By: Kat Bein By: Kat Bein | May 2, 2022 | Food & Drink
When is a cup of coffee more than just a cup of coffee? Any true brew enthusiast would tell you that every cup comes with a story. It just so happens that’s especially true when you’re drinking the bold flavors of Nguyen Coffee Supply’s Vietnamese beans.
Founded in 2018 by first-generation entrepreneur and activist Sahra Nguyen, the outfit serves as the first specialty Vietnamese country company in the country. With a background in film-making and storytelling, Nguyen shares the history and culture of her Vietnamese heritage with every package sold, but more than that; she’s changing the corporate landscape and definition of what “good” coffee can be.
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For decades, Vietnam’s main coffee crop, the Robusta bean, has been labeled inferior to the widely-accepted Arabica bean. Such a distinction becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein Vietnamese coffee farmers put less resources into producing Robusta, which in turn results in a cheaper product. Meanwhile the Robusta beans' bold flavor and higher caffeine content creates a rich and powerful sip that coffee fans enjoy around the world.
Nguyen Coffee Supply recently launched the Robusta Pledge, asking coffee industry elites and fans around the world to commit to changing the narrative. Blue Bottle Coffee Company signed on, including the founder James Freeman, and that’s just the beginning.
“It just generates this excitement and momentum for Robusta,” Nguyen says. “ore people in the industry will talk about it and be like, ‘Wait. Why do I say Robusta is bad? That is kind of harmful.’”
We spoke to Nguyen to learn more about the Nguyen Coffee Supply mission, the Robusta bean, how to best enjoy Vietnamese coffee and more.
It’s fascinating to read about your background as a documentarian and writer. Does this venture feel like another form of storytelling?
It does. I don't come from a traditional coffee background, and we're entirely vertically integrated. We handle the importing, direct trade, and we roast. It's not like I wanted to stumble into one of the most difficult businesses, especially during COVID and the supply chain crisis. It was really my calling to bring justice and equity representation to the region of Vietnam and the people in those communities.
My passion for increasing representation and visibility was channeled through media and journalism, and now it’s channeled through the coffee industry. I feel like my passion and talent for storytelling came in handy when launching, because everything was bootstrapped. I was really fluent in content creation, video and Adobe, and I was able to tell the story really well.
We have to completely change the industry, change the narrative and reframe it in order to carve space for Vietnamese coffee and Robusta coffee beans. So much of the opportunity to thrive for our company is rooted in storytelling, because we had to first change the perception and challenge the biases, and then once people open up their minds, we're able to create systemic change.
These beans are stronger than what I'm used to getting at the grocery store or a cafe down the street, right?
Robusta beans naturally have more caffeine than Arabica beans, up to double the caffeine content. Vietnamese coffee and Robusta coffee are often used interchangeably, but they're not completely synonymous. In Vietnam, they do grow Arabica and other varieties, but Vietnam is the number one producer of Robusta coffee in the world. Robusta coffee beans have been such a huge part of Vietnamese coffee culture and beverages. That's where the strong tie-in comes from, but we really want to be mindful of showing the full range of a Vietnamese coffee, which is why we also offer a 100 percent Arabica from Vietnam.
What else is unique about Vietnamese coffee?
The beans that we source are hand picked, and we harvest them when all the cherries are red and ripe, which takes more care, more time and more labor versus just grabbing all the cherries off the tree at the same time. Arabica is less than 10 percent of the country's production. So Arabica from Vietnam is a really special and rare bean, and then the Robusta is Vietnam's most famous bean.
Our beans are grown and harvested from across Vietnam, primarily from the Deloitte region of the Central Highlands. We also source coffee beans from women farmers in the north and some in the south. We're an inaugural member of the National Women's Coffee Alliance Vietnam chapter, and we support them through education around coffee farming, cupping, how to improve their crop. We buy their beans to support their learning, to show them, when they're placing more care into their products, they can get a better wage at the end of the day.
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We've seen that farmers want to improve their crop, but it requires time and resources, whether it's investing in all-natural bio fertilizers or the labor required to handpick. At the end of season, if they don't have a buyer, they're going to end up losing, oftentimes selling in the instant or commodity coffee market. Many buyers are convinced or fixated on this idea that Vietnamese coffee can only be cheap, and they're not allowing room for these coffees to improve.
Arabica is known as the special, superior bean that needs to be fully washed and processed. It’s more expensive because it requires energy, a lot of water and a lot of extra labor, which is why the cost of Arabica goes up. My producer processes Arabica through the full wash method, but the Robusta is processed through a natural method and basically sun dried. I asked what would happen if we fully washed the Robusta. Would it change the flavor? He's like “not really. I'm worried that if I do a full wash method to Robusta, then you can't sell it because it's going to cost more.” So I said, “Let's commit to doing a full wash method on the Robusta, and I will work on the pricing and education.”
You also recently launched the Robusta Pledge. What is that?
It's a commitment to advancing opportunities for Robusta of farmer communities through inclusivity, transparency and collective care. The pledge is basically a call to action for folks both within the industry and supporters, to change the narrative around Robusta. In order to make deep systemic changes, we first need to confront our biases. Today, it’s pledging to deconstruct this elitist narrative and tell a new story about Robusta. I envision that we re-up on the pledge in 2023, 2024, 2025 to require a commitment of budget allocation, but we're not even there yet.
We just need people to stop saying things like “Robusta is inferior. Arabica is superior,” because these narratives create this elitist framework and it actually harms people. It only allocates opportunity to Arabica farmers and boxes Robusta farmers into a different segment of life you can't elevate.
We’re actually seeing a major shift. The New York Times came out saying Robusta is trending in 2022. We're going to eventually reach a point where Robusta and Arabica are talked about side by side. One can not replace the other. That's not our goal, because we're trying to deconstruct the elitacism, to be inclusive of the role Robusta and Arabica play in the future of coffee.
I'll enter conversations with retail buyers saying, “customers don't really want Robusta.” It's not that consumers aren't interested. Gatekeepers won't allow Robusta to come in, because our consumers love Robusta. Now, we're able to say “look at all these people who have signed the pledge, including the founder of Blue Bottle. People do want Robusta, things are changing.”
Do Vietnamese coffee drinkers drink Robusta at home generally? What is the consumption like?
Coffee culture in Vietnam is explosive. It's such a big part of their daily lives. People drink coffee all day, all night there. In the U.S., we'll have coffee with our breakfast, right? In Vietnam, people have breakfast and coffee separately. Coffee is its own moment. People will go to the breakfast stand, eat their breakfast, and then they go have coffee.
In terms of the consumption, Arabica farming is more of a recent thing, but most people in Vietnam have been drinking Robusta coffee for decades. Nowadays, a lot of these folks are enjoying Arabica beans, and there's a huge specialty coffee scene developing in Vietnam, where they're importing Arabica from Ethiopia. Robusta is still a dominant bean, because it's the dominant product grown, but there's a huge specialty coffee scene as well.
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Your parents immigrated from Vietnam after the war, but you were able to visit Vietnam as a child. Do you have memories of coffee during those visits?
Probably during my first visit. I was like four years old, and I just remember vivid scenes of my grandfather and all his friends hanging out at the house all day, smoking cigars with their phin drip coffee next to them. Everyone had a cup, everyone had a phin filter slow dripping next to them, just smoking cigarettes and not even talking. This was probably like 1990, before Vietnam even joined the World Trade Organization, so they were still a closed economy.
I remember liking the smell of it, the slow dripping phin coffee. When I grew up in the U.S., my parents would make drip coffee with the auto drip coffee maker at home—and eventually, later on in the late ‘90s, they would get Dunkin Donuts, right? So I was always around coffee, but I remember not seeing the same coffee in my home in Boston. It was very much a Vietnamese moment.
It must be so cool taking the phin filter and these scenes that you associate with Vietnam and seeing people explore them here.
Oh my gosh, it is cool! Before I started the company, I would see the explosion of third wave coffee culture, when the v60 pour over became a thing because Blue Bottle introduced the single-serve pour over concept. People going from Starbucks and Dunkin to waiting five minutes for a single serve. That's crazy, but now it's an iconic piece of cafe culture.
I remember seeing all these brew guides on social media, with the French and the espresso machine. I'm like, “I wonder why the phin filter isn't there?” It's not because people are excluding it. It is simply because of a lack of cultural exposure. I would love to see the phin filter become as commonplace as a French press or v60 pour over, where it's like, “which one do I want to use today?”
For it's someone’s first time buying your products, is there a way you’d recommend they prepare or enjoy it?
I would encourage anyone to try the phin filter. A common traditional method uses sweetened condensed milk, because of the lack of refrigeration or fresh milk in Vietnam for so many decades. I always say though, do not feel pressured to enjoy with sweetened condensed milk, even though people feel like Vietnamese coffee is synonymous with sweet. Just treat it like a bean.
You can have it black. You can have it with oat milk, agave syrup, whole milk or however you want. I do think the phin brewing method is really exciting though, because you can have it really strong with just one pour of hot water, or you can open up the second pour of hot water like an Americano.
Is there something more than just coffee drinking that you hope is expressed as people experience Nguyen coffee?
I've been very happy to see people rejoice over the flavor of Vietnamese coffee, the flavor of Robusta. It shows the gatekeepers were wrong. I know not everyone's going to love Robusta, and that's totally fine. It's about giving consumers the choice.
I love when people embrace the phin filter. It's just so easy to use. There's no coffee or paper waste, and then the third thing that I really love is for people to learn about Vietnam being the world's second largest producer of coffee; learning about Vietnam being the number one producer of Robusta. Vietnamese producers and farmers touch people's lives all around the world.
If Vietnam is the number two largest producer of coffee, Vietnamese coffee is entering a lot of places, right? Whether it's your bodega, McDonald's or your instant coffee in Australia, but people weren't able to make this connection like how matcha tea is strongly connected to Japan. That connection, it opens up a window to learn more about the culture and just humanize the people behind the product.
Visit Nguyen Coffee Supply online and follow the brand on Instagram to learn more and buy your first cup! This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Courtesy of Nguyen Coffee Supply