These Craft Vietnamese Coffee Companies Are Celebrating the Boldness of Vietnam’s Beans
“My mission remains the same: It’s to bring visibility, representation, and sustainability to Vietnam and to Vietnamese coffee producers.”
The intoxicating scent of roasted robusta beans, the metal clangs of the hypnotic and slow drip phin filter, and the jolt of caffeine that carries through a single sip. Vietnamese iced coffee, otherwise known as cà phê sữa đá, has risen dramatically in mainstream popularity thanks to its creamy and sweet qualities from condensed milk and eye-opening burst of caffeine. You can order dupes of the drink at Starbucks, pumped with white chocolate mocha syrup, or a version at Peet’s known as the Black Tie. And, at every Vietnamese restaurant or banh mi shop, there is bound to be iced Vietnamese coffee available.
Yet most Vietnamese coffee in America isn’t Vietnamese at all. Instead of the country's signature, powerful robusta beans, the stateside version of the iced beverage tends to be made from its more mild and tangier cousin, arabica. There are three first generation Vietnamese-Americans—from San Jose, to Brooklyn, to Austin—who are trying, however, to change the perception of Vietnamese grown robusta beans.
“It’s trickery,” says Harvey Tong, the founder of Austin-based Phin Coffee Club, of fake Vietnamese brews. And when it comes to the famous yellow cans that sell at New Orleans’ Cafe Du Monde—a coffee infused with chicory that’s popular within the local Vietnamese community there—of being misunderstood as Vietnamese. “It’s not Vietnamese coffee; it’s based in New Orleans.”
For years, Vietnamese-grown robusta beans have been overlooked and marked as a cheap product due to mass production and commercialized farms. Historically, robusta beans have been used to make instant coffee with beans that aren’t as carefully picked and roasted. Nescafe, Folgers, and Maxwell House contain a blend or arabica and robusta beans. The robusta variety carries a reputation for tasting bad—one alleged coffee expert compared the flavor to that of “burnt rubber.” That’s just not the case anymore.
Sahra Nguyen, the owner of Brooklyn’s Nguyen Coffee Supply, has gone further and investigated the roots of the coffee beans used for alleged cups of Vietnamese coffee at various coffee bars and restaurants. “Literally, 10/10 times, none of these places were actually using Vietnamese coffee beans,” Nguyen explains. “When I looked into it, I realized it was actually really hard to do it right because no one was offering specialty, fresh-roasted, single origin Vietnamese coffee beans. I couldn’t find it in supermarkets, and I couldn’t find it at roasters.”
Nguyen decided to take matters into her own hands, traveling to Vietnam in 2016 and forging her first relationship with a family farm before beginning the process of importing and roasting beans herself. Nguyen Coffee Supply launched in 2018.
"I feel like I owe it to my country and my people to educate the consumer."
Vietnamese coffee farms have struggled to gain footing in the craft coffee movement because of the lack of Fairtrade certification within the country—something that feels like a social necessity to be included in the thirdwave craft coffee movement. Although Fairtrade certification is a socially-constructed concept, it affects the way consumers perceive a brand and their products.
That being said, Fairtrade labels are not the end-all-be-all of quality grown coffee. In 2019, NPR reported that Fairtrade-certified industries did pay higher wages to farmers as compared to the non-Fair Trade counterparts, but this benefit did not extend to the hired workers that perform manual labor on the farms. According to a report in The Guardian, “Owing to free market principles, producer organizations that usually join the [Fair Trade] movement are not necessarily the poorest, but those that can meet market demands—i.e. Those with the means to afford certification fees and a certain scale of production. No wonder producer organizations from the least developed countries tend to be underrepresented.”
Fairtrade has worthwhile endeavors to make coffee, tea, and cocoa farms more just places of business, but that doesn’t mean everyone is included. “The root of the problem and the pain we’re experiencing—whether it’s Vietnamese farmers being stuck in a cycle of poverty or Vietnamese coffee being left out of the specialty coffee movement—was due to a lack of transparency, visibility, and representation,” Nguyen says. Instead of relying purely on a label like Fairtrade’s to decide what coffees are worthy of praise, it’s also important to recognize the long lasting effects that colonialism has on agriculture and the challenges farmers may face in trying to achieve certification.
Nguyen isn’t the only one who noticed the lack of Vietnamese beans in purported Vietnamese coffee offerings—even at Vietnamese restaurants. “Ninety-nine percent of the time when I asked them, when they have Vietnamese coffee on the menu, ‘Where are your beans coming from?’ A lot of it is, ‘Oh I don’t know.’ Or it could be beans from this popular supplier called Mr. Espresso. The beans are from Columbia or Brazilian beans—they aren’t from Vietnam,” says Tammy Huynh, the CEO and founder of bottled Vietnamese cold brew brand, Omni Bev. “You can’t call that Vietnamese coffee if the beans aren’t from Vietnam. Vietnamese coffee means that specific profile you get from Vietnamese beans. You can’t just put condensed milk into coffee and call it Vietnamese coffee. To me, that’s Vietnamese-inspired coffee.”
The profile of Vietnamese coffee is “really strong and bold—like Vietnamese people” according to Nguyen. To overlook that for a cup of what’s presented as Vietnamese coffee is egregious to these coffee connoisseurs. “I felt like people were trying to leverage the cultural cache of Vietnamese coffee and profit from it but really from that transaction Vietnamese coffee producers weren’t benefiting at all,” Nguyen adds.
Instead of standing back and allowing Vietnamese beans to continue to be overlooked, Nguyen, Tong, and Huynh all took matters into their own hands. There’s a thread that connects these three Vietnamese-American coffee brands: aside from the fact that they have all been started by young, first-generation Vietnamese Americans working to shift the perception of Vietnamese coffee, the trio also work directly with family-owned farms in Vietnam, whether that be within their own extended family or through formed connections. Though they don’t have that sought after Fairtrade label, the three travel back to Vietnam to see the way the beans are produced, feel the soil and the climate that nurture their products, and ensure the farmers they work with are treated fairly and paid a livable wage.
“My family has been growing coffee for over two decades now. I grew up running around the coffee field in Vietnam,” Tong says. Tong is currently a student at the University of Texas at Austin, but also an entrepreneur who wants to celebrate his family’s recipes. Phin Coffee Club allows him to do that—and it really is a family affair. Tong’s cousin built the roaster they use at facilities that are adjacent to Ho Chi Minh City. “My main mission is to introduce my family’s tradition and to keep that tradition going. People are like, ‘Hey, why don’t you introduce a different roast or different flavors?’ And I thought that ‘this is what my family has been doing for two decades and I don’t think I should change it.’”
Huynh, similarly, has a family connection that allowed her to pursue her dreams of starting a Vietnamese coffee business. “I was born and raised in Vietnam and I came to the United States when I was ten. Back in the day, my dad literally gave me my first sip of Vietnamese coffee when I was five years old,” Huynh explains. “In 2017, when I went back to Vietnam to visit my dad, I discovered that my uncle owns the largest coffee farm in Da Lat, Vietnam.” That was all it took. Huynh left her post as a CEO of a beauty brand and decided to begin developing a bottled version of the Vietnamese coffee she loves so dearly.
“I’m a single mom and, for me, I don’t have the luxury of just sitting and waiting for my phin to drip. I want to import coffee from Vietnam, but I wanted to take it to the next level—especially with the lifestyle that I have,” Huynh says. “I’m sure a lot of people have the same problem so I thought, ‘Why not just bottle Vietnamese coffee?’” Omni Bev currently has four different brews available: a black version, one with condensed milk, a plant-based coconut milk version, and a Vietnamese coffee matcha blend.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Nguyen’s coffee ideology is all about taking time and unwinding. “Vietnamese coffee is a culture and a lifestyle centered around community and slowing down and carving out time for a cup of slow-drip phin coffee that people engage with morning, afternoon, and night,” she explains. “My mission when I started [Nguyen Coffee Supply] remains the same: It’s to bring visibility, representation, and sustainability to Vietnam and to Vietnamese coffee producers.”
Thanks to Nguyen, Hong, and Huynh, the world is beginning to recognize that Vietnamese coffee can be aromatic, delicious, sustainable, and part of anyone’s daily routine. “I want people to know that Vietnamese coffee isn’t just low-grade, bad quality coffee,” Huynh says. “It’s a lot more than that. I feel like I owe it to my country and my people to educate the consumer.”