Like most of us, Vietnamese coffee contains layers.
Ask an American importer about Vietnamese coffee, and they’ll probably tell you Vietnam is best known for dark-roast, mass-market blends. Order “Vietnamese coffee” in the sort of restaurant that serves a cornucopia of bibimbap, pad Thai, wonton soup, and spring rolls, and you can expect a tall, iced glass of something sweet and frothy with condensed milk.
In other circles, Vietnamese coffee is synonymous with Cafe du Monde, the chicory coffee from New Orleans, La.
“The most popular immigrant go-to brand for folks of my generation and my parents’ generation, especially to use in their homemade Vietnamese coffees, is Cafe du Monde,” says Sahra Nguyen, 33, founder and CEO of Nguyen Coffee Supply (NCS). Cafe du Monde is embraced by Vietnamese immigrants on America’s Gulf Coast due to its accessibility and similarity to dark-roasted Vietnamese Arabica and Robusta beans, Nguyen says. She calls it “a byproduct of the immigrant experience.”
Nguyen is a first-generation Vietnamese-American. She has nothing against those other types of Vietnamese coffee, but they don’t align with her experiences drinking high-quality specialty coffee in Vietnam. And so she’s on a mission to redefine Vietnamese coffee on menus and in minds in the U.S.
Her company, NCS, imports organic beans harvested on a fourth-generation family farm in Da Lat, Vietnam and roasts them in Brooklyn, N.Y. Nguyen sees NCS as part of the burgeoning craft coffee movement in Vietnam, and an opportunity to make American coffee culture more inclusive overall.
“One of the things that I didn’t always appreciate about coffee culture — the third wave, or whatever you want to call it — is, I feel like there’s a lot of elitism here. Like, this is the right way to drink coffee, this is the right way to brew it, and if you want three shots in one cup that’s blasphemy,” Nguyen says. “The culture coming out of certain segments of the coffee business feels very classist and elitist to me.”
That elitism causes some American consumers to write off Vietnamese coffee before trying its craft brews. “In many imaginations, Vietnamese coffee refers to dark roast swirled with sweetened, condensed milk — not respected, specialty beans,” Bettina Makalintal writes in Vice.
Vietnam is the world’s second-largest coffee producer, and most of its 3.6 billion pounds of coffee is exported. The majority of what comes from Vietnam to America, however, is “mass-produced blends,” Amir Gehl tells VinePair.
Gehl is the founder of Difference Coffee, a company that hand-picks (though not literally) top-shelf coffees for Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury hotels. He defines craft coffee as Arabica that earns at least 80 points by a bureau called the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). “Although there is a slight growth in specialty Arabica planting in Vietnam, primarily a varietal of Arabica called Catimor, the lion’s share of Vietnam’s coffee isn’t sold to specialty roasters and would not qualify as specialty grade by the SCA,” Gehl says.
Nguyen thus serves as an emissary not only for her company, NCS, but for specialty-grade Vietnamese coffee overall. To that end, in summer 2019, she ran a pop- up coffee shop, Cafe Phin, in NYC. It served NCS beans and highlighted the phin, a traditional Vietnamese brewing filter. Walk-in customers weren’t always familiar with it, and Nguyen wanted them to feel comfortable asking questions.
“People would come up to me like, ‘Please don’t judge me, I don’t know!’” when they looked at the menu and equipment, Nguyen recalls. “The fact that they feel like that means they’ve received some of that messaging from the coffee community — like, either you’re with it or you’re not. You’re a good coffee drinker or you’re not. I want to eliminate that.”
For those blissfully unaware of the messaging Nguyen is referring to, it goes something like this: “Good” coffee drinkers spend top dollar on single-origin beans, wait 15 minutes for a single pour over, and would love to discuss Chemex best practices with you. They are sharply opposed to the supposedly unenlightened masses who start their mornings with Keurigs, stir in flavored creamer or — gasp — Splenda, and then promptly move on with their days.
In other words, for a product associated with and classified by caffeine, coffee can be exhausting.
Nguyen says her mission is to educate, not intimidate. “I’m not from Portland,” she says. “Before I started NCS, I loved coffee and drank it twice a day, but I didn’t know the right grind size, I didn’t know the right temperature to brew my coffee. I just drank coffee. I think a lot of consumers are like that.”
Her inclusive efforts extend to brand marketing. NCS’s social media channels feature photos of young coffee drinkers of color, including Nguyen herself. For some consumers, this simple act of representation feels radical because craft coffee marketing is so often dominated by white faces.
“Everyone in the world drinks coffee. The producers of coffee are people of color. I drink coffee … Why are we not being reflected?” Nguyen says. She remembers showing friends some promotional NCS photos of herself sipping from a mug. They told her, “‘This shouldn’t feel revolutionary, but it feels revolutionary,’” she recalls. “They’ve never seen that image.”
Consumers are similarly moved. On April 25, 2019, NCS’s Instagram account posted a photo of Nguyen with another advocate for Vietnamese specialty coffee, Will Frith, in a cafe in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. A user left the comment: “[I] am so proud of you guys for changing the narrative. Nobody can tell our stories better than us.”
Casting a few models of color in select advertisements doesn’t disrupt industry-wide power structures, of course, but it sure does show the value of diversifying businesses at all levels. It’s exciting to see what can happen when we amplify different voices and remain open to what everyone has to say.
“Before NCS, all of my work has been centered around representation, diversity, inclusion, community empowerment,” Nguyen says. “So for me, being the creator and producer of this culture and this company, that’s what I want to channel out.”