F&W Game Changers: Sahra Nguyen
Nguyen Coffee Supply is bringing single-origin Vietnamese coffee to as many cups as possible.
In Vietnam, coffee culture is centered around community," says Sahra Nguyen, founder of Nguyen Coffee Supply. Rather than treating coffee as a sidekick to breakfast or a grab-and-go caffeine fix for boosting productivity, you go to a café to sit with a cup of coffee fitted with a slow-drip phin filter on top. "The coffee has its own moment," she says.
Now, Vietnamese coffee culture is having its own moment here in America, in large part due to Nguyen, a child of Vietnamese refugees who grew up in Boston. In 2018, after noticing that Vietnamese beans were entirely unrepresented in specialty coffee, she launched Nguyen Coffee Supply, with the twofold mission of giving Vietnamese coffee culture and Vietnamese coffee beans pride of place.
Vietnam is the second-largest producer of coffee in the world, but the majority of its beans are from the robusta species. Compared to arabica, robusta is a low-acidity, high-caffeine, and high-yield species with a reputation for being lower quality, and big corporations typically purchase Vietnam's crop for instant coffee. "Vietnam has been trapped in the cycle of commercial coffee production that is heavily controlled by companies who want to pay a really cheap price," says Nguyen. "Farmers end up growing what they know is going to sell."
Nguyen decided to change that cycle, partnering with a farmer in Da Lat. The pair switched to more labor-intensive farming practices to cultivate better beans, which Nguyen imports green and roasts in Brooklyn. Today, she sells three styles of coffee directly to consumers: smooth and fruity Moxy (100% arabica), sweet and nutty Loyalty (half arabica and half robusta), and full-bodied Truegrit (100% robusta), along with phin filter kits. When she conducted a blind tasting with customers, the 100% robusta was the winner-all the better to enjoy Vietnamese coffee drinks. Vietnam developed its drinks, like cà phê trú¸ng (made with egg yolk and condensed milk) and coconut coffee (see recipe at right), around the bolder robusta. Now, anyone can make them with her single-origin coffees.
Nguyen also works to keep her coffee connected to where it comes from. On the nearly identical menus at most serious American coffee shops, with mostly espresso-based drinks (cappuccinos, lattes, and so forth), Nguyen saw a disconnect. "There was this level of extraction happening-extracting the product in the country without enough recognition of the people," she says. "We believe in building a diverse and inclusive coffee culture. It is a collective investment with everyone along the entire supply chain."
Coffee from $14 per pound, phin coffee filters from $14, nguyencoffeesupply.com