The phrase “Vietnamese coffee” evokes a distinct image for those who know of it: stark, black-and-white strata of syrupy dark roast coffee and condensed milk in a tall glass. Flanked by a cheap metal filter, or phin, this particular preparation, called cà phê phin, represents a core ritual in the daily lives of the Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans. In the U.S., however, the experience of Vietnamese coffee is still tragically limited – a fact that Sahra Nguyen, founder of Nguyen Coffee Supply, is doing her best to make right.
A documentary filmmaker and former co-owner of Lucy’s Vietnamese Kitchen, Nguyen dreamed up the idea to start a specialty Vietnamese coffee company in 2016 when she saw how narrow most peoples’ understanding of Vietnamese coffee was. Nguyen, who moved to Bushwick in 2013, was born and raised in Boston by Vietnamese parents, both of whom fled their country by boat after the Vietnam War. Nguyen would often visit Vietnam as a child, where coffee culture revolved around quality time, leisure, and joy, she said.
“It was always a break from the day,” she said. “You enjoy the slow brew of the coffee. There was no ‘to-go’ concept.”
Nguyen saw, and smelled, Vietnamese coffee years before she was allowed to try it. The coffee dripped from the phin onto the condensed milk, and the mixture was stirred up before being poured over ice. The smell was “robust, and nutty – and chocolatey,” she said.
Though she noticed a growing buzz around Vietnamese food and culture, particularly in cities like New York City and Boston, the “Vietnamese coffee” popping up on Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese restaurant menus bore little resemblance to the drink of her childhood. “People were doing it wrong,” said Nguyen.
To make the drink, coffee shops and restaurants would use their house drip or cold brew, made from Colombian or Ethiopian beans, and simply add condensed milk. They weren’t using Vietnamese coffee or a phin to brew it in. To Nguyen, this practice is offensive, as well as harmful, on three fronts.
“One, it’s total cultural appropriation, because you’re not taking the time to learn about what Vietnamese coffee really is,” Nguyen explained. “Two, it’s miseducation to consumers, because you’re telling people it’s Vietnamese coffee when it’s actually not, and the taste is nothing close to Vietnamese coffee. And three, if people in the U.S. here want to benefit from the trend of Vietnamese coffee, the producers of Vietnamese coffee in Vietnam should also benefit from this transaction.”
One of the biggest issues with Vietnamese coffee’s representation in the U.S. is the quality of the beans. The coffee typically used stateside is a cheaply produced, pre-ground product, often cut with butter or oil and adulterated with artificial flavors to mask inconsistencies. One of the most ubiquitous brands is the New Orleans-founded Café du Monde, which comes in an iconic mustard-yellow can. The brand provides little to no transparency, Nguyen says, and the website offers no clue as to where the beans are grown, roasted or packaged. Another brand is Trung Nguyen, produced in Vietnam, which openly roasts with butter and oil and adds artificial ingredients during processing.
These brands dominate the Vietnamese coffee landscape in the U.S., perpetuating the myth that Vietnamese coffee is always made with cheap, low-quality coffee. Vietnamese coffee itself isn’t necessarily cheap, Nguyen said. “The end product is cheap. If you’re selling a cheap product, you only want to pay a cheap price for beans, which means you’re exploiting and keeping producers in a vicious cycle of poverty. Because they have no leverage.”
Nguyen only sources direct-trade, organically grown beans from the farm of her aunt’s old co-worker, a fourth-generation coffee farmer she refers to as Mr. Ton. While en route to Cambodia in 2016 to shoot a documentary, Nguyen made the trip to Mr. Ton’s farm in Da Lat, a city in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The partnership grew from there, and Nguyen Coffee Supply officially launched in November of 2018.
The company is the first-ever Vietnamese American-owned importer, roaster, and supplier of green Vietnamese coffee beans in New York City. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also woman-owned. The beans are roasted locally, in a facility in Red Hook, and Nguyen sells them both through the company website and at Café Phin. She also sells wholesale (both green beans and roasted) to businesses and restaurants like Madame Vo, Pho Bar, and Saigon Dep.
Nguyen charges a higher price for her coffee – $19 minimum for 12 ounces – so she can pay Mr. Ton and her employees a decent wage. On a broader scale, Nguyen’s goal is about changing the way people think, not only about Vietnamese coffee but on “the systems we create that involve both the producer and the consumer,” she said.
Another issue with the story of Vietnamese coffee in the U.S. is the lack of representation. No one was offering freshly roasted Vietnamese coffee like they were Ethiopian coffee, Nguyen realized. “I was like, what would that even taste like?” Nguyen said. “What would Vietnamese coffee in its full integrity even taste like?”
At Café Phin, Nguyen’s pop-up “coffee speakeasy” inside the Lower East Side Vietnamese spot An Choi, customers can taste Vietnamese coffee in a wide range of expressions, all made with beans from Nguyen Coffee Supply. Papered with faded Vietnamese propaganda posters and appointed with bright paper lanterns and billowing green plants, the tiny spot is a destination in and of itself. One section of the menu offers a few signature drinks, made with coffee brewed in batches using comically large family-sized phin.
One such drink, a tri-color iced ube latte made with a naturally violet yam puree, just happens to be premium Instagram fodder. Also on offer are traditional Vietnamese drinks, like cà phê sữa and the iced version, cà phê sữa đá. You can also get just plain coffee, brewed drip-style or in a pour-over. The cafe is already an exciting place for the coffee fiend, but something truly unique about the menu is the opportunity to choose between a mixture of Arabica and Robusta beans, or pure Arabica.
Robusta beans are something of a taboo in the specialty coffee world. Widely deemed inferior, they’re far more likely to show up in a tub of Maxwell House than a Blue Bottle pour-over. However, “coffee beans can’t be cheap or inferior,” Nguyen reiterated. “It’s how we choose to treat it.”
Responsibly grown and roasted Robusta can be as delicious as an Arabica bean, Nguyen feels. Robusta beans have a distinctive profile that sets them apart from Arabica beans. As Nguyen explained, they’re higher in caffeine and lower in fats and sugars, meaning they need to be roasted differently. According to the company website, they’re also bolder, less fruity, and less sweet than Arabica.
Nguyen’s emphasis on sustainability and transparency even extends to the eco-friendly straws used at Café Phin. “People complain about the paper straws all the time here,” Nguyen. “They complain about it all the time because it breaks down. And I’m like, ‘but aren’t you glad it breaks down?’”
Images courtesy of Nguyen Coffee Supply, unless stated otherwise.
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