If you do a cursory search of “Vietnamese Iced Coffee” online, you’ll probably find a lot of recipes that use commercial, instant coffee paired with sweetened condensed milk. However, Sahra Nguyen is working to change people’s preconception that Vietnamese coffee is synonymous with the cheap powdered stuff you’d find in plastic jars or metal tins.
Disappointed in her local cafes’ “Vietnamese iced coffee,” which usually turned out to have dubious ingredients that had nothing to do with the origins of the drink, the filmmaker-writer-activist decided to add another occupation to her resume: entrepreneur. Sahra founded Nguyen Coffee Supply, the first Vietnamese specialty coffee importer and roaster in the United States. Staying true to her cultural roots and desire to honor her heritage, the brand makes it a point to import its beans directly from a 4th-generation Vietnamese farmer before roasting them in New York. Nguyen Coffee Supply now sells three different roasts of its coffee, as well as traditional Phin (pronounced “feen”) filters that have a passionate fanbase.
When Sahra and I chatted over Zoom last month, she quickly rattled off key facts about Vietnamese coffee that she didn’t even know, despite identifying as Vietnamese-American. For example, the country is the second largest coffee producer in the world, and the largest producer of highly caffeinated and resilient robusta beans. To Sahra, her company’s mission is larger than sustainably importing and roasting high quality beans, it’s also about challenging people’s perceptions of Vietnamese and specialty coffee overall. By both modeling the values of ethical direct-trade coffee production and increasing visibility of the producers that actually make the beverage we drink, Sahra hopes Nguyen Coffee Supply will help consumers see the value in not just Vietnamese coffee but also Vietnamese culture.
Read on to hear what Sahra has to say about using Nguyen Coffee Supply’s platform to support social justice, what her favorite blend is, and how she’s creating a more inclusive, people-centric coffee culture.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
TI: What inspired you to enter the coffee industry?
SN: There were so many cafes who were offering a Vietnamese iced coffee on their menu, but when I would try it, it didn’t taste anything like Vietnamese iced coffee. I’d find out that they made this drink from their house cold brew or espresso from an African or South American country.
I found that to be very problematic, because one, it’s false advertising. It’s miseducating consumers about what a Vietnamese iced coffee actually tastes like. Plus, it’s rendering invisible the actual producers and farmers of the bean that’s being used. Most importantly, we have businesses who want to profit off of the cultural cachet of Vietnam and Vietnamese iced coffee, yet those who are creating the culture were not benefiting from this transaction at all.
And so I started Nguyen Coffee Supply to bring more transparency and representation and visibility to Vietnam as the second largest coffee producing country in the world.
TI: You’ve called out some of the stigma associated with robusta coffee and gatekeeping in coffee culture, what’s been the response to that?
SN: There are lots of folks in the coffee industry who have come out in full support of what we’re building, because they’re like, holy shit, you’re right, what is specialty coffee? We’re challenging people to think about how elitist, classist, and hierarchical a lot of these ideas really are.
TI: Why was it important for you to include the traditional way to brew Vietnamese coffee (with a Phin filter) along with the coffee beans?
SN: Specialty coffee culture, or what people call the third wave, is very bean-centric. How are you growing it? How are you picking it? How are you processing it?
We really want to build upon that by making it more human and not isolating the people in the culture that produced the bean, that’s why elevating the Phin filter and keeping it central to our brand message is important. We get to talk about the Vietnamese coffee bean and we get to talk about the culture and people in the community. So it’s a much more holistic and humanizing way of how we engage with the coffee industry and the coffee experience.
TI: How do you balance running Nguyen Coffee Supply with your other passions like activism?
SN: I’ve channeled activism through Nguyen Coffee Supply by amplifying different resources and taking a stand on different issues. If you search any of our previous content around Stop Asian Hate or Black Lives Matter we’re really intentional about including information and resources for people to learn more.
TI: Nguyen Coffee Supply has been very active in speaking out against racial injustice and sharing anti-racist resources on social media. What was it like navigating how to address the recent attacks against Asian Americans?
SN: When the Atlanta spa shooting happened, it was a really hard day for all of us. Our team is currently all Asian American, there’s five of us. We held space for the first morning to allow everyone to kind of unpack it, it was very emotional.
Then we talked together about, “What do we want to do now, as a group? Okay, we’re gonna make a statement, but let’s be intentional, what is the value we want to bring out here?”
I think what we really honed in on is that, how do we want people to help, how do we want people to support us, it’s not “buy our product”, and it’s not “donate money right now.” It’s, “listen to us.” It’s, “see us”, you know?
TI: As more people aim to limit their environmental impact, the word “sustainable” seems to have lost some meaning in light of brands greenwashing. What does sustainability mean for Nguyen Coffee Supply?
SN: The way we think about sustainability is on the whole spectrum of environmental, agricultural, but also social and cultural sustainability. The sustainability of Vietnam as a culture and of the livelihoods of these folks, like, how do they sustain themselves across generations, how do they build intergenerational wealth?
That’s why we talk so much about the culture and the phin filter and that’s why we talk so much about the people behind the product. And when we work with farmers to convert their production from cheaper instant coffee to premium specialty coffee. It increases the economic opportunity because they’re getting paid more and it makes the land more sustainable for future farming. Then more specifically, the Phin filter, which we love and champion so much, is also very sustainable because there’s no paper waste.
TI: Do you have a favorite roast or blend in your line?
SN: I get asked this all the time, it’s like, “who’s your favorite kid?” They’re all my favorite. However, if I had to be honest, the one I drink every day is Loyalty. It’s such a unique balance thanks to a blend of robusta and Arabica. You’ll taste the perfect mix of nutty, chocolatey, strong and a hint of sweetness from the fruit without being overly acidic or sour. And because there’s robusta in there, it’s a smidge stronger in caffeine content than the average cup of coffee.
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