All photography by Erics Kun

Sahra Nguyen Wants to Change the Trajectory of Vietnamese Coffee

“I wanted to show people that there's so much more to Vietnam than instant coffee.”

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Apr 8 2019, 1:58pm

All photography by Erics Kun

“When Vietnamese coffee arrives in the United States, it's no longer Vietnamese coffee,” Sahra Nguyen remembers being told during a visit to Vietnam. Having just returned from another trip, she tells me, the specialty coffee scene is booming. But in the United States, she says, Vietnam’s coffee culture hasn’t translated: here, the country’s beans make up nondescript coffee blends, its identity ignored.

The daughter of refugees from north and south Vietnam, Nguyen grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a neighborhood in South Boston that’s home to much of the city’s Vietnamese population. Still, when she learned that Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer of coffee, it came as a surprise. “I was like, why didn't I know that? Everyone I talk to is like, oh my god, Vietnam is? I've never heard of that,” Nguyen says.

a coffee farm in da lat vietnam
A coffee farm in Da Lat, Vietnam. Photography by Erics Kun.

Vietnam produces over 3.6 billion pounds of coffee per year, almost all of which is exported. But as Nguyen experienced, many coffee drinkers don’t know they’re sipping Vietnamese beans; in many imaginations, Vietnamese coffee refers to dark roast swirled with sweetened, condensed milk—not respected, specialty beans. Historically, Vietnam’s coffee hasn’t ended up in production streams that pride visibility: instead, it’s shuffled into instant coffee or mass-market mixes. Unlike the vast majority of specialty coffee beans, most of Vietnam’s beans are robusta, a coffee varietal that’s cheaper than the more-popular arabica but sometimes considered to be lower quality.

Vietnamese producers benefit economically from selling their beans, no matter how they’re promoted, but Nguyen says, “No one knows about it, right? On an emotional, personal, and cultural level, I feel that pain—that's not fair.” To her, Vietnamese coffee is in need of uplifting: not just to diversify the American coffee scene, but to restore pride in a product that, to date, has been cast aside by the American specialty mainstream.

In 2018, she officially launched Nguyen Coffee Supply, a coffee company that sources unroasted (“green”) beans directly from a single farmer in Vietnam, imports them, and roasts them in Brooklyn. The company currently sells its coffee online, but this week, NCS will open a daytime coffee shop called Cafe Phin in the Lower East Side Vietnamese restaurant An Choi. And Nguyen isn’t alone in her endeavor: In Philadelphia, a new specialty coffee company called Cà Phê Roasters is also roasting Vietnamese coffee beans and hosting pop-up cafes.

Coffee might not sound like the most obvious work for Nguyen, who has most recently worked as a journalist and filmmaker. As a teenager, she was involved in Asian American community organizing, and she’s carried that focus on social justice and representation into her documentary work. But it’s not her first foray into the food space either: in 2014, she and three other owners launched Lucy’s Vietnamese Kitchen in Brooklyn. All of that work, NCS included, she says, is guided by a similar thread. “I see it as another extension of my storytelling,” she says.

“The perception of Vietnam on the internet and in the industry is having inferior coffee because people [in the United States] haven't really uplifted the specialty coffee movement there,” Nguyen tells me. “I wanted to show people that there's so much more to Vietnam than instant coffee.” NCS currently offers two whole bean coffees: Courage, made with 100 percent single-origin arabica, and Loyalty, a 50-50 blend of arabica and robusta.

Part of the task of uplifting Vietnamese coffee, according to Nguyen, means working with robusta. Robusta might have a bad reputation in coffee snob circles, but it isn’t inherently bad, according to Will Frith, a specialty coffee expert based in Saigon (also called Ho Chi Minh). It catches flak for tasting oily, rubbery, and burnt because, as Frith tells me, plenty of it is: Because export regulations for robusta are more lax than those for arabica, it tends to be roasted more, and he says, “What people know as robusta is the taste of defects.” Nguyen gets green coffee beans, and after NCS roasts them, she says, the robusta beans yield nutty, dark cocoa notes.

They’re grown on two separate farms, but all of NCS’s beans come from one farmer in Da Lat, Vietnam. They’re sourced directly, with no middleman. Though NCS refers to him as Mr. Ton, Nguyen calls him anh Thien, which means “big brother Thien,” and though he’s a fourth-generation coffee farmer, it’s his first time exporting his green beans. While domestic coffee sales make up much of his business, Nguyen says that exporting to the US remained a dream until now.

Sahra Nguyen Sampling Coffee Beans in Vietnam
Sahra Nguyen sampling coffee beans in Vietnam. Photography by Erics Kun

Working together on NCS has been a learning experience for both of them, and one that’s riddled with challenges. “It was very difficult to walk through this process,” Nguyen says. “It's a very old industry and kind of archaic. There's a lot of language barriers, bureaucratic barriers, and cultural barriers.” Nguyen and Mr. Ton do all of their business in Vietnamese, most of it over Facebook chat and email. Getting the coffee beans into the United States involved not just the costs and logistics of shipping, but also working with the FDA and finding a customs broker. Now that those systems are in place, though, Nguyen hopes it’ll lead to new opportunities for Mr. Ton.

The dynamic local specialty coffee scene in cities like Saigon has created enough interest in domestic beans, according to Frith, that exporting might not be an immediate priority for small producers. “The domestic demand for specialty arabica here is so strong,” he says, because compared to getting specialty coffee from Ethiopia, “You don’t have to deal with things like shipping and logistics.” Add to that the challenges that NCS experienced in setting up imports, and it becomes clearer why we don’t see more specialty Vietnamese beans in the United States.

Sahra Nguyen at Cafe Phin
Sahra Nguyen at Cafe Phin. Photography by Erics Kun.

Since around 2015, Frith has noticed an explosion of interest and creativity in Saigon’s coffee scene, with companies like La Viet and the Workshop key players in the diversification and progression of coffee in the region. People quickly caught on because, he says, “They saw it as differentiated enough from what their parents were doing as representative of coffee, and they really made it their own.” According to both Frith and Nguyen, Vietnam’s specialty scene is young and exciting—and now, Frith says, “you can basically find any kind of coffee experience that you want here.”

According to Frith, that coffee boom can also improve the economics for Vietnam’s coffee producers, who can now pursue specialty coffee instead of working only under the terms of big commodity companies. “The people who are growing arabica are starting to recognize that you can get away from the New York Stock Exchange price for coffee by diversifying their products,” he says. Mr. Ton has told Nguyen that the price NCS pays is higher than what he might get from Vietnamese buyers and companies.

Sahra Nguyen and her mom looking at coffee beans with distributor
Sahra Nguyen and her mom with a coffee distributor. Photography by Erics Kun.

For Nguyen, NCS isn’t just about raising the profile of the beans, but uplifting the people around them through transparency and fairer pay. By connecting with people, Nguyen also hopes to foster community within the Vietnamese diaspora—a byproduct of the Vietnam War, which spread refugees including her parents all over the world.

“I've always felt a connection with Vietnam because I grew up going back,” she says. “It’s definitely of interest for me to use my resources and privilege as an American, and a US citizen with Vietnamese cultural background, to see what I can do to connect a global community, to build a connection literally and physically.”