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Bon Mua Coffee

Zyanya Nelson, center, and Jason Eastman try Lan Marberry’s Bon Mua Oregon coffee while shopping at Roth’s Fresh Market in Salem, Oregon.

By Dan Shryock

Bon Mua Oregon is a small-lot coffee company driven with enthusiasm by Lan Marberry in the United States. She is quick to point out, however, that her business really starts in Vietnam’s Daklak Province, in the tiny village of Hoa An.

Coffee production in Daklak Province accounts for nearly half of the nation’s total coffee production, according to the Vietnam Coffee-Cocoa Association. That’s where Lan Nguyen, Mayberry’s father, has been tending coffee plants since 1978, first producing Robusta cherries on a small plot of land slightly more than 300 square meters in size.

For years, Nguyen labored through hot, humid seasons tending his bushes and waited out the rains to begin his harvest each October to December. His processed beans then were sold through cooperatives to large brokers and shipped to destinations unknown.

“My father was one of the very first coffee growers in southwest Vietnam,” Marberry says, sitting with him in a Salem-area coffee shop during one of his recent visits to Oregon.

Nguyen worked his Robusta crop for nearly 20 years, gradually increasing the size of his farm. He planted black peppercorn vines, growing as high as 8–10 feet in a manner similar to hops, alongside the coffee bushes. “Bugs don’t care for the pepper so much, so they lay off the coffee,” Marberry says.

Vietnam’s Coffee Reputation

Then, when trade barriers fell in the late 1990s, the Vietnamese government flooded the world market with its already burgeoning supply of Robusta beans, thus pushing prices down. The move left a bitter taste with exporting countries. Vietnam was saddled with a reputation for producing less-than-quality beans.

Government officials responded by giving growers more freedom to plant new crops. Nguyen took the opportunity to plant Arabica at Hoa An’s 5,000-foot elevation.

“People like my father who have been with the soil understood we need to be more innovative and more creative to maintain Robusta and also work on Arabica,” Marberry says. “The government encouraged farmers like my father to work independently.”

Four years later, Nguyen was producing quality Arabica coffee beans.

“With 40 years of growing, coffee has become a part of my heart and my mind,” Nguyen says. “I don’t differentiate between growing Robusta or Arabica. To me, it’s coffee and it’s something I live with. The Arabica is very good, very good taste and has very distinctive flavors to me.”

Roaster Bert Ortiz and Lan Nguyen examine some of Nguyen’s green coffee beans.

Birth of a Business

It wasn’t until 2016 that the idea of starting an American-based company began to take form. Marberry and her 8-year-old son Kevin were visiting Hoa An when Nguyen posed a memorable question.

“Father asked, ‘Do you know who has been drinking our coffee?’ ” Marberry recalls of the conversation that sparked a business. “At that moment, I think deeply about my father,” she says.

Marberry, who was attending Willamette University's Atkinson Graduate School of Management at the time, began developing a plan. She would export the family crop to Oregon, roast it and sell it by the bag.

Then, she thought, her father would know who drank his coffee.

The family farm, now about 20 acres in size, produces more than 8,000 kilos of green beans a year. About 90 percent of the crop is Arabica beans and the rest are Robusta as a backup crop.

Once the beans arrive in Oregon, Marberry contracts Salem-area roaster Bert Ortiz to prepare most of that inventory. It is then bagged and sold in grocery stores, including Rosauers, Market of Choice, Thriftway, and Roth’s Fresh Markets, and co-ops across the Pacific Northwest. (Black pepper from the farm’s peppercorn vines are stocked as well.)

Ortiz roasts Bon Mua beans in 50-pound batches when not producing his own Tico’s coffee. Working with Lan and her team, Ortiz has refined several roasting profiles for what eventually is bagged as light medium, medium and dark roast coffees.

And while Lan Marberry refers to Ortiz as “our hero,” their work together means “more than the coffee itself,” Ortiz says. “It’s the relationship that goes along with it. What I’ve done with the product is my interpretation. It’s consistent.”

Lan Marberry’s coffee is stocked on grocery store shelves throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Sampling Reactions

Lan Nguyen, now 61, still maintains his farm in Hoa An with a nephew’s help. He and his wife visit Marberry and her family twice a year but return home in time to oversee the harvest and processing.

Marberry, meanwhile, is routinely found in grocery stores offering cold brew samples to curious shoppers and then encouraging them to try something hot. She takes time to speak with each customer. In one moment, she attentively listens to recollections of an American Vietnam war veteran. In another, she bends her knees to gain eye level and tell her family story to children.

In a scene frequently repeated during a two-hour sampling session, a hesitant shopper sips the medium roast. It may be the notes of chocolate, nuts, caramel, lemongrass or perhaps even five-spice that grabs the attention.

“Where does this come from?”

Vietnam, Marberry proudly says. The shopper now looks puzzled.

“Can I buy this here?”

Yes, she says, handing the shopper a bag. “And this is my father. He grew the coffee.”

To the side is Lan Nguyen, watching the scene unfold time and again. And, he sees who is drinking his coffee.

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