In response to the precipitous rise of specialty coffee in recent years, coffee’s traditional Big Four (Nestlé, Sara Lee, Kraft, and Proctor & Gamble) — rather than compete by raising their quality standards — responded instead by seeking cheaper bean stocks to squeeze out more profits. The Vietnamese robusta coffee market rode the wave of these investments, and its explosive growth, overproduction, and proliferation fueled much of the coffee crisis that inspired Fair Trade and related initiatives to protect the endangered quality coffee grower.

Despite the low-grade coffee that Vietnam came to symbolize, that did not prevent delusions of grandeur. One of these delusions is now facing a harsh reality check, after eight years and $50 million of investment to develop higher-grade arabica bean growth in Vietnam: VietNamNet – Arabica coffee project a fantastic hope.

Robusta coffee is just that — rubustly resistant to drought, heat, and climates that can be inhospitable to the higher-quality arabica coffee species. The problem is that robusta coffee is so inferior, it often needs to be chemically treated to taste more like coffee — and not like the burnt rubber it is most commonly described as. The failure of arabica coffee to take hold in Vietnam only underscores how challenging it is to produce good coffee there.