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Vietnamese-American expert single-mindedly promotes coffee in motherland

Monday, August 24, 2015, 11:06 GMT+7
Vietnamese-American expert single-mindedly promotes coffee in motherland
William Robert Frith Jr. (left) is seen showing Cau Dat coffee beans to a representative of a U.S. coffee company.

An expert in coffee quality control of Vietnamese and American origins has been unwaveringly persistent in his quest to give coffee beans produced in his mother’s home country a face and a name they deserve.

>> An audio version of the story is available here

William Robert Frith Jr., 38, a seasoned expert in coffee quality control in the U.S., was born to an American veteran and a Vietnamese woman.

His parents met and fell in love during the war in Vietnam, which came to an end in 1975.

Ten years ago, during a visit to his mother’s country of birth, Frith took a trip to Da Lat, located in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong.

Finding his way among the coffee plant farms, the young man bit a ripe coffee bean which he randomly picked.

He then pondered why such premium coffee produced in an area which boasts temperate climate and fertile soil has yet to secure a firm footing on the global coffee map.

Frith found that the Lam Vien Highland, which Da Lat is perched on, is ideal for growing specialty coffee, with its altitude of over 1,500 meters.

The man then contacted Vietnamese coffee growers in the U.S. to find out more about the current situation of coffee cultivation in Vietnam, and began mapping out his plans to improve the quality of the coffee produced in Cau Dat and Lang Biang, located some 25 and 12 kilometers, respectively, from the heart of Da Lat.

His plans visualized changes which would begin with farmers’ coffee cultivation practices, outlets, roasting mills, and packaging companies.

It later dawned on Frith that one of the main reasons behind the lack of international appeal of Vietnamese coffee is that farmers mostly care about how to sell their produce in bulk, instead of its quality.

As soon as he finished devising his plans, the Vietnamese American and his wife sold their house in the U.S. and rented a small apartment to save for his long-running project.

Ho Xuan Vinh first introduced Da Lat to Frith.

Vinh is a co-founder of the U.S.-based Temple Hills Coffee, which is a project meant to build cultural and economic bridges between Vietnam and the U.S. by developing and branding specialty coffees from the Southeast Asian country.

Vinh recalled that he went numb learning that Frith had sold his house.

“I’m well aware that I’m taking risks, but it’s something that I feel I must go for,” Frith told Vinh.

The bold risk taker later revealed that he sold his house also to avert understandable oscillations so that he would not be able to turn back but go on with his choice project.

To enrich his knowledge of coffee, Frith undertook different phases ranging from roasting coffee and inspecting quality to training technicians and research and development at two Washington-based coffee processors, Batdorf & Bronson and Olympia Coffee.

While working there, he raised his recurrent question regarding the absence of Vietnamese coffee at major U.S. roasting mills to the native coffee pundits.

He was told not to care about Vietnamese coffee, which is of poor quality.

Frith was set on returning to Vietnam to prove these experts wrong.

The man of American and Vietnamese origins came back a second time to his mother’s place of birth in mid-2011.

“These gorgeous-looking, flavorful coffee beans will soon earn the recognition they have long deserved,” he told himself when picking some beans from farms in Da Lat.

Through his exhaustive research, Frith found out that the specialty grade coffee produced in Lang Biang is on a par with its counterparts in Kenya and Ethiopia.

However, coffee from these two African countries are considered premium produce, which fetches prices threefold those of the Lang Biang coffee and other Vietnamese brands.

Set on bringing about marked changes to the coffee sector in his motherland, Frith employed Vo Khanh, a coffee grower in Cau Dat.

Following two years of cooperation, Khanh has improved his revenue from his four hectares of Arabica coffee which adopts Frith’s formulae.

After Cau Dat, Frith made his way to Lat Commune, which sits at the foot of Lang Biang Mountain, and talked Rolan Colieng, a woman of the Chil ethnic minority group, into applying his formulae.

He also promised Colieng that a company will buy all her produce.

Frith’s approach only requires cutting down on fertilizers to make the most of the nutrients which are available in the thick humus layers typical of highland soil.

However, his approach, which has been adopted fruitfully by world-leading coffee exporters including Kenya, Ethiopia and the U.S. for over 10 years now, was met with doubt from Da Lat farmers and colleagues.

Though she had yet to buy into his words, Colieng agreed to adopt Frith’s approach, which helps her save a lot on fertilizers.

One month later, he returned to check on the progress of Colieng’s farm and introduced her to an Arabica outlet company which bought her produce at higher rates than previously.   

Colieng’s farm then became a model, which is currently applied by over 20 local households.

Their coffee is now ordered in bulk by roasting companies right at the start of the growing seasons at rates which are 20-30 percent higher than those offered by individual traders.

Through Frith’s connections, dozens of coffee companies in the U.S. and Asia have visited and worked with over 300 farmers in Lang Biang.

Frith, however, does not receive any pay from either the foreign companies or Vietnamese farmers.

He promoted Vietnamese coffee to his Singaporean partners in late 2013, who promised a raw ingredient cooperation project with farmers in Da Lat.

He said he is looking to partake in more coffee production projects in several countries as an expert, and will continue promoting Cau Dat and Lang Biang coffee there.

William Robert Frith Jr. graduated in literature from university in 2004, and is a member of the Specialty Coffee Association of America and Barista Guild of America (BGA).

He is recognized by BGA as a senior expert in specialty U.S. coffee concoction and development, and has won prizes and sat on the jury of several coffee concocting competitions organized in North America from 2009 to 2012, including the U.S. Barista Championship.

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