If you were to ask someone on a random American sidewalk about what Vietnamese coffee is, the most common answers would probably sound like this:
“Iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk?”
“Coffee from… Vietnam?”
or “I don’t know.”
For being the world’s second-largest coffee-producing country after Brazil, it’s remarkably rare to find any coffee in the United States designating Vietnam as an origin country. Specialty coffee is defined as any coffee that has scored 80 or higher on the standardized 100-point scoring system. While Robusta, the majority of Vietnam’s coffee production, is not commonly considered “specialty grade” and often relegated to the instant coffee market, many are working to change that and the industry’s stigma against it.
“The reason why there’s even an issue about Robusta versus Arabica is that people don’t have access to it, and therefore they’re not able to form their own opinions about it,” says Lan Ho, founder of Fat Miilk in Chicago. The direct-to-consumer company’s name is a nod to sweetened condensed milk. And so then you have these gatekeepers who are telling a certain narrative, and people don’t know any different in order to believe that. She’s sourcing Robusta directly from Vietnamese farmers and then developing roast profiles with Philadelphia-based Càphê Roasters, another Vietnamese American-owned brand.
What began as a pop-up during the pandemic has now turned into Ho signing the lease on a new cafe space, located in the heart of Chicago’s Vietnamese community on Argyle Street. She sees the current spotlight on Vietnamese coffee as being focused on consumer education, and while she recognizes that importance, she wants to expand beyond that. “I love the idea of building a community, of being able to tell your story, your heritage, your identity, the stories of the people before you and the people after you,” explains Ho. “I want to create a brand that is celebratory of who we are as individuals and respectful, but also transformative as a Vietnamese coffee company.”
Vietnam War refugees began the first of several immigration waves from Vietnam into the United States. Refugees, immigrants, and their families settled in cultural enclaves in the major cities across the country, including Orange County, San Jose, and Houston. These “Little Saigons” or “Vietnamese Towns” supported a network and community that is now the fourth largest Asian immigrant population in the US.
During this time, Cafe du Monde became an integral part of Vietnamese American coffee making, despite the coffee company not being from Vietnam or using Vietnamese beans. The New Orleans company had hired Vietnamese immigrants, and “when management noticed workers mailing the coffee-chickory blend to friends and family, they began marketing the tins to Asian grocery stores across the country,” writes Anne Ewbank in Gastro Obscura.
Cà phê sữa đá is traditionally made with the phin filter, a small container with a filter that rests on top of your carafe, and a dark-roasted coffee like Cafe du Monde. “Each drop provides an opportunity to slow down, take time, relax, and save the process,” shares Khuyen Le in their Sprudge feature about Vietnamese coffee. In combination with ice and sweetened condensed milk, this drink has become synonymous with “Vietnamese coffee” in the US.
Now that’s starting to change. Over the past decade or so, coffee lovers have witnessed an outpouring of Vietnamese-owned coffee companies changing the narrative for Vietnamese coffee in North America. It’s following the trajectory of other cultural groups whose food is going mainstream: there’s first a wave of people co-opting flavors (the “discovery” of an ingredient that has existed elsewhere on the globe for decades or centuries) and then, a surge of those in-group reclaiming their culture and creating their own stories. I heard a common refrain from several of those interviewed for this story, and it sounds like this: “Yes, the phin filter exists, and sweetened condensed milk is great—but let’s also talk about Vietnamese beans and culture, please.”
The perception that I want to change is that it might be stuck or that there’s no potential. In places like the US, the whole Vietnamese coffee thing has been abused in the past before this current movement,” says Will Frith, a coffee coach and long-time advocate of Vietnamese coffee. “Just throw shots of your whatever espresso blend on top of condensed milk and call it Vietnamese coffee.” Frith identifies the “affirmation of identity”—seeing others like you doing something—as a big part of why more Vietnamese-owned coffee brands are being founded.
Founded in 2018, Nguyen Coffee Supply is among the first specialty Vietnamese coffee companies in the United States, and today has become one of the leaders of this popular moment. “Prior to starting Nguyen Coffee Supply, Vietnamese coffee culture in the US primarily existed in mom-and-pop Vietnamese restaurants, where you could order a phin drip coffee,” says founder and CEO Sahra Nguyen. “Even as specialty coffee shops popped up across America over the last 20 years, and we saw the explosion of Asian beverages such as chai, matcha and boba tea, Vietnamese coffee, and the phin brewing method did not yet exist in mainstream American coffee spaces. .”
Paula Ocheltree, owner of Oakland-based Orbit Coffee and a Vietnam War refugee, remembers her surprise when she learned that Cafe du Monde didn’t have Vietnamese roots. She tells me, “For so long, we’ve accepted it; the beautiful yellow can as the Vietnamese thing.” She opened up her cafe-roastery in 2019 for two reasons: first, as a place that she wanted to visit and have a cup of coffee at (“I never felt I could take my children to a coffee shop”); And second, to share her version of what Vietnamese coffee is. Along with other producing countries, Orbit also sources and roasts Vietnamese Robusta coffee. Since opening, Orbit has quickly expanded to three locations and many local wholesale clients. At interview time, Ocheltree was working on launching at nightclubs with Orbit coffee cocktails like Rocket Fuel, a mix of Vietnamese coffee and whiskey.
Ocheltree is not the only one whose childhood memories include Cafe du Monde. “My parents owned a convenience store, and I remember very clearly how I would go and mix all the coffees together with all those creamers, and I would just mix them all to make this really, really sweet concoction of drinks,” recalls Kim Dam , owner of Portland Ca Phê. While coffee has been part of Dam’s life for as long as she can remember, it wasn’t until she helped out at her mom’s banh mi store, selling “gallons and gallons of cà phê sữa” using Cafe du Monde, that she realized how much people outside her culture were consuming it.
Dam first started a roasting company with her business partner, Alex Tang. Her first cafe opened in 2021, and in 2022 they’ve announced a forthcoming second location. Her challenge has been keeping up with demand: after nearly running out of coffee last year, she started importing it herself with a few other small roasters.
One of the most difficult parts of sharing one’s culture is reconciling with the fact that your interpretation may not be another person’s experience. Dam sometimes receives criticism from her own community for trying to exploit their culture. She shares, “I will get Vietnamese people that come into my coffee shop, and they’re like, ‘This is not Vietnamese coffee. This is an abomination.’” Despite this, she remains firm in her business outlook and is excited to continue working with Vietnamese farmers.
We risk locking Vietnamese coffee culture into some place in the past. And if we’re going to be champions of this, we’re going to have to also update ourselves and our own knowledge of what Vietnamese coffee culture is,” says Frith. “The goal here is diversifying the coffee market, not changing it completely. There’s room for all these different expressions of Vietnamese coffee.” He’s also noticed the presence of at least one Vietnamese-focused coffee brand in every major US city—this increase in demand and volume makes logistics and shipping easier.
Sisters Sashaline, Shasitie, and Shominic Nguyen opened up Tí Cafe in Denver in 2021 as a way to “show that Vietnamese culture, specifically in business, isn’t just set in tradition and can be modern while still honoring traditional methods.” The menu is heavily influenced by Vietnamese flavors and food. They believe that “robusta beans can offer bolder, more well-rounded flavors” that complement toppings like flan and egg.
Vietnamese coffee companies like the ones interviewed here, as well as Cafe Cà Phê in Kansas City, Coffeeholic House and Phin in Seattle, e-commerce brand Copper Cow Coffee—just to name a few—are all part of a larger movement that paves the way way for Southeast Asia-focused companies like Kasama Cà Phê and Coffeeclectic to also thrive.
As for the future, Sahra Nguyen hopes that “the general public allows for new narratives and new systems to be created that would help uplift all coffee growing communities, especially those involved with growing robusta.”
Frith agrees and adds, “I would like to see it treated like any other coffee-producing country.” The future of coffee is Robusta, and Vietnamese-owned coffee brands are leading that charge.
Jen Chen (@thejennchen) is an Editor At Large at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jenn Chen on Sprudge.