Despite the increasing popularity of Vietnamese cuisine and Vietnamese-style coffee in the U.S., you’d still be hard pressed to find a single-origin coffee from the country on a café menu. Coffee drinks are not often made with Vietnamese beans, either. Sahra Nguyen saw this lack of representation as an opportunity. “I realized there was a huge disconnect, because there was a big demand for Vietnamese coffee, but there wasn’t the supply to do it properly,” says Nguyen. “So I thought, ‘Maybe I could import Vietnamese coffee?’ ” She founded Nguyen Coffee Supply and began importing, roasting and selling her own label of direct-trade Vietnamese coffee, a move that made her one of our 2020 Imbibe 75 People to Watch.
A first-generation Vietnamese-American born in Boston, Nguyen came from a background in activist media and helped found a fast-casual Vietnamese-American restaurant in Brooklyn. “A lot of the values that I have always been committed to, such as increased representation of under-represented people in the media, and my community specifically, and building compassion and understanding through storytelling, I can now channel those values through my coffee company.”
Nguyen Coffee Supply launched in Brooklyn in November of 2018, and Nguyen has since worked to dispel stereotypes about Vietnamese coffee. It may surprise even devoted coffee drinkers to learn that Vietnam is one of the world’s largest coffee producers, second only to Brazil. “A lot of the Vietnamese coffee that gets produced and imported is channeled through commercial grade or commodity coffees, like instant coffee, supermarket blends, or even private labels for hotel brands or fast food chains,” explains Nguyen. These are typically robusta beans, as opposed to arabica which are more frequently highlighted by origin.
What I hear a lot from people is that Vietnamese coffee is cheap, or that robusta beans are lower in quality,” says Nguyen. “I have to explain that arabica and robusta are just two different varietals, there is no hierarchy. When you say ‘lower quality’, that refers to the production and the treatment, not the bean. But if we improve the treatment and the process, couldn’t the robusta bean be a specialty bean?”
To that end, Nguyen is sourcing both arabica and robusta coffees from a single family farm in Da Lat in the central highlands of southern Vietnam. Initially selling a single-origin arabica, as well as an arabica-robusta blend, Nguyen recently introduced a 100-percent robusta coffee, which made a splash at the 2019 New York Coffee Festival. “Once people tried it, most said they loved it, that it was inherently what they thought about when they thought of coffee—bold, nutty, strong,” says Nguyen. “It showed me the importance of having diversity. Not everyone is going to love robusta, but we can definitely make space for it for the folks who do want it…The more that we open our market to [Vietnamese coffee], the more it will grow and improve.”
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