It’s all about the beans: A Bushwick resident is making authentic Vietnamese coffee

May 14, 2019 Heather Chin
Meet Sahra Nguyen, the founder of the country's first specialty Vietnamese coffee importer. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Coffee Supply

When Nguyen Coffee Supply launched in November, it stood out immediately. Here was the country’s first specialty Vietnamese coffee importer, using beans grown in Vietnam and roasted in Red Hook. But the real gravitas came from its founder, an American-born daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, who set out to build a business on transparency, flavor and cultural pride.

Sahra Nguyen, the company’s founder and CEO, leverages a vision of culturally authentic collaborations to fuel the startup’s steady growth over its first six months. Nguyen Coffee Supply launched its own “cafe speakeasy:” Cafe Phin opened inside the popular Lower East Side Vietnamese restaurant An Choi this April.

The coffee beans inside Cafe Phin have come a long way — they’re grown in Da Lat, Vietnam, by a fourth-generation coffee farmer. Vietnamese robusta beans, the kind that Nguyen Coffee Supply uses, have twice as much caffeine as the more popular arabica beans.

“I really wanted to help change the perception around Vietnamese coffee,” said Nguyen. Robusta beans, she explained, are seen as the “inferior” alternative to the “superior” arabica beans.

Vietnam exports roughly 3.6 billion pounds of coffee a year, but the companies that buy them typically use the beans in “cheap products or instant coffee products,” Nguyen said. “So Vietnamese coffee has gotten a really bad reputation.”

Nguyen grew up in Boston, but made regular visits to her family in Vietnam. Through those trips, she learned about authentic Vietnamese coffee, made with condensed milk, ice, Vietnamese phin filters and the slow-drip method.

Authentic Vietnamese coffee is made using phin filters, which make one cup of coffee at a time. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Coffee Supply

The flavor of the coffee, which Nguyen characterizes as “nutty, robust, chocolatey,” is an irresistible and unique factor. But when she moved to Bushwick six years ago, right into the heart of the specialty coffee scene, she realized that everyone else had a different understanding of Vietnamese coffee.

“The trend has been largely light roast and 100 percent arabica, which tends to be more of the fruity, citrus, flora profile. People were kind of treating coffee like a tea,” Nguyen explained.

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In the U.S. version of Vietnamese iced coffee, flavors were either touched with chicory or cut with butter and artificial flavors, à la Trung Nguyen-produced beans.

“Those were the only two options. I realized neither offered a fresh roasted Vietnamese coffee bean,” she said. “And so that’s when I thought about importing green beans from Vietnam and then fresh roasting in Brooklyn. With the coffee culture here in New York and the U.S., fresh-roasted coffee is important to people.”

How does someone who has never roasted coffee before build a business revolving around international imports from scratch? Nguyen credits, at least in part, Brooklyn’s coffee culture. She crowdsourced input from Vietnamese-American friends, other coffee roasters, and took some roasting classes.

At Nguyen Coffee Supply and Cafe Phin, customers get a choice: 100 percent robusta beans, or a half-and-half mix of robusta and arabica. Baristas offer non-dairy alternatives in addition the traditional condensed milk, and the menu includes everything from classic drips and cold brews to a coconut coffee and Ube Iced Latte.

As Nguyen envisioned, it’s all about the bean: “you could enjoy it any way that you choose, just as you would use an Ethiopian bean or a Colombian bean.”

The response so far has been “intense, but filled with joy,” she said. Vietnamese Americans tell her they feel seen, Asian Americans are proud of the representation, and coffee drinkers of all varieties form lines out the door in anticipation of something new.

“Nguyen Coffee Supply has a very strong storytelling angle to it,” Nguyen noted. “Because it’s not just about selling coffee, but selling coffee and using the platform of coffee to talk about the stories of the Vietnamese experience, the Vietnamese economy, maybe corporate exploitation, about how to increase sustainability and transparency, how to talk about representation and visibility and community empowerment.

“Now, when I’m seeing other people share this story and talk about this story, sharing the narrative of Vietnamese coffee and culture and production in a positive way, here and in Vietnam, is incredible.”

Heather J. Chin is a freelance journalist and second-generation native Brooklynite who writes about health, culture, business and Asian America. Her work has appeared in NBC News, The Village Voice, The Week, Brooklyn Reporter, Bklyner, Edible Brooklyn, Technically Brooklyn and elsewhere. Follow her on social media at @heatherjchin.

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