In recent decades, Vietnam has often been unfairly written off by many buyers in specialty coffee as a high-volume producer of robusta coffee. Yet for first-generation Vietnamese-American entrepreneur Sahra Nguyen, such a narrow view of Vietnamese coffee overlooks a rich coffee culinary coffee history, as well as a promising future in the quality-focused specialty market.
In April, Nguyen opened the doors to Cafe Phin inside the An Choi restaurant in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood, specializing solely in Vietnamese brews using a combination of robusta and arabica beans. Supporting the venture is Nguyen Coffee Supply, an importing and roasting company formally launched by Nguyen in New York last year.
Prior to coffee, Nguyen found success as a published writer, film producer and media entrepreneur. Her familiarity with specialty coffee grew after she opened Lucy’s Vietnamese Kitchen in Bushwick in 2015.
Despite her interest in coffee, Nguyen said she has struggled to find the kind of traditional coffee that she remembers from her childhood — often involving a robusta and arabica blend brewed manually in single cups with a flat-basket phin brewer.
In 2016, while visiting family in Hanoi, Nguyen was introduced to a coffee producer from Da Lat in the Central Highlands who had been producing specialty grade coffee on a 12-hectare family farm for nearly four generations. A fluent Vietnamese speaker, Nguyen immediately developed a direct trade relationship and drafted a business plan in which she would source and roast high-grading arabica and robusta coffees.
In 2018, after two years of planning, she opened Nguyen Coffee Supply, sourcing and roasting coffees exclusively from Da Lat, while boasting of being the first ever Vietnamese-American and woman-owned coffee importing company in the United States. The company also proudly boasts of being “millennial-owned.”
“Despite the scrutiny, I’m educating folks on the possibilities that robusta can be good if it’s grown and produced with care,” Nguyen told DCN, adding that despite much of Vietnamese coffee being commodity grade, there are a lot of Vietnamese producers who are working to meet higher quality standards.
“Vietnamese coffee can be really great if it’s grown well, produced well and if it’s roasted well; this includes robusta coffee,” Nguyen said. “I want to break the norm that not all robusta coffee tastes bad.”
Currently, Nguyen roasts the beans herself once a week on a 30-kilo Probat roaster located at the company’s production warehouse in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood.
Furthering the cause is the has been the opening of Cafe Phin, which has been maintaining hours for five days per week inside the An Choi restaurant. The coffee bar offers both of NCS’s core products: a 50/50 blend of arabica and robusta called “Loyalty,” and a 100 percent arabica single-origin called “Courage.”
Drink options include: batch brew; the “Phin batch brew,” brewed on a 220-gram phin brewer; an individual phin brew using a traditional 22-gram phin brewer; and pourovers using Hario V60s. Cafe Phin also serves traditional Vietnamese coffee drinks, including the Ca Phe Den (traditional condensed Vietnamese black coffee brewed with a phin), Ca Phe Sua (phin-brewed coffee over condensed milk), and Ca Phe Sua Da (Phin brewed coffee over ice).
A rotating menu of specialty drinks currently includes the Coconut Vietnamese Coffee, the Ube Iced Latte (a purple yam dessert with phin-brewed coffee), and the Sea Salt Vietnamese Shakerato. Nguyen and her team are constantly experimenting with new drinks, such as a new variation of cold brew and a strawberry milk latte.
All of these drinks are designed to give the customer a uniquely Vietnamese coffee experience.
“Third wave coffee is centered around the quality of the coffee. I want the fourth wave to be centered around the people that actually grow the coffee,” Nguyen said. “Coffee professionals are at a place where we can redesign the system abroad, focusing on farmers and producers at origins and their methods and their livelihoods, oppose to just concentrating strictly on the coffee.”
Towards this effort, Cafe Phin is donating a portion of its proceeds to organizations that advance Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American causes within specialty coffee. The company us also constantly speaking with producers in its network to make sure their socio-economic and financial demands are being met, according to Nguyen.
“I opened this cafe to honor my Vietnamese heritage and to showcase Vietnamese coffee and Vietnamese culture,” Nguyen said. “I want to shatter the stereotypes about Vietnam and show folks the versatility of Vietnamese coffee beans and drinks.”
Cafe Phin is located at 85 Orchard Street at Broome inside of An Choi in Lower Manhattan.
[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to better describe Sahra Nguyen’s past career experience.]