnam’s production comes from small-sized farms, and cultivation is divided into 2 systems: monocrops (~95%) and diversified crops (~5%).

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Monocrop systems (I.e., farms that only grow coffee) are more common, but end up leaving farmers vulnerable to price volatility and weather fluctuations. However, a minority of farms adopt intercropping (I.e., farms that grow coffee along with other varieties), making them more resilient to unstable coffee prices and climate imbalances. The country has been transitioning towards intercropping, but there are barriers to entry, and so changing to this model is neither simple nor fast.

Irrigation is widespread in Vietnamese coffee production which can be an offsetting factor to drought and bad weather in Vietnam. However, if drought is bad enough and the reservoirs run low, then irrigation will be regulated and the crop can still suffer. This is relevant to El Niño events, as the effects of strong El Niño’s are notable there, based on historical records.

Vietnam uses dry milling as the preferred processing since most of the production are natural coffees. However, Vietnam has a unique “wet polished” robusta process, where the dry milled robusta beans are cleaned and polished in water after hulling to improve the appearance and flavor.

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Additionally, there are some traditional wet mills for Arabicas and efforts to add even more. There is a push by Vietnamese coffee advocates to improve penetration in the specialty coffee industry. Recent research efforts and a new Arabica variety has exceeded the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) standards of by over 80 points.

Producing Regions & Harvest

The Vietnam coffee areas can be divided into 3 large regions, based on production volume, types grown and geography settings. The bulk of production is concentrated in the flatter low-elevated lands towards the South of the country while high-elevated lands in the North produce much of Vietnam’s Arabica volume, and a smaller portion of Vietnam’s Robusta.

Ultimately, Vietnam’s low altitude lands (~400m) and high temperatures of 14-25°C (75-77°F) favor Robusta cultivation. Additionally, Robusta is also easier to farm and it’s a more resistant variety, and so the lower costs of production and processing end up being a good fit for small-scale farmers with budget constraints.

The Central Highlands is responsible for most of the production and is therefore the top-priority area to monitor when analyzing Vietnam’s weather and production. Moreover, unlike other origins that have dual harvest cycles (Like Indonesia and Colombia), all Vietnamese regions follow the same harvesting calendar, which takes place inside the Nov-Jan timeframe, right after the rain season end in October.

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The North of the country encompasses most of the mountainous areas (~1200m elevation) and so average temperatures are reduced there compared to the south. The lower temps and higher elevation favor Arabica cultivation and most of the Vietnamese Arabica is produced here.

Central Highlands

The Central Highlands is a plateau that boasts the largest coffee-growing area in Vietnam, being accountable for over 80% of the country's total output (~23m bags), as it’s the most suitable place for cultivating coffee in the country. Therefore, this area holds immense significance, not just within Vietnam but also from a global standpoint, as it ranks among the world's largest producing regions.

Mass production of low-grade Robusta coffee is a defining characteristic of the Central Highlands, which encompasses 5 different provinces, one of which (Dak Lak) is also an Arabica producer, to a smaller degree. The CH provinces are, in descending order of output: Dak Lak, Lam Dong, Dak Nong, Gia Lai and Kon Tum.

The inception of coffee farming in the Central Highlands dates to the colonial era when the French introduced coffee cultivation in 1857. This region’s success can be attributed to several factors, including its favorable climate, suitable soil conditions, ideal altitudes and the distinct dry and rainy seasons, thanks to the monsoon climate.

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South Vietnam

South Vietnam’s climate and topography is similar to those in the Central Highlands. As such, South Vietnam is the second largest producing area in the country, although it’s roughly 10 times smaller than the Central Highlands, in terms of planted area (according to MARD of Vietnam), and it produces a much lower output, ranging around 3.5m bags a year.

This region has a valuable infrastructure, as it’s home to numerous mills with a large capacity for both dry and wet processing. It includes the provinces Bihn Phuoc, Dong Nai and Ba Ria / Ving Tau, in descending order of output.

North Vietnam

This is the smallest one of the 3 coffee-producing areas, it primarily cultivates Robusta but it's also Vietnam’s home of Arabica beans. The subtropical humid climate in North Vietnam makes its climate slightly distinguished from the Central Highlands, with seasonal weather divisions more clearly market. Additionally, land competition is stronger there, since the north also comprises the bulk of Vet’s rice production.

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The north area is also where the higher-altitude lands are found, and so this supports Arabica coffee growth, which is distracted into distinct small areas within this region. Despite being a small region when compared to Vietnam’s totality, the North produces a yearly average of ~2.32m bags, which is more than what many countries produce. The 2 provinces that form this region are Son La and Dien Bien.

Weather Impact & El Niño

Weather impact to production in Vietnam is historically linked to dryness led by strong El Niño events, but there were also instances of floods affecting the crops.

Vietnam's monsoon climate is characterized by distinct wet and dry seasons, which can either exacerbate dryness or increase wetness depending on the influences.

Despite irrigation being widespread in this origin, the risk of drought remains, especially during years with a strong El Niño influence (such as this year), as it was the case in 2006 and 2015. However, there have also been instances when floods have adversely affected the crops, particularly in flatland areas (Central Highlands) and near rivers such as the Red and Mekong deltas. An example of such an event occurred in the year 2000, and had a negative effect on production.

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Coffee Characteristics & Application to the Global Market

Vietnam's coffee industry places a strong emphasis on high-yield, low-quality, and easily cultivated Robusta beans. Higher-quality Arabica and Robusta beans are responsible for only a small fraction of the total output, constituting roughly 3-5% of production, but this share is set to gradually increase.

Since around 90-95% of total production is of lower-quality Robustas, Vietnam is ultimately the benchmark for Robusta coffees and consequently has a large effect on the futures market, which has a pivotal role in determining the physical prices of Robusta coffees around the world. Meanwhile, higher-quality Arabica and Robusta beans have relatively limited penetration in Vietnam (in percentage terms, though not in absolute terms), given their lower yields and limited resistance to pests and diseases.

Despite these challenges, the Vietnamese coffee industry is in search of better qualities and so it has been progressively experimenting with new coffee varieties, especially those adapted to couple with pests and diseases.

In the future, we may see the fruits of efforts to enhance coffee quality and quantity by the Vietnamese government. These initiatives include expanding Arabica cultivation, focusing on increasing bean quality while maintaining yields, and research into new coffee varieties.

Vietnam’s plentiful commercial-graded Robusta volume is a crucial component of global Robusta supplies and blends, but the government’s forward focus is on improving quality.

While the higher-quality segment is having some success and gradually gaining market share as the country elevates its coffee standards, Vietnam is ultimately constrained by its geography. While we may well see improvements in quality, it will be tough to move away from being a robusta origin given the prevalence of high temperatures and low elevation.

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