Alongside the legitimate business that makes Vietnam one of the world’s leading coffee exporters, there exists an almost secret industry, where coffee is mixed with soybeans and corn before being put into packs labeled ‘100 percent pure coffee.’
A recent survey has found more than 30 percent of coffee consumed daily across four Vietnamese provinces and cities actually contain insignificant caffeine content, or no caffeine at all, while two facilities in Ho Chi Minh City have even been found producing coffee with soybeans and fish sauce.
Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper has followed inspectors on these raids, looking deeper into the business of coffee mixing to discover the bitter truth behind thousands of cups of coffee sold daily throughout the country.
A mixture of soybeans and coffee beans
13 mixing formulas
Tuoi Tre visited M., who has more than ten years of experience in producing soybean-mixed coffee in the southern province of Binh Duong.
M. revealed that there are now 13 ‘recipes’ to mix coffee of all tastes. “The proportion of three main ingredients, coffee, soybean and corn, vary in each formula to achieve the specific tastes of your target,” he said.
The man added that chemicals, colorings, flavorings, artificial sugar and other ingredients such as milk and butter are indispensable parts of the bogus ‘pure coffee.’
Those products available at only VND45,000 (US$2) a kg are obviously mixed, with coffee accounting for around 10 to 15 percent of the total blend.
Bao, a coffee distributor in Binh Duong, said his bestsellers are the 500g coffee packs branded as “BN.”
“The more bitter products cost VND40,000 a pack, while those with better flavors fetch VND50,000,” he told Tuoi Tre on June 24.
Bao said he distributes coffee to a number of sidewalk cafés in Ho Chi Minh City, as well as nearby provinces.
He even sells the mixed products back to the Central Highlands, which is dubbed Vietnam’s coffee growing hub.
The man said, "knowing your customers’ taste is important."
“Consumers in the north prefer cheap prices to strong flavor, whereas those in the countryside love bitter coffee,” he elaborated.
An employee stands in a coffee-mixing facility in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The no-caffeine coffee
Duong, a salesperson for a coffee producer, also made no secret that his company sells mixed coffee along with pure products.
“We have 100 percent coffee, and mixtures whose caffeine content is only 30 percent,” he told Tuoi Tre.
Duong also disclosed how to tell if a specific amount of coffee is mixed or pure.
“After brewing, you should stir the liquid coffee; if there are foams, it is the pure product,” he elaborated.
The salesman added that it is not news that mixed coffee products are available on the market.
“The trick is to keep the mixing proportions at acceptable levels,” he added.
Duong offers his soybean-mixed coffee for sale at VND60,000 ($2.7) a kg, or VND45,000 a kg for orders above 50kg.
A kilogram of coffee can be brewed into 30 to 35 cups. Even at the lowest price of VND10,000 a cup, sellers can earn up to VND250,000 ($11) to 300,000 ($13) per kg, Duong said.
An employee is seen mixing soybeans with coffee. Photo: Tuoi Tre
On July 15, a joint inspection team in Ho Chi Minh City raided a coffee-grinding facility in Binh Tan District, and another in Binh Chanh District, seizing a huge amount of mixed coffee and ingredients to make the so-called ‘dirty’ coffee.
At the facility run by T.Q.D. in Binh Tan, employees were busy working on the mixing machine when officers stormed in.
The inspectors also found many buckets containing unidentified liquid chemicals of brown, black and dark yellow colors, which employees said would also be mixed into the coffee.
Included were many bottles of fish sauce, an indispensable ingredient used to improve the product's taste, according to the employees.
D. admitted he had been producing coffee that way since 2010, making some 1.5 metric tons of mixed coffee products on a daily basis.
The inspectors also seized many soybean-mixed coffees, flavorings and colorings at the coffee-grinding facility in Binh Chanh District.