Brewing a love story amid a family-owned coffee farm in central Vietnam
For American Josh Guikema, courting Rolan Co Lieng, the daughter of a Vietnamese coffee farmer, meant having to prove himself to the family by hauling a 60kg sack of beans up a mountain.
French colonialists introduced the bean to Indochina in the mid-1800s, setting up java farms in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
Rolan Co Lieng is a fourth-generation coffee farmer. “I grew up in a coffee farm. I first drank coffee when I was four. You can imagine how much I love coffee,” she said.
Her family belongs to the indigenous K’Ho tribe, the oldest ethnic group living in the Central Highlands in Dalat. Their farm, which is located within the Lang Biang mountains, dates back to the 1860s.
While much of the coffee produced in Vietnam is of the Robusta variety, the K’Ho have grown heirloom Arabica since the 19th century.
The Vietnam War in the 60s and 70s saw the coffee industry come to a standstill during those two decades, after which the industry was nationalised, and its farms, collectivised. It was after 1986, following shift towards a market-driven economy and the reinstatement of the right to privately-owned enterprise, that Vietnam’s nascent coffee industry really took off.
A tourism boom in the Central Highlands since the 90s has also led to growing interest in the region’s coffee and handicrafts, which Rolan’s family also sells.
“I was 15 then, an artist doing handicrafts and art. I started a project with the community to export the products to France. And I met Josh,” she said of her Michigan-born American husband.
“We were friends for a year before she called me to come up and stay in Dalat. At that time, we went to visit her parents. I met her parents for the first time in the coffee garden,” said Josh Guikema, whose family owns a flower farm in the US.
Wanting to help Rolan expand her family business, and to deal with issues such as deforestation, soil exhaustion and exploitation of farmers, Josh and Rolan founded K’Ho Coffee in 2011, a family enterprise offering freshly roasted, sustainably grown, organic speciality grade Arabica coffee sourced directly from their community, and sold to local and international markets.
“Arabica from the high elevation here is the best,” said Josh. “We roasted some of the family coffee and it had an excellent taste. So we decided to do some business with her parents and it grew into working with the whole community here. What we really want to do is have a positive impact on the community, so we’d like to keep our company growing organically, and [engage in] fair trade,” said Josh.
K’Ho Coffee’s own five-hectare Arabica coffee farm features Bourbon, Catura and Catimor plants fertilised with compost made by Rolan’s brother using pig waste and coffee cherries.
Through direct trade, they create more value at origin, providing employment for 50 families and supporting the local farming economy.
The process of getting coffee from crop to cup is a laborious one, involving 25 steps. “Each coffee bean is selected by hand from the tree. From harvesting, selection, fermentation, and then drying, storage and finally, the roasting… we put so much care into the selection, picking, processing, so every part is equally important. The results come out in the final quality,” said Josh.
That was not his only labour of love. “In K’Ho culture, you have to prove that you can work when you meet the woman’s family. They asked me to pick up this pack of coffee, which weighed 60 kilograms, and climb up the mountain,” recalled Josh of the time when he was courting Rolan.
“Not only farmers here, every customer who comes here would respect more of the work behind the cup of coffee that they wake up drinking every morning,” said Rolan.
K’Ho Coffee has also opened a cafe right in the heart of the farm, serving coffee that’s grown, processed and roasted there, with views of the coffee plants, and the mountains beyond. It also conducts half-day farm tours, which also includes a cup of coffee, lunch and a sample of freshly roasted beans to take home.
“The business we started has kind of become like our child. But it’s like a child that supports the entire family,” said Josh. “We’d like to keep it in the family and pass the business down to our next generation.”