Coffee, a tagged essential commodity through the years, is the most widely traded product, with 25 million smallholder farmers from all over the world producing 80 percent of global coffee output.
Aside from it being traded, exported and imported, it is also among the most consumed beverages worldwide with an average consumption of 42.6 litres per person annually. Evidently, in 2020-2021, around 166.63 million 60 kilogram bags of coffee were consumed worldwide.
Over the past five years, Asia’s coffee consumption has increased by 1.5%, transforming the region into a “soon-to-be center of gravity” for the global coffee industry.
In terms of the number of nations that produce coffee, more than 50 countries are on the list. Though we see production being concentrated mainly in developing countries, ASEAN cut its way through as it boosts not only in production but also in various aspects.
To learn more about the ASEAN coffee industry, I spoke with Victor Mah, president of ASEAN Coffee Federation (ACF) and ASEAN Coffee Institute (ACI).
ASEAN and Coffee Production
ASEAN or Association of Southeast Asian Nations was established on August 8, 1967. A meeting by 5 nations was held at Bangkok, Thailand, and this then gave birth to one of the most successful inter-governmental associations in our world today.
It has ten member states, namely, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. These nations have their own coffee production, hence, giving them a better stage to be known worldwide.
Victor has over 40 years of experience in the coffee industry. He tells me, “a lot of the ASEAN countries where they have the capabilities or the land area, as well as climate conditions, are looking to grow specialty coffee. For instance, Myanmar, Northern Thailand, Laos and Philippines.”
In Indonesia, other than Sumatran and Java coffee, specialty coffee production is blossoming in Bali.
Whereas in Cambodia, there is a growing number of specialty coffee chains. The coffee market is also projected to grow at a rate of 9.05% per annum due to an increase in demand.
The Philippines is currently reviving its specialty Robusta coffee production through the help of the Philippine Coffee Board.
Similarly Lao PDR views coffee cultivation as one of the most important agricultural products. More than 90% of coffee cultivation comes from the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos. Further, the coffee market in Laos is expected to grow annually by 9.03%, with revenue amounting to US$176.3 million in 2022.
Farmers who produce non-specialty coffee in the ASEAN region also receive support from various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and local government units (LGUs) to educate them and implement sustainable coffee farming strategies.
The ASEAN Coffee Pillars
As seen in the data above, Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee, with Indonesia being in the fourth place. Maintaining this spot through the years gives us an overview for the potential realignment of the world’s demand for coffee produced in ASEAN countries.
Indeed, in the year 2021/22, Vietnam’s export for Robusta saw an increase of 15.1% to 26.78 million bags. On the other hand, Indonesia experienced an increase in green coffee exports from 6.82 million bags to 6.92 million bags in the year 2021/22.
Arguably, ASEAN plays a vital role in growing the coffee economy as well as contributing to the demand and supply of the coffee market as most member states are coffee producing countries.
Victor explains that Thailand and Myanmar are both growing great varieties of Arabica coffee.
“Myanmar is a country that we should watch very carefully. Unfortunately, due to the current situation, we are not seeing much of their coffee coming out. But, Myanmar does focus very much on Arabica coffee,” he says.
The Philippines, once a top producer of Robusta, is also seen to be re-introducing herself to the world market.
What makes ASEAN coffee special?
The uniqueness of ASEAN coffee comes from various aspects.
Victor explains, “this depends on which side of ASEAN coffee you are looking at.”
“If you are looking at the production side, we are unique, because right amongst our members, we have two of the largest coffee producing countries in the world – Vietnam and Indonesia. Vietnam is the top Robusta producer and Indonesia is the fourth largest coffee producing country.”
“Aside from that, we are growing to become a major coffee consuming region. We have a population of about 650-690 million in the whole of the ASEAN area. Out of that, 60-70% of that population is under the age of 50. We have a fast-growing middle class.”
With these numbers at hand, the demand for coffee has drastically increased over the past few years.
Traditionally, ASEAN member states have their own coffee culture, especially as to how they consume coffee. For instance, Malaysia and Singapore’s kopitiam culture boasts itself as an integral part of their society. Vietnam has also introduced a popular brewing method to the world through its traditional Vietnamese drip coffee.
When it comes to the flavour profile of coffee in this region, it is often described as rich, earthy, silky, savoury, spicy, bold, and wild. Thanks to the dynamic climate and geographical location of ASEAN member nations, this region offers ideal growing conditions for coffee.
What’s more, ASEAN coffee’s popularity has soared after Hugh Kelly, Australian Barista Champion and second-runner up of the 2021 World Barista Championship, introduced home-grown Liberica from Malaysia to the world stage. This has opened another window of opportunity for ASEAN coffee to be recognized worldwide.
Discussing the ASEAN coffee trend in the next few years, Victor said delightfully, “I’m looking at it [ASEAN coffee] optimistically – on the production side, with our ASEAN Coffee Institute and sustainability programs, I hope that we will be able help and work with the farmers in this region. We want to help improve their livelihood because without the farmers, there will be no coffee industry.”
“We need to further educate our farmers so that we can give them the opportunity to have a sustainable living wage, proper housing, among others. We must achieve that. That is our goal.”
Victor predicts that in the next 5 years, consumption will “go through the roof”, as most countries are already seeing an upward consumption trend.
“With that said, I am very concerned about climate change and its effect. We are already seeing strange weather conditions affecting coffee production. But I am very hopeful for the ASEAN region as a whole.”
Undoubtedly, the coffee industry in Asia Pacific is constantly being improved by ASEAN coffee’s holistic growth. With Vietnam and Indonesia leading the front lines in coffee production, other ASEAN member states tread the road towards a better and healthier landscape for ASEAN coffee to be further appreciated by a larger audience.