Wednesday, October 27, 2021

This was the first coffee that Starbucks bought, from a reclusive family

Serve us a cup of coffee: it’s good for the soul, we’re told. Thanks to Vietnam, it’s a staple of contemporary society: coffee as the soundtrack to the revolution.

After the fall of Saigon, Lao and Creole coffee became a common commodity, with black and green beans being stored in caves and distributed to areas where they were needed most – often to care for the starving. In 1990, AOCA, the Association of Vietnamese Coffee Growers (as it is known now), was created, dedicated to saving the industry from collapse.

Green coffee beans at a coffee farm in the Mekong Delta. Photograph: Tran Thi Luong Nguyen

In the US, Starbucks has been adding AOCA coffee in Japan for some time – and recently expanded further with 16 locations in Honolulu, Honolulu-Oakland, West Coast California, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Denver, San Diego, Austin, and Miami. While conventional roasted versions of coffee exist, AOCA’s focus is on sustainably farmed, yet ethically sourced beans and roasts, which use fair-trade, organic, and Rainforest Alliance coffee certified seeds and produce that’s fair to farmers and workers, says Ngo Se Ngoc, coffee specialist at Starbucks Japan.

“We’re in Hawaii primarily because it’s a big travel destination, and one that is not very familiar with Starbucks coffee,” Ngoc said. “When there is a shortage in the coffee industry, it is unfortunate that the farmers are pushed out of their traditional places of residence. There is a high unemployment rate.”

Starbucks refers to Hawaii as a “mainland” state, which Ngoc said “is not a bad thing”. Because most of its sourcing is from Vietnam, many believe Starbucks is giving the state a boost.

Starbucks coffee cup. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian

US cities like Vancouver and Vancouver, Washington, are home to multiple AOCA-certified farms and roasters, and according to the AOCA Facebook page, over 70% of coffee in Oregon and Washington State, and the West Coast, is Certified Fair Trade.

The Granville Island Coffee Roasters on the east coast of Vancouver is one of the many AOCA-certified roasters in the region. Owner Geoff Hilquist agrees that AOCA coffee is a lot of work, but adds that demand for coffee from Vietnam has increased in recent years, “because so many people are interested in wanting their own coffee makers,” Hilquist said. “AOCA coffee is easily as good as that sold in a cafe.”

Cafe power

Wherever AOCA roasts, there are mass coffee chains right there to pick up the tab for hundreds of customers. In addition to coffee chains like Starbucks, Seattle-based Triple Espresso brings a real East coast vibe to the Starbucks cafes, with their clear AOCA chalkboard signs and vinyl music selection.

The An’che Coffee Bar on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, where espresso and specialty coffee is made from sustainably sourced Vietnamese beans. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian

In New York City, An’che Coffee Bar on Michigan Avenue serves specialty blends sourced from Vietnam and beans traditionally roasted for a decade or two before roasted.

“That’s what we like about Vietnam,” An’che co-owner Victor Svejkalija says. “It has the unusual flavors to it, the exotic quality and texture.”

As a refugee from what was Yugoslavia, Svejkalija learned to appreciate nuances of coffee during his childhood in Salzburg, Austria.

“It’s kind of got a little bit ethnic in it,” he says, “in a good way.”

This article was updated on 22 April to correct the name of the San Diego coffee shop where Ngo Se Ngoc, Starbucks Japan’s coffee specialist, works.

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