Champion of the 2019 Milklab Barista Battle Series Jibbi Little recounts her discoveries about coffee production and culture in South-East Asia.
Vietnam is famous as the world’s largest producer of Robusta coffee. However, when Jibbi Little visited the country in December 2019, she experienced a completely different part of the nation’s industry.
“I had never been to Vietnam before and really wanted to see the coffee scene and farming for myself,” Jibbi says.
“Specialty coffee focuses much more on Arabica coffee than Robusta, so I wasn’t sure how that would be reflected in Vietnam. But it has small farms that are growing only Arabica and processing fully washed coffee. It’s quite interesting to see that there’s still a minority of farmers focusing on quality.”
Jibbi was flown to Vietnam for five nights as part of her prize for winning the Milklab Barista Battle Series at the 2019 Melbourne International Coffee Expo. The latte art competition saw four finalists put their skills to the test using Milklab’s barista milk range.
Jibbi arrived in Ho Chi Minh the night of 8 December and rested at Hotel des Arts before her first full day in the country. On 9 December, after exploring Ho Chi Minh’s local food, restaurants, and cafés, Jibbi made the seven-hour trip from Vietnam’s capital to Dalat, the home of Son Pacamara Specialty Coffee Farm.
While Jibbi had previously visited coffee farms in Thailand and India, she says visiting Son Pacamara was a completely different experience.
“This was a much smaller farm with much less in terms of technology, equipment, and innovation. Everything was so local and done by hand,” Jibbi says. “I learned a lot about how small farms can produce and improve coffee as well.”
Jibbi went picking with the farmers, where she learned how to tell the difference between varietals. Son Pacamara grows multiple varietals despite its small size, including its namesake Pacamara, Bourbon, Typica, and hybrids of the breeds.
“In larger farms like those in Brazil, they might have separate land for different varietals, but it’s quite mixed in Vietnam. You need to be able to tell what you just picked. Then at the end of the day, you need to be able to sort the cherries by hand,” Jibbi says.
“At first it was difficult, but you quickly pick up on the differences. Bourbon is very round. Everything big – including leaves – is Pacamara. Long leaves and beans is Typica. If a tree has lots of cherries, it’s probably a hybrid, which is easier to grow,” Jibbi says.
After touring Son Pacamara, Jibbi’s hosts guided her through the roasting and cupping process they perform as part of their testing and quality control. While Jibbi has experience roasting through her business Jibbi Little Roasting Co, the small sample roaster in Vietnam required a different approach to what she was used to.
“It was like going back to the basics. The machine was quite simple, which actually allows you to understand more about the coffee because you are more involved in the roasting,” she says.
“Like, when the skin [or chaff] comes off the bean, you need to actually help blow it away to carry on with the roast. In bigger machines, the chaff is filtered away and you don’t see it disappear.”
Having learned about coffee from the locals, it was time for Jibbi to share what she knew with the Vietnamese community. While in the country, Jibbi hosted a series of talks in several cities, covering topics like how to find a job in an Australian café, competing on the world stage, and latte art techniques. Jibbi says while these talks drew quite a crowd in smaller towns, they packed out cafés in Ho Chi Minh.
“The younger generation really want to make a name for themselves and know that in Australia they can become more famous and earn a better salary in coffee,” Jibbi says.
While many baristas are interested in gaining experience in Australia, Jibbi says the work requirements are totally different.
“The salary is quite low in Vietnam, so cafés can put on twice as many staff. But each person only does the job they’re hired to do. They don’t multitask like we’re expected to do in Australia,” she says.
The coffees baristas make are often also different between the two countries. Jibbi says many in Vietname know how to make a latte with impressive art but struggle with other milk coffees.
“They took ‘flat white’ literally and would try to serve the coffee with no foam at all. This meant they would heat the milk without texturing it, so the sweetness of the milk wasn’t really brought out,” Jibbi says.
“For a cappuccino, some would pour as much foam into the cup as possible. At many of the places I visited, I was able to share back my knowledge on proper technique and how to prepare these different drinks.”
On the other hand, the local preference for black and filtered coffee meant the quality of pour overs from Vietnamese specialty cafés was particularly high.
“I didn’t get a bad pour over at all in Vietnam. Pour over makes up 80 per cent of the orders at some of these cafés, whereas in Australia you’re unlikely to get more than four or five per day,” she says.
“So generally, the baristas knew how to brew coffee – especially with V60 – maybe even better than in Australia. They know what they’re doing and can describe to you how their actions are bringing out sweetness or reducing bitterness.”
Even in Vietnam’s restaurants, Jibbi saw a different approach to issues like waste than is common in Australia.
“Restaurants and cafés weren’t using plastic straws. Instead, they used natural materials like water spinach stems or bamboo. It’s a lot less plastic and makes the restaurant look and feel really natural,” Jibbi says.
“It was so cool and something I’d never seen anywhere else. Even in Thailand, there are straws and plastic everywhere.”
With everything Jibbi learned in Vietnam, from the farms to cafés, she says the most important thing she discovered is how hard it is to make a good cup of coffee.
“Every process counts and each detail requires attention. Many of the people at origin live hard lives and it makes me feel thankful to be in Australia,” Jibbi says.
“It was meaningful to be able to share my experience of coffee with them too. I love the path of sharing knowledge. It brings a real happiness when you know it’s a benefit to people.”
This article appears in the February 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.