I love coffee as much as the next person, but I think I was born to drink coffee. Really. One of my earliest memories is when I was a young girl, barely four years old, and my mother had taken me to a friend’s house where the ladies gathered around a table for afternoon coffee. The smell of coffee was delicious. I am not sure what it was at that young age which gave me such a longing for coffee, but I wanted to taste it.
I was in the room adjacent to the coffee party, more than likely playing and doing things that a four year old-girl might do, but what I was really doing was waiting for them to leave the table. When they finally did, I walked up to the table and to my dismay all the coffee cups were empty. Rather than turning away I scooted to each seat to sip out the very last drop. Though the four year-old me could not tell you what it was like or why I enjoyed it, I can still remember what the coffee smelled like that day and how it tasted.
Growing up, I was not allowed a cup of coffee until I was about fifteen and even then I was only permitted one cup on a Saturday morning. My mother often prepared a pot of coffee with a mix of common roasted beans with another flavored roast like vanilla or cinnamon. As I grew older, coffee became not only a means to satisfy a tasty morning fix, but a boost to begin the day.
In my early twenties as I was working in kitchens, coffee was a means to make it through the long arduous hours. As I learned about food and making certain dishes for the chefs I worked under, my wisdom of the art of maintaining natural flavors and characteristics through cooking many dishes grew. This learning transcended into other parts of my life, including how I would enjoy coffee. I started drinking Americano coffee, no cream, no sugar. It was not too strong and I could enjoy and appreciate good coffee without any adulterations of milk or sugar or any other added flavoring. Later I would try different roasts, different preparations and I was amazed of the vast variety of aromas, flavors and texture of coffee.
It has been a few years since my epiphany and I have tried coffee in a few parts of the world, each one unique and different. There has been the fair share of horrible cups of coffee or over-extracted espresso. When one has had enough of those, you can really come to enjoy and savor a perfectly made coffee drink.
I am on the road again doing a bit of travels and I find myself in Vietnam. One of my main reasons for choosing this country to visit is for its culinary delights. To my pleasant surprise, other than the food, the coffee here is delicious. The rich, thick, yet smooth nectar is without a doubt a jumpstart to my day, and the taste inspires. It does not take a coffee-snob to notice at first sip how different and how good the coffee is in Vietnam.
The average cup costs around fifty cents to a dollar, which will get you a cup of chocolatey mocha tasting cup o’joe, traditionally mixed with a couple teaspoons of condensed milk. It is by far a treat and in the sweltering tropical heat of late April and May in the major cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh you can get it served with ice, and iced coffee does not get better than this! If you venture to Ho Chi Minh and walk around the streets surrounding the main market you can find stalls and cafes selling coffee by the gram or you can sit and have a cup for around two or three dollars. For the locals, this is expensive. However, luckily for travelers this is more than affordable and a way to enjoy some of the best coffee Vietnam has to offer.
Ho Chi Minh was getting a bit too hot for my taste, so I decided to travel up north into the southern Highlands area to a town of Da Lat. Traveling through town, you see many Vietnamese-type architecture and homes, but outside of the obvious visuals that you are in another country, it is not unlike many suburban or rural center towns you might find outside of Denver or in Northern California. It is more of a rural lifestyle, though the center of Da Lat can still be a buzz with hundreds upon hundreds of scooters getting off to their daily lives from early morning until the sun sets.
I decided to get out of the buzz and take a tour to see the countryside outside of Da Lat town center. My guide and I traveled by motorcycle on windy mountain roads making frequent stops to take photographs of valleys covered with vegetables, strawberries and of course, coffee bushes. There are numerous valleys, each one as green as the next with glints of rich burnt orange soils that seem to gleam under lush green vegetation. One of our stops was the Trai Ham-Da Lat Organic Weasel Coffee Farm.
Being an avid coffee lover from a very tender age, I have wanted to visit this place after hearing about it a couple years ago. It was better than Christmas morning. For those of you who are not familiar with this brew, this coffee is made by removing the beans from the excrement of a weasel. I will explain the process in more detail in a moment. Once the beans are separated, they are dried and roasted (almost) as normal coffee. It has the reputation for being one of the most expensive coffee in the world, averaging around $100 per kilogram.
The coffee plants in Vietnam were originally brought over from Columbia by the French. The area of Dalat about 100 years ago, was called ‘Dalek’. ‘Da’ translates as ‘from the water’ and ‘lek’ is the name of the minority people here who were mainly hunters and gatherers. When the French arrived and settled here, the local people were taught how to farm. Today, there are few of the Lek people left since they have integrated with other Vietnamese peoples. In the sixties and seventies during the Vietnam War, Dalat was one of the only places where fighting did not take place. Because of its safe haven and rich soils from ancient volcanic grounds, this became the perfect place for the French to settle and grow roots in many ways.
There are three species of coffee bushes in Vietnam. The most common is the Robusta, followed by Arabica, and lastly, the most rare and expensive, Moka. The Moka berries tend to grow at different times with varying sizes on just one branch. Each bean is picked by hand and only if it is red and ripe. The average coffee plant requires eight to nine months to grow one crop of coffee for the year and this is so, for Moka plants. However, with the various growing times of the beans on the Moka bush, individual berries ripen rather than the entire bunch. It may take three to four passes through the coffee plantation over a period of a month to month and a half to harvest all the berries. Though Moka is the most expensive and rare, it is never sold as pure Moka bean coffee. If the beans are not sprayed with something, such as rice wine, mixed with other ingredients such as tea leaves or other local agricultural products during the drying/roasting process, the flavor of the coffee can be sour and almost unpalatable.
Turning our attention back to the weasel coffee, two of the top questions you might have right now are, why on earth would anyone want to drink coffee from the excrement of an animal and why would they pay so much? I know this, because I shared similar sentiments before I arrived. After learning about the production of Vietnam’s coffee, especially this particular coffee, I fully understand why it costs so much and why the final cup is so amazing.
In the wild, the weasels jump from bush to bush and eat only the ripest of berries. These critters are coffee berry connoisseurs. Because of their keen sense of smell, they only choose the best to snack on and they snack a lot! At this farm the weasels are kept on premises, free of predators, and fed only the best, ripe beans by their owners. They are still choosy and only eat the beans they like the best.
They tear open the outer part and only eat the sweet coffee beans that lie inside. Now, to explain perhaps the least appetizing part. When the beans are in the weasel’s stomach, they soak up the acids which add character to the beans. Once they are, uh, well, pooped out, the bits are collected and put outside to dry in the sun. Depending on the weather, they may sit in the sun for up to a couple weeks or a couple months. Before they go off to roasting, they separate the beans from the excrement and spray them with rice alcohol and allow them to soak in the sun for an additional couple weeks or up to a month.
Following this lengthy period of time, they are roasted, ground and made into that perfect cup. This is not done with a machine. The Vietnamese have fashioned the perfect one shot coffee filter. It is simple, easy for any coffee and I will be adopting this method for the occasional coffee break.
The ‘filter’ is a little cup made of stainless steel or aluminum with small holes punched in at the bottom. The filter sits on a ‘plate’ with small holes that allows it to rest on the rim of the coffee cup. A couple spoonfuls of grounds are put in the cup and pressed down with a little pressing plate, which remains on top. To make the coffee, a small amount of hot water around 80 to 90 degrees (just under boiling) is slowly poured over the grounds just to wet them and get them packed in. After a few seconds the cup is then filled only half to three-quarters and then a lid is placed on top.
A closed vacuum is created allowing the water to slowly seep, filter through the grounds and pass through the metal cup, then into the drinking cup. Some very small grounds pass through, but because it is so slow, they all fall to the bottom before it is finished. It takes only a couple minutes and the coffee is ready to enjoy.
The color is so rich and dark you can see its texture as it awaits you in the cup. The aromas are like those of the moist coconut flesh you snack on after drinking its water. The aroma of coconut mixes in with chocolate volcano cake and toasty vanilla. The sip is the perfect blend of dark coffee and semi-sweet chocolate. It does not need any sugar or cream. The texture all its own coats your mouth like warm honey and is smooth and naturally just sweet enough.
So why is it so expensive? The process to make the coffee beans ready for roasting takes over a year and a half! The selection process alone by these animals is similar to the selection process of Grand Cru wine grapes. The process, not to mention the aromas and flavors of this coffee deserve a Grand Cru status. It was and is by far the most interesting cup of coffee I will ever to have.
I was fortunate to only pay around $3 for the cup and if you find yourself in Dalat, Vietnam, I do encourage you to visit this farm and at least try a cup. A 300 gram of the beans will run you around $20. I say it is well worth it. Maybe save that for yourself or share it with your other coffee feign friends. I think I might.
International Sommelier and Chef Christie Kiley has over a decade of combined experience in both restaurants and wineries. While working in kitchens under talented chefs, she spent nights off serving guests in the dining room.
Her passion for food began overflowing into the wine industry and while laboring during wine harvests in Napa, she learned the nature of the product from soil to bottling. Experience working the back- and front-of-the-house in restaurants, wineries in sales, and as a food and wine educator, Christie has vast knowledge of the two industries.
Christie is currently living in Buenos Aires, where she received her Fourth level International Sommelier Certificate from the Escuela de Argentina Sommeliers (EAS) after two years of study. She is now travelling to fine-tune her knowledge and delve into the gastronomy and cultures around the globe. She works as a freelance writer to share her cultural experiences.