In the early 1990s, full-sun coffee production was introduced to Vietnam, and the coffee industry there has been growing like a weed ever since—the country now accounts for a staggering 19 percent of the world’s total coffee output. This is thanks in large part to the practice of clear-cutting huge swathes of land and planting high-yield, chemical-fertilizer-dependent coffee; between 2005 and today alone, Vietnam doubled its yearly coffee exports with this method. But perhaps most striking is not how much coffee is grown in Vietnam, but how much of that coffee is low quality. Because while a distant second in total coffee production to Brazil, Vietnam grows far and away the most Robusta of any country on the planet.
Some coffee trickles back into the country and ends up brewed via Phin—the flimsy metal top-hat-like dripper found most commonly at your neighborhood pho or banh mi joint—then mixed with sweetened condensed milk, resulting in what coffee drinkers in the West think of as “traditional” Vietnamese coffee. Much of the country’s Robusta output is sold to Nestlé—Vietnam is Nescafé’s top supplier.
Does this mean that all Vietnamese coffee is either low quality and destined to be chain-drunk by cubicle workers out of red plastic packets or otherwise the color, texture, and taste of chocolate milk, and that there is no such thing as high-quality Vietnamese coffee? You’d be excused for thinking so.
But in fact, there is. Although less than 2 percent of coffee grown in Vietnam is Arabica, a small community of farmers in the Lam Dong province of the country’s high-altitude center have committed to it over the past five years, spurred largely by a burgeoning scene of cafes and roasteries in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). This is a guide to some of those places, all of which, in driving demand for quality over quantity, are making a difference in the way Vietnamese coffee is grown, consumed, and represented.
The Workshop, carved out of a block of top-floor apartments in a building just off downtown HCMC’s central walking street in 2014, was the city’s first specialty roaster. Its founders believe in a principal of transparency—removing as many filters as possible from between the customer and a coffee. This includes sweet milk; as policy, the Workshop doesn’t serve the stuff and instead directs sugar-seekers to one of the countless coffee stalls that line the city’s sidewalks. For those who stay, the options range from espresso to any number of brew devices, including Wave, V60, AeroPress, and syphon. According to co-founder Nguyen Tuan Dung, the Workshop understands you can’t change a person’s taste preferences by forcing newness on them but rather aims to instill in customers an appreciation and respect for their coffees and the people who grow them. The commitment to the shop’s farmers, however, stretches far beyond buying coffee—the roastery provides improvements to infrastructure like new drying racks and pulping machines in order to elevate the overall quality of Vietnamese coffee production. And selfies are welcome: the space is gorgeous.
Bosgaurus Coffee Roasters
At the end of a road flanked by high-rise apartment buildings, some so new their glass is still caked with construction dust, lies Bosgaurus Coffee Roasters. It’s home to both the first and currently reigning Vietnamese Barista Champion, Tr’ân Hân, as well as the first and reigning Vietnamese AeroPress Champion, Le Dan Nha Thi. It’s also home to two Giesens, which roast all coffee used at the shop. The space also houses two separate coffee bars, one on each floor, with the upstairs used as an educational tool where a person can try their hand at dialing in coffee however they like it, whether with a hand-drip apparatus or Nuova Simonelli Aurelia II. The downstairs bar was designed in deference to traditional Vietnamese coffee bars, which are square; it’s low and straight to encourage interaction between baristas and customers. Bos gaurus, if you’re wondering, is the world’s tallest species of cow, an elusive, rare type of cattle native to Southeast Asia, with long, milk-white legs—majestic, not unlike the shop that bears its name.
Klasik Coffee Roasters
Ly Ngoc Thiep founded Klasik Coffee Roasters this past January after receiving her coffee education in the United States in 2014. She studied roasting at Boot Coffee in San Rafael, California and traveled to Kansas for a Q Certification. A HCMC native, she returned there after spending time in New York, but, after being surrounded by the dynamic coffee cultures on America’s East and West coasts, was discouraged by what her city had to offer. The only place offering high-quality Arabica at the time was The Workshop, and she was desperate for another space that served high-quality international coffees. Now, Klasik fills that void. It acts in part as a Hario distributor and a roastery that sources Vietnamese coffees as well as those from around the world—Thiep says she has a preference for Ethiopian beans but did her best while in the US to drink Panama Geisha as often as possible. She’s now sharing her knowledge with the coffee community in HCMC, running workshops of her own. “People come together to build a market and community,” she says. “We’re working together to make Vietnamese coffee.”
Drago Specialty Coffee
Drago Specialty Coffee is small, both inside and out—I walked past it three times before spotting the sign bearing the roastery’s name covertly affixed to a downtown building’s facade. At only three months old, on paper it’s the youngest of the recent up-cropping of specialty shops, but Drago is more than it seems. Located up a short, blanch-white staircase decorated with grounds-filled cups, Drago is actually a branch of a much larger and older commercial coffee roastery called Nam Long, which primarily produces a slightly more refined version of darkly roasted Phin-grade Robusta. Drago acts as an experimental arm of the company, roasting higher-quality coffees in smaller batches and blending Vietnamese and international beans in unusual combinations—Vietnamese Robusta blended with Ethiopia, anyone? When I visited, Drago staff were gathered around the shop’s lone table cupping coffees with help from Klasik’s Thiep. Since it was a weekend, and the majority of Drago’s customers are business people going to and from nearby office buildings, it didn’t hurt to shut down for an hour in order to do what Drago does best: experiment.
Saigon Coffee Roastery
Saigon Coffee Roastery is exactly what it sounds like, with a catalogue of small-batch, mostly Vietnamese coffee on offer. Vo Phap founded the company in response to the ubiquity of low-quality Phin coffee in his city, the worst of which is made up partly by fillers like soy and cornmeal—lax government regulation and low consumer standards allows for this noncoffee to pass, provided it’s served with enough sugar. Phap was influenced by the design of Italian espresso bars, and in little less than a year has carved out his own interpretation from a space above what was once an arcade and market. He doesn’t see the other new roasteries popping up in HCMC as competition, but as evidence that real Vietnamese coffee is on its way toward a decade of positive growth.
Shin Coffee began as an idea five years ago, and after breaking ground in 2015 it already has two outposts in downtown HCMC, just a five-minute walk from each other. The newer of the spaces is also the larger, occupying three stories in a building across the street and around the corner from some of the city’s busiest hotels. The intent here is to draw on a rapidly expanding base of foreign tourists; Shin wants to make sure it’s the first experience a visitor has with Vietnamese coffee. And although the spaces are relatively new, Shin’s founder, Nguyen Huu Long, isn’t new to the industry. He took his first job in coffee at a cafe in town as an 18-year-old, and has spent years bouncing between Vietnam and Japan, where he steeped in the coffee culture while working in cafes and as a translator. Now the plan is to pass on some of that knowledge: the newer Shin’s third floor is undergoing renovations that will transform it into a full-blown coffee training center, not unlike at Bosgaurus. Its wall is emblazoned with a coffee-variety family tree, its laminate branches catching light as they extend.
Michael Light (@MichaelPLight) has written previously for GOOD Magazine and Wag’s Revue. Read more Michael Light on Sprudge.