By Pip de Rouvray
(No.1, Vol.4, Jan-Feb 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine,Advertorial)
There is an awful lot of coffee in Vietnam. There has been for some time now. In a good year, the country comes in second, after Brazil, in countries exporting the crop. You need only to walk down a street to note that the Vietnamese themselves have adopted a coffee culture around the bean that originates far away in the highlands of Ethiopia and the mountains of Yemen.
The French, of course, introduced coffee to Vietnam and their interest was merely in taking the raw product back to France for processing. Even fifteen years ago, when I first came here, I pondered on why there was no famous local brand on the world market and why people were not doing innovative things with the drink. It was only a matter of time before along came a gentleman named Mr Dang Le Nguyen Vu, who rectified all that with the brand Trung Nguyen. Now, there is a new kid on the block and I went along to his head office to see and taste just what makes his coffee products distinctive in a very competitive market.
‘Linker Vietnam’ is a company hitherto known for real estate and consultancy services to other companies. Soon, it is likely to become a household name. Only three months ago, it added a third string to its bow with the launch of five new kinds of coffee under the brand name of Pihatt.
Was I sitting before and chatting to a man soon to become Vietnam’s new coffee magnate? Mr Truong Trong Cu, president of the company, is certainly a man with a passion for coffee. He hails from Dalat, a coffee-growing area and wants to make his hometown as synonymous with the drink as Buon Me Thuot. ‘Our coffees’, he explains, ‘are unique for [their] extensive use of the Arabica bean. In Vietnam, only two per cent of [the] production of coffee is Arabica. The vast bulk of Vietnamese coffee is of the less-valuable Robusta variety.’ Most coffees are a blend the two varieties. Arabica will grow only above 1,500 metres and the Pinhatt mountain area near Dalat fits this bill. Pihatt (‘by heart’) has been chosen for the overall brand name of Linker’s coffees. It took me a while to figure out that, speaking with a Vietnamese accent, Pihatt does sound like ‘by heart’ in English. ‘It is very apt.’ says Mr Cu. ‘We have put our hearts and souls into our coffees.’
That last statement can be evinced by the fact that a whole year’s market research was carried out before the launch. ‘We studied the regions of Vietnam to find out that there are very different preferences throughout Vietnam’, went on Mr Cu. ‘Hanoians, for example, like their coffee slightly bitter.’ The range of products reflects these findings. Mr Cu further expands his company’s philosophy- ‘We want customers to enjoy a healthy coffee with aroma and taste at an affordable price. There are no additives in our products; just pure coffee. We want everyone to benefit; drinkers, retailers, cafe owners and the farmers themselves.’ I told him that his fair trade approach should be an advantage when it comes to tackling the European market.
I was most impressed by the packaging. Not only was it attractive, but it gave key information in a succinct manner, perhaps taking a cue from modern wine labelling. First, the bean used is marked in big bold letters; for example, ‘Arabica’ on a packet of Premium Pihatt, or a blend of Arabica and Robusta on Regular Pihatt. The taste is described; for example, for Premium bitter, ‘sweet aftertaste’ and ‘long-lasting aroma.’ Then, you are given the colour. You can expect your Premium cup to look black-brown. The information is given in Vietnamese on one side of a pack and in English on the other. The five products for a packet of 500 grams cost from between 79,000 dongs to 239,000 dongs. They are named in ascending order of price, ‘999’, ‘Regular’, ‘Medium’, ‘Premium’, and ‘Special’.
I was given a rundown on Pihatt Coffee’s short and long-term market strategy. At the moment, it is only being sold to cafe owners. In about a year’s time, it should be available direct to consumers on the supermarket shelf. After establishing its popularity on the domestic market, it is expected to expand to other Asian markets. Singapore was mentioned as a key market. Then, the last step will be to conquer the rest of the world and make the marque something of which to make Vietnam proud.
I was invited to a tasting session. Mr Cu and his two aides had coffee on ice. I insisted on a black coffee with no sugar, something which always surprises my Vietnamese friends. ‘How else can one judge a coffee?’ I told them. My cup of ‘Premium’ was just as the label said it would be- slightly bitter with a long aftertaste and furthermore, very strong. In fact, it was a magic potion and kept my mind alert for hours. I do not think I have had such a strong drink of coffee I since worked in Saudi Arabia. ‘That is because you are drinking pure coffee,’ Mr Cu explained. ‘Do not drink this at night time,’ he continued, ‘you won’t get a blink of sleep!’
With all the wars and nasty things going on in the world, I am pleased to bring you some good news. If you live in Vietnam, you now have an array of coffee products, at least one of which will please your palate. You will soon be able to enjoy it at home and on your next trip, you should be able to take back a packet of Pihatt as a taste of Vietnam to offer to your friends. This coffee is a thoroughbred; pure and strong and sure to aid social interaction. ‘Pihatt Coffee’ pronounced with a Vietnamese accent as ‘by heart’. In years to come, please tell your children you heard about it first in Vietnam Heritage Magazine.