Quality and Inequality
A Panel Discussion on Specialty Coffee’s Relationship to Small-Holding Farmers
Video From the Panel Discussion on Quality & Inequality (2/12/15)
LUCE-ASIANetwork Postdoctoral Fellow
Vietnam does not often enter conversations about coffee quality unless the context is quality improvement. I believe this is because of several deeply rooted assumptions about what constitutes coffee quality. Shaped by subjective consumer taste and marketing, there is a conflation with “quality coffee” and (sometimes micro-lot) Arabica. Coffee marketing within the specialty industry disallows Robusta to enter the conversation and thus Vietnam does not figure into this particular realm of coffee production and consumption. While this may not be a “problem” — the specialty and industrial coffee markets are, after all, independent — I think it behooves scholars and industry alike to consider coffee more broadly. That is, when we talk about specialty coffee are we talking only about Arabica? If so, what nuance is lost in the conversation?
The industrial coffee industry in Vietnam is a relatively new (relative to other major coffee producing countries), post-American war economic development venture with the underpinnings of state incentivized migration schemes and dabbles with international investment projects. In Vietnam today, the industry is massive and a compelling aspect of the global coffee trade. Much like any cash crop and all species and varieties of coffee, the industry is risky and volatile. An anthropological perspective on the Vietnamese coffee industry provides interesting insight into the coffee industry more generally. How can industrial grade coffee become part of the conversation in coffee studies? Perhaps the dearth of certification schemes and the absence of a long colonial coffee plantation history, or rather the rupture during the Indochina and American Wars in Vietnam, has prevented Vietnam from entering a larger scholarly discourse about coffee.
The question I’m interested in is: when does Robusta count as coffee? In what socio-cultural spheres is Robusta valued and devalued? In specialty cafes in major urban centers around the world (San Francisco and Melbourne for example), Vietnamese “style” coffee has become a marker of a nascent, hip consumption style. Of course, this appropriation of Vietnamese coffee does not utilize Vietnamese coffee at all. What does this tell us about the ebb and flow of coffee consumption patterns and efforts to capitalize on some material aspects from coffee origins but not others? My current research situates coffee in Vietnam as something highly valued, appreciated, linked to place and origin stories as rich as any direct trade specialty coffee. Domestic coffee consumption in Vietnam is not “traditionally” Vietnamese and yet the preparation through locally produced metal coffee filters called phín and pervasive cafes in the south-central highlands are somehow distinctly Vietnamese. Coffee culture in this region sheds light on emergent patterns of conspicuous consumption and the burgeoning ambitions and dreams of local residents — producers and consumers alike.