MILAN – Coffee culture is growing in Vietnam as growers and retailers are seeking new ways to improve quality, boost product reputation and win connoisseur’s snobbery against Robustas. Vietnam’s coffee shop scene is vibrant and nearly every household makes coffee at home, according to a reportage published on Cnn website. Below is an edited summary of the article.
For the Vietnamese, coffee provides much more than just a shot of energy — it’s a way of life. Coffee outlets range from hole-in-the-wall counters with plastic stools on the sidewalk, to sleek, contemporary cafes with roasters on the premises.
“It’s about getting together with friends,” says Will Frith, a coffee consultant who owns a co-roasting enterprise in Ho Chi Minh City. He says coffee drinkers tend to gather in their favorite coffee shops, which operate as “a third space,” outside the home and workplace, and often form friendships with the owners and staff. Additionally, “nearly every Vietnamese household makes coffee at home,” he says.
But despite the size of its export sales, and its vibrant local coffee culture, Vietnam has not gained a reputation as a source of quality coffee. And that’s because of the beans.
The majority of Vietnam’s coffee beans — around 97% — are the robusta variety.
Bulk business has given them a bad reputation in the high-end, specialty coffee market.
According to Rob Atthill, a pioneer of the Vietnamese street food scene in London, this attitude is outdated:
“There’s a lot of snobbery against robusta in the coffee industry … but there’s no inferiority. Arabica is not inherently better.”
What matters, Atthill says, is the quality of the beans.
“There’s high quality robusta and poor quality arabica.”
He says coffee sales, through his company Ca Phe VN, have tripled in the last five years. Ca Phe VN’s house blend, which Atthill describes as “nutty, chocolatey, strong but approachable” accounts for 90% of his sales.
The blend combines 85% robusta beans, which provide body and flavor, with a dash of arabica, which adds acidity, complexity and aroma, he says.
Sahra Nguyen launched Nguyen Coffee Supply in Brooklyn, New York, in 2018. She buys coffee beans from a family-run farm in Vietnam ‘s Central Highlands and roasts them herself.
Like Atthill, Nguyen wants to transform the reputation of the unfairly maligned robusta bean. She recently added Grit — a 100% robusta product — to her range, and has conducted blind taste tests in which customers sample Grit alongside two of her other coffees: Loyalty — made from 50% robusta and 50% arabica beans; and Courage, which is 100% arabica.
Overall, more than three quarters of testers preferred Grit. The response “blew me away,” says Nguyen.
Vietnamese coffee has also returned to its roots in France. Husband-and-wife team, Nam and Linh Nguyen, opened Hanoi Corner in central Paris two years ago. Along with coffee, the café offers Vietnamese tea, cakes and streetfood staples.
Vietnam has “a unique coffee culture” says Nam Nguyen, an award-winning barista. “We wanted to introduce it in France … where nobody knows it,” he says.
At the same time, specialty coffee is gaining influence back home.
Frith says a new generation of Vietnamese coffee roasters and cafe entrepreneurs are focusing on quality — paying attention to terroir, discussing cultivation methods with farmers and adopting best practices when it comes to processing techniques.
In the last few years, a trend towards sophisticated interior design has added to the buzz, especially in Ho Chi Minh City, where he lives.
“Coffee shops here are becoming as diverse and fancy as anything you’d find in London or New York,” he says.