“Maya is a Vietnamese woman, a cafe owner, and a barista in Vermont. She is an incredible entrepreneur, friend, and community advocate. She works every day to make her cafe and our industry a more welcoming place. Maya is a very dedicated volunteer with the SCA as a committee advisor working countless hours to keep things running for the coffee community. Just recently, she competed in the US Coffee Champs Qualifiers in Baltimore, advancing to Portland by serving a beautifully complex Vietnamese robusta coffee from Nguyen Coffee Supply. We are pretty sure she will be the first barista to present a robusta at the National level (in the US). Maya is part of the movement that is changing the game and totally flipping competition on its head in a really beautiful way.”
Nominated by Hana Yoshimoto
What is the quality you like best about coffee?
I like that coffee is a black hole. What I mean by that is that there is so much coffee research that is still ongoing, as well as a lot of research that we don’t even know we don’t have yet. Since coffee is so young compared to similar industries (like tea), even people who are on the cutting edge of research and coffee science don’t know everything. Learning is one of my favorite things and I feel like I could still be learning new things about coffee for the rest of my life. I also feel like that helps people stay humble. Not always… but enough of the time that if someone is acting like they are the end-all-be-all source of coffee knowledge, I can smile because they’re being a little bit naïve.
I will also say I love the type of people that tend to work in coffee. I come from the restaurant management world and I often struggled to find those people I instantly connected with there, but in coffee it was always easier. It’s probably because I’m a little bit weird and so are a lot of y’all ;).
What was your first coffee job?
I worked at New Moon Cafe in Burlington, Vermont. It was a fast/casual restaurant that served coffee roasted by Broadway Roasters in KCMO.
That job was sort of odd in a lot of ways, but overall I have fond memories. I also had coworkers who really loved coffee, so I was able to get a lot of support from my peers who were willing to hang out with me, answer my burning coffee questions, and talk about general coffee nerd stuff with me.
I had my first cupping there when Broadway’s wholesale manager came to visit us. I remember telling my sister about how cool it was to have met the roaster. I was so excited from that experience and something really clicked—that was the moment I started to really want to focus on only coffee.
The coffee job I spent the most time at, and probably the most significant for me, was Uncommon Grounds, which was in Burlington, Vermont for 25 years. I used to be a regular there when I went back to restaurant management after leaving New Moon for financial reasons. I went in one day and their manager/my friend Kennah asked if I wanted a job. I was confused by this, because I couldn’t see a reason I’d leave my financially secure job with benefits in order to work for minimum wage at a cafe… but when I went home that day, I sent Kennah my resume. I did it for me and chose my happiness over money and I’ve never regretted it. That job gave me so much… my cafe wouldn’t be possible without the legacy that Uncommon Grounds left, the investment they made in my professional development, and the emotional support their owner gave me as I started my new venture when she retired.
What is your current role in coffee?
I own and operate a cafe/roastery. It’s called Uncommon Coffee and it’s in Essex, Vermont. Essex is the town I grew up in, as well as the town my dad settled in when he came to the US as a refugee from Vietnam. I have a deep emotional connection to the community and I’m so lucky to be able to operate my business here.
This year, I also dipped my toes into the coffee competition world, as I was able to represent Nguyen Coffee Supply in the US Barista Competition. Now I tell people that my role is also robusta evangelism as the first person (as far as my network can tell) to bring a 100% robusta routine to the national stage for USBC.
Did you experience a “god shot” or life-changing moment of coffee revelation early in your life?
Kind of! I vividly remember the first cup of coffee that challenged my perceptions of what coffee could taste like. It was an after dinner coffee at a restaurant before my high school prom. I found out years later that the coffee was an Ethiopian coffee from Uncommon Grounds. I remember tasting the coffee black and wondering why the coffee tasted fruity. Until that day, I had only known the coffee my grandfather drank (so… commercial grade very dark roast). To try a coffee that was not only a light roast, but had such a tea-like body, high acidity, and was packed with sweetness was astonishing!
However, I didn’t drink coffee again for years after that. It didn’t convert me from drinking only soy milk London Fogs, but it made me curious. I’ve always thought back to that cup of coffee as a big turning point in changing my perception of what coffee could be.
What issue in coffee do you care about most? What cause or element in coffee drives you?
This changes all the time, but right now I’m very invested in finding stories in coffee that don’t often get told.
We all talk about the goat herd, right (you know the one)? But there are countless other coffee stories that deserve space. The story I told during my USBC routine in Portland is something I’m hoping to bring to a wider audience in the coming year and I’m hoping to bring more stories like that to coffee spaces over time.
ICYMI: the story I told in Portland was the story of how Vietnamese coffee production increased. East Germany had a shortage, so they invested around $20M into Vietnamese coffee farming. The circumstances around how that happened and East Germany’s collapse greatly impacted the global coffee trade, as well as fueled local consumption in Vietnam. Because Vietnam ended up with a surplus of coffee, they developed a specialty coffee consuming culture concurrently with the US and other countries that don’t grow coffee. Even though the US had written off Vietnamese coffee (and robusta as a whole), the short distance between barista and coffee farmer in Vietnam lead to amazing increases in quality in a short period of time.
Do you often make coffee at home? If so, tell us how you brew!
Almost never! Very occasionally, I brew coffee for my spouse or our roommate in the Moccamaster that Glitter Cat gifted me, but it’s never for myself. I am a giant espresso nerd and since I have commercial coffee equipment that I love at my cafe (and I live five minutes away), I will always go to work or to another cafe if I want coffee.
I want to show some special love to my espresso machine; I’ve worked on it for most of my career as a barista and it’s a four-group La Marzocco FB70 from 2007. I freaking love that thing.
I also want to shout out my favorite day off coffee shop, Onyx Tonics Specialty Coffee. I like to go there on my days off to get three to four different drinks with my friends and I’ll often knit there while enjoying coffee. The people are great. The coffee is immaculate. They have an extremely ambitious menu where they dial in like six to 10 different coffees every day and I have so much respect for them.
What is your favorite song to brew coffee to?
I love Carly Rae Jepsen! I know it’s a bit of a coffee people trope that baristas love listening to CRJ’s album “Emotion” but I don’t even care; every song on the album is a bop.
What is your idea of coffee happiness?
I feel like I’ve hit my peak coffee happiness. I was lucky enough to host a Prelim for USCC last fall and the amount of gratitude I felt, as well as the connection to the community blew me away. Being able to share my local community with friends from all over the country was one of the best experiences of my life, truly.
Coffee happiness exists in Vermont. I am constantly in awe of how incredible our tiny community is. For such a small state (~600,000 people), we have a powerful specialty beverage culture. The coffee community is so mutually supportive and so willing to share space with one another. It’s special and unique. Because of this, there is a lot of room for collaboration, sharing of information, and it allows us all to grow together. To me, that’s coffee happiness.
Who inspires you in the world of coffee?
Here is a short list, followed by one longer shout-out: Sahra Nguyen, Will Frith, Mikolaj Pociecha, Mar Childers, Kim Dam, Anita Tam, Ian Bailey, Beth Beall, and Magda and Nate VanDeusen, my staff at Uncommon… and a ton more people too, but those are some special ones.
I’m choosing to give extra space here to Ian Bailey! Ian owns Vivid Coffee in Burlington, Vermont and he’s one of the people I have the most respect for in my local community. He puts so much into sourcing the coffees he does and has really meaningful relationships with his producers. Even though I think releasing fourteen Honduran coffees all at once every year is absolutely bananas, he makes it work. He’s also been so willing to chat about coffee, collaborate, and support the coffee community. He does so much for our local community outside of coffee. I look at Ian as a role model and I aspire to be as cool as him one day.
If you could drink coffee with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
My Vietnamese grandpa. I never knew him and I’d love to know what’s true and what’s untrue about our family history. My family are refugees and they all left Vietnam at different times. It’s really hard for me to know what’s true among many conflicting stories and points of view (BIG family).
The stories I’ve heard about him vary widely. What I think I know is that he worked somewhere in the government in Saigon and that he was taken away from the family for a while after my dad left, was returned later, but was a hollow shell of his former self. I don’t know if we would have gotten along, but I’d like to know a bit more about what makes up the parts of me that I don’t completely understand. I also think it would be really cool to learn about my family’s history and if/how they consumed coffee in Vietnam. As a mixed person, I’ve always been hungry to connect with my Vietnamese heritage since I didn’t grow up with a lot of the things that would have made me fit in with other Asian people. I don’t speak Vietnamese, I’ve never been to Asia, and my dad didn’t raise me, so I missed a lot of culture. I want to learn!
I’ve been so lucky to build community with and be accepted by the Asian coffee community in the past few years. I still have a lot of insecurities about my mixed identity, but I can say confidently that I feel more connected to Vietnamese coffee after being so accepted by the Nguyen Coffee Supply team and their network after my experiences with USBC this year. I am extremely proud of how we represented Vietnamese coffee on the stage and I am excited about the connections I made along the way.
This feature is part of the Sprudge Twenty Interviews presented by Pacific Barista Series. Watch for more interviews in the coming days. For a complete list of 2023 Sprudge Twenty honorees please visit sprudge.com/twenty.