Vietnam produces a lot of coffee, but you won’t often find it (named, at least) on your grocery store shelf—Sahra Nguyen is looking to change that.
You wouldn’t know Vietnam was the second-biggest coffee-producing country (behind Brazil) if you looked at a coffee shop menu or grocery store shelf. Vietnamese coffee is often hidden, ending up in instant coffee blends and pre-ground tins—but Sahra Nguyen is looking to change that.
Nguyen Coffee Supply is a New York–based coffee company that sources beans exclusively from Vietnam. Nguyen started the company in 2018 after learning that many Vietnamese iced coffees on fashionable coffee shop menus weren’t made with coffee from Vietnam. For decades, Vietnamese coffee has been ignored by many specialty coffee roasters—Vietnam primarily grows robusta, a variety of coffee beans distinct from its more popular arabica counterpart and sometimes regarded as inferior in taste. But, as Nguyen notes, traditional notions about Vietnamese coffee are dated. Besides, coffee taste is subjective and depends greatly on the investment and care companies are willing to give farmers, which Nguyen does as the first US importer and roaster of single-origin Vietnamese coffee.
Nguyen, who was on Imbibe Magazine’s “75 People to Watch” list in 2020 and on the cover of Food & Wine’s 2021 Game Changers issue, recently launched a ready-to-drink cold brew featuring 100% robusta beans, which was just selected as one of BevNET’s best new products of the year. Over Zoom, we chatted with Nguyen about why Vietnam was written off for so long, how reciprocity between roasters and farmers is essential for quality beans, and why robusta is the future of coffee.
Vietnam is the second-largest producer of coffee, but we don’t see coffees labeled as being from Vietnam at most stores. Why is that?
For me, it’s a lack of transparency. It’s interesting because the third-wave movement, highlighted the value of transparency. We went from a nondescript coffee at the gas station to, “Oh, this is a single-origin arabica honey-processed coffee from a micro-lot in Ethiopia.”
That level of transparency is so powerful, yet there was a lot of hypocrisy, because that value wasn’t applied to beans from Vietnam. It’s an unequal application of values and care—and this inequity raises the question: “Who is deserving of value? Which communities, which regions, which countries?”
And we’re here talking about this because Vietnamese coffee often gets obscured. From roasters using robusta beans in their espresso blends but never naming it, just calling the beans a blend, to coffee shops putting Vietnamese iced coffee on their menu but using their house cold brew, which was usually a coffee not from Vietnam, as the base. It’s an issue of inconsistency with values.
That must have been an illuminating moment, to realize that Vietnamese iced coffee often isn’t served with Vietnamese beans. When did that happen?
Around 2016 in New York. I was a full-time freelancer, so I’d spend a lot of time in coffee shops. Prior to this I started seeing the rise of Asian flavors in America, with more places experimenting with beverages like boba tea, chai, matcha and then Vietnamese iced coffee.
I’d try these Vietnamese iced coffees, and I knew immediately they were off. They didn’t taste right because most specialty shops use light-roasted, fruit-forward arabica coffees and add condensed milk. But those flavors aren’t always harmonious.
“There was a lot of hypocrisy, because that value wasn’t applied to beans from Vietnam.”
Condensed milk, which is sweet and dense, became prominent in Vietnamese coffee culture because it doesn’t need to be refrigerated. Coupled with the fact that Vietnamese coffee is primarily robusta, a variety with less sugar but double the caffeine, those flavors meld together. Sometimes when you add dairy milk, or sugar, or condensed milk to a citrusy, fruit-forward arabica, it doesn’t vibe and can be kind of sour.
So then I’d go to the websites of these coffee shops and roasters, and I’d see all these single-origin coffees but nothing from Vietnam. I would go into Whole Foods or any supermarket I saw and couldn’t find anything. This was around the same time I discovered that Vietnam is the second-largest producer of coffee, so I was exploring that disconnect. That set me on this journey to start Nguyen Coffee Supply.
One way I think about how important Vietnam is to coffee is that almost everyone has had coffee from Vietnam—probably without knowing it.
Yes! And we have to acknowledge that so much of the Vietnamese coffee industry has been channeled into the commodity and instant coffee market. But there’s a reason for that.
It was during the Đổi Mới era, the reform era in Vietnam of the 1980s. Vietnam is a communist country, so the government set equal pricing for all coffee. There was no incentive for people to improve their coffee quality. As they were rebuilding their economy in Đổi Mới, Vietnam saw an opportunity to capitalize on this major export—coffee was all about instant and ground coffee at the time—so they focused on volume.
Some of these historical factors contributed to coffee being anonymized in Vietnam, but things change and evolve. Coffee has evolved, but the attitudes toward coffee from Vietnam haven’t. Vietnam is still seen as a place that grows cheap coffee, instant coffee. So how do we include the second-largest producer of coffee in this conversation?
It’s often assumed that quality is inherent, but in coffee, quality often comes from feedback and investment—a reciprocal relationship. But we are okay with relying on the same script for Vietnam and labeling its coffee inferior without acknowledging that we have some control over its quality.
Totally. Reciprocity is huge, and that’s where us having a direct relationship with farmers is so critical, and it’s the only way this would work.
People on the ground in Vietnam have the internet, and they see what specialty coffee is being sold for, and they ask, “How do we get that? How do we do this?” They’re trying, and there are farmers in Vietnam who have focused on quality production for years, but when they try to enter the market, everyone’s like, “Nah.”
I’ll say, “Hey, why do we only process these robusta beans naturally? Can we process it as a fully washed or honey-processed coffee?” And they’re like, “Because we can’t sell it. No one will pay for a fully washed robusta coffee.” That’s where our work comes in: we have to pay for the extra labor if we want a coffee processed in a certain way, layered with education on the consumer side to shift the narrative and perception. This is the investment we make.
Along with challenging how quality is built, you also challenge flavor perceptions. We assume that arabica coffees are tastier and that consumers prefer them, but has that been your experience?
We’re not trying to convince the whole world to like robusta coffee, and we’re not trying to say it’s better than arabica. We’re just trying to say that we should expand the conversation and the experience and let consumers decide what they like. As we currently stand as an industry, we’re saying that arabica is the only coffee to drink.
We publish all our customer reviews on our website, and we’ve gotten a lot of write-ups like, “Oh, I didn’t know robusta could taste this way,” or “It’s so smooth and easy to drink. I can drink this black.” I love it.
You take the consumer experience seriously, beyond simply making something tasty. Is this approach influenced by your experiences as a coffee consumer?
There’s this massive disconnect between the tastemakers of third-wave coffee and most coffee consumers, right? In my research, looking at how coffee companies speak to their audiences, all the marketing materials reflected primarily white folks. It was strange because coffee is the second most consumed beverage in the world. Every person from every culture and industry, across tech and finance and fashion and design, we all drink coffee. But I felt like these major brands were not speaking to everybody. I felt, as a consumer, not spoken to.
When we started, my approach was, “I’m just gonna speak to people in a way that I wish I were spoken to as a consumer.” People love coffee; many drink it every day, but they may not know everything, and that’s okay.
You mentioned not being able to find Vietnamese coffee in grocery stores. You recently launched a ready-to-drink (RTD) can, which I imagine will increase the visibility of Vietnamese coffee as it becomes available in more retailers…
RTDs are so difficult! When I first decided that we were going to venture into RTDs, everyone was like, “Are you sure you want to do this?” RTDs are expensive, the margins are tiny—it’s a nightmare. But I knew why we were doing this: it came down to meeting our consumers where they’re at.
We did a keyword analysis on all of our customer reviews and analyzed them to understand what our customers care about. What do they like about our product? And the number-one trend word for us was “flavor.” Some people wrote that they liked that we are a women-owned business or mission-driven, but flavor was number one. I thought, “Our product hits; I’m so happy. But how do we get people to that flavor experience quicker?” It was clear that we had to do an RTD.
“There’s this massive disconnect between the tastemakers of third-wave coffee and most coffee consumers.”
We want to change minds and help people reimagine the Vietnamese coffee robusta experience. And the RTD beverage is also part of our commitment to innovation. We went all in with our commitment by developing the first 100% robusta cold brew on the U.S. market. It’s already made a huge splash in the beverage industry by winning BevNET’s Best New Product of 2022 Award. Product innovation is key because we can tell our story all day, but we need to have people experience our coffee to live the story, and RTDs are a way for more people to engage with us.
All this being said, Vietnamese coffee still gets a bad rep. Why do you think that is?
I understand why people still think this—it’s all over the internet. And it’s taught in coffee institutions, and friends at major coffee roasters tell me they teach this information to new baristas. It’s like a binary: “arabica is good, robusta is bad.”
Vietnamese coffee is not inherently bad; it’s considered bad because of the systems and structures that are in place that force it into cheaper market segments. The coffee industry is a system that relies on social constructs, and ideas of what’s good and what’s not good change over time. That means things evolve constantly, so I get where people come from, but we must ask, “How do we make it better? Where do we go from here?”