That’s finally changing. Cafes specializing in Vietnamese coffee now caffeinate cities from Pittsburgh to Austin. Pop-ups such as Kasama Cà Phê in San Francisco are handling beans from Vietnam with respect and showcasing their flavors in hot and cold drinks inspired by the wide repertoire of Southeast Asian coffee beverages.
Over the last couple decades, “serious” cafes have favored arabica beans, frequently given a light roast to reveal a nuanced, bright acidity. The bulk of beans coming out of Vietnam are of the robusta species. As the name suggests, they’re bold and bitter—qualities emphasized by the dark roast the beans typically get. At their best, robusta beans can also be nutty, lush and beautifully baritone in personality, fit to stand up to the condensed milk frequently mixed into coffee in the part of the world where they’re grown.
Robusta beans give Italian espresso its oomph. They’re also used to make instant coffee—and their reputation has suffered for it. Nevertheless, according to Sahra Nguyen, founder of Brooklyn-based roaster Nguyen Coffee Supply, Vietnamese immigrants to the U.S. have long turned to supermarket brands made with robusta beans—the chicory-laced Café du Monde brand above all—in search of a particular bold, bitter, somewhat smoky flavor. “It was cheap, accessible and a dark roast. It resembled the taste of coffee back home,” said Ms. Nguyen.
Now, she’s sourcing beans directly from Vietnam and forgoing added flavorings. Nguyen Coffee Supply’s Loyalty blend is 50/50 robusta/arabica. Both types get a medium roast, but separately, so their distinct characters shine through.
Running through early August, Ms. Nguyen’s pop-up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Cafe Phin, takes its name from the filter apparatus traditionally used to make Vietnamese coffee. Set atop a cup or carafe, it makes a sturdy brew, the base for a range of coffee drinks. An iced latte made with an extract of tube, aka purple yam, is a Cafe Phin signature. The tuber’s sweetness plays well with nutty robusta beans, while its striking pigment adds a beautiful violet layer.
Like Nguyen Coffee Supply, Copper Cow Coffee, based in Los Angeles, directly sources its beans. “There’s a huge inventory of beautiful, organic coffee coming out of Vietnam,” said founder Debbie Wei Mullen, who uses both robusta and arabica beans. While 80% of her business comes from online sales, the beans have staked a claim on the shelves of Walmart and 5,000 other retailers.
It’s taken time to establish a supply chain for high-quality Vietnamese beans. It took Thu Pham, co-founder of Càphê Roasters in Philadelphia, about six months to find a distributor of Vietnamese arabica beans and a farmer in the country’s central highlands who produces robusta and arabica. In the spring, Càphê Roasters started selling wholesale to restaurants in the city; their beans will hit local markets and co-ops later this summer. Bags are available for pre-sale to retail customers as of this week, via the company’s website.
Càphê Roasters’ coffee is built to please third-wave cognoscenti as well as those nostalgic for the Vietnamese brew they grew up with. “We found a way to roast, without adding anything artificial, that brings out the smokiness that chicory adds to the Café Du Monde profile,” said Ms. Pham. The beans produce a balanced brew, at once velvety, floral and a bit chocolaty. With condensed milk or not, it’s a quality cup of coffee and unmistakably Vietnamese.
Source: The Wall Street Journal