Vietnamese Coffee Is Not Just a Trend

Nguyen Coffee Supply’s robusta beans are heating up inside the large, silver industrial coffee roasters at Brooklyn’s Shared Roastery. After approximately 12 minutes and a temperature of approximately 400 degrees, founder Sahra Nguyen offers me a sniff: the beans, imported directly from Vietnam, smell of warm, toasty, and sweet caramel. Robusta beans are robust, resistant to climate change, and produce a coffee that is low in fat and sugar and high in caffeine. They have flourished in Vietnam since the early twentieth century, providing the basis for a slow coffee culture that values relaxation and adaptability over the fast-paced coffee culture that dominates the United States. So why is it suddenly being dubbed a trend in 2022?

According to Sahra Nguyen, robusta developed a reputation in the coffee industry as the less expensive, inferior tasting counterpart to arabica, which is known for its sweet yet acidic softness, but this is not the case. Rather than that, just as there are numerous varietals of wine, there are numerous varietals of coffee: the quality is consistently high, and the consumer ultimately determines the flavour preference. Sahra’s work with Nguyen Coffee Supply has included dismantling prejudices against robusta and ensuring that Vietnamese coffee receives the recognition it deserves as a global force in the coffee market, both socially and economically. Although French colonialists introduced coffee to Vietnam, an independent coffee culture has developed in the country since then, both in terms of coffee shop culture and farming. Indeed, Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee producer, but many people are unaware of its market dominance. Not only that, robusta accounts for 40% of the world’s coffee production.

However, robusta is not as frequently identified as a bean in use as arabica is, particularly when it comes to its regular presence in instant coffees. Not to mention that many establishments will serve Vietnamese coffee drinks made with arabica beans. And, while instant coffee was once the norm, with the growing interest in speciality and specialised coffee cultures around the world, there should be–and is beginning to be–space in those conversations for robusta and Vietnam as well, though it should have happened long ago. Sahra believes that there is room for improvement. “For us, it’s more about incorporating it into the conversation to encourage people to try Vietnamese coffee,” she explains. “If you’re someone who is interested in exploring and appreciating Vietnamese coffee, we love to include the culture concept as well, so that you can understand or appreciate the bean not just as a product isolated from its source, but as a collection of many other elements, such as people, cultures, lifestyles, and rituals, that contribute to the bean’s life.”

And Vietnamese coffee has an exceptionally long life. Nguyen Coffee Supply promotes the use of a phin filter to prepare Vietnamese coffee, a slow-drip brewing method popular in the country that the company describes as “if the V60 Pour Over and the French Press had a baby.” Sahra recalls that while she was developing the company–which has since landed her on the cover of Food & Wine, one of the few people to ever do so–she would consult brewing guides for other tools but the phin was almost never mentioned, despite the fact that it is affordable, sustainable, produces no paper waste, and has been in use for well over a century. If you own a Chemex, V60, or French Press, there is no reason why you should not try it with Vietnamese robusta beans. And once you’ve prepared Vietnamese coffee with the phin filter, or as a cold brew, or whatever, there are numerous ways to drink it. While it is frequently consumed iced and made with sweet condensed milk (which was originally used due to a lack of refrigeration), just as with other coffee varieties, the possibilities are endless. The distinction is simply that the beans are Vietnamese. Therefore, why wouldn’t you want to broaden your horizons?

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