The Quest to Make the Best Worst Cup of Coffee

My first glass of pure, undiluted, black robusta hit me in the neck like a punch. It was vodka infused with caffeine. It made me want to dive into a pool of sweet cream with my mouth wide open. This was unlike any other “coffee” I had ever consumed, and I struggled to process it on a primal sensory level. Bang Duong, the man who had grown, roasted, and brewed this Thor-like beverage, was seated directly across from me, so I restrained my reaction. It was January 2020, and we were on the second floor of Ho Chi Minh City’s Tractor Coffee, a mecca of reclaimed wood, unfinished steel, and burlap tones that could have been in Berkeley or Berlin if not for one thing: Tractor was one of the only cafés I could find that made seed-to-cup coffee from the world’s least favored bean variety. This could make it the launching pad for an unlikely culinary revolution.

In the world of high-end coffee, promoters of robusta beans are viewed with either condescension or suspicion, as if they were selling prom corsages made from roadside weeds. In fact, eight years ago, Duong was just another farmer in Bao Loc cultivating low-quality robusta used for street coffee. In contrast to many cash-croppers, he was less concerned with short-term gains. He regarded robusta and did not believe that its flavor was inherently unpleasant. It is distinct. It’s unique, he remarked to himself. Then, he set himself the objective of “proving robusta can be good.”

Read more •

Suggested Reading