Will Frith
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FAQ

Frequently asked questions about specialty coffee in Vietnam. Where can I buy specialty Vietnamese coffee? Is Vietnam’s coffee specialty? What are the best cafes in Saigon? What about the best ca phe sua da in the city?

+ I'm coming to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Where can I find good Specialty coffee?

There's so much happening in Saigon, it's hard to keep up.

For now I can confidently recommend

  • The Workshop Cafe - 27 Ngo Duc Ke, District 1
  • [a] coffeehouse - 15 Huynh Khuong Ninh, District I
  • Bosgaurus Cafe - Saigon Pearl, Phường 22, Ho Chi Minh City, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

+ I thought Vietnam only grew robusta. Is the arabica any good?

Yep, and that's why I focus on Vietnam - to figure out where it's coming from, and help improve both access to market for growers and the quality of the coffee itself. Recently, a few Dalat-area arabicas scored consistently in the 84-87 point range according to one specialty importer.

+ Where can I buy local green arabica coffee in Vietnam?

Depending on the volume you wish to buy, this answer can vary. For hobby roasters/enthusiasts, ask any of the specialty roasters in town if you can buy from their supply. For larger amounts (a bag or a pallet, or container), contact La Viet Specialty Coffee in Dalat. Alternatively, you can contact K'Ho Coffee or The Married Beans, also in the Dalat area.

+ Where can I buy imported green arabica in Vietnam?

Depending on the volume you wish to buy, this answer can vary. For hobby roasters/enthusiasts, ask any of the specialty roasters in town if you can buy from their supply. For larger volumes, Comco Trading in District 1 can help you out.

+ I want to visit a coffee farm in Dalat. Where should I go?

Start with La Viet Specialty Coffee in Dalat. K'Ho Coffee occasionally accepts visitors if you plan ahead. (Both have Facebook pages for connecting). If you're not looking for specialty farmers and just want to see what's up with Dalat in terms of coffee farming, there are tour companies that offer farm visits.

+ What's the deal with weasel / civet / kopi luak coffee? Is it specialty? Can you tell me where to buy it?

First of all, no, I can't tell you where to buy it. It is not specialty coffee, but rather a speciality of Southeast Asia. There is no qualitative value added to the coffee bean, and it is exploitative and cruel to animals. What began as a genuine tactic for isolating very high quality coffees has become an artificially inflated niche market for people who are suckered into gimmicks.

Once upon a time in Indonesia, civet cats, a type of weasel indigenous to coffee-growing areas, ate coffee cherries as part of their diverse diets. They chose the tastiest (ripest) cherries, and the enzymes in their guts began the fermentation process of the coffee seed. Therefore, their droppings (aka shit) contained a partially processed coffee bean. This was then cleaned, dried, and roasted. The current model doesn't take advantage of any of these factors because:

  • the animals are kept in cages, and are not freely roaming coffee farms choosing ripe cherries based on the taste

  • they are force-fed diets of pure, pre-picked cherries, thus eliminating the healthy gut conditions necessary for the fermentation process to begin

  • the original farms where civet coffees came from were well-maintained, high-quality varieties. The farms that produce the coffee cherries civets are force-fed in cages are poorly maintained, usually growing robusta, and therefore do not produce quality coffee to begin with. The shitty (literally) civet processing adds no value to already shitty coffee.

In short: there is no value or quality added in this process. At worst, it is incredibly cruel to these animals and at best it is pretty stupid.

+ I LOVE Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê sữa đá) and I think it's the best in the world! Why don't you like it? Why mess with something perfect?

I want people to like what they like, period. If you enjoy Caphe Sua Da, rest assured that I don't want to change it! There's a market for everything. Typically it's cheap, sweetened & condensed milk added to poorly-roasted, low-quality, probably stale Vietnamese robusta coffee becuase most of the coffee tastes like burnt rubber tires. Maybe try some of the more delicate versions of the drink available in specialty cafes, rather than on the street. Or, try your Vietnamese street coffee black next time, without flavors or additives, and then talk to me about how perfect it is. And, hey, if you like it that way - great! You do you.

Developing a specialty market doesn't require changing or removing an existing market, in the same way that the craft beer movement didn't destroy the "regular beer" industry.

+ I heard that Vietnamese coffee served on the street is full of chemicals and additives. What are they? How do I know if the coffee I'm buying is "clean?"

The coffee sold on the street in Saigon is notoriously un-coffee-like. There have been newspaper stories every so often for the past few years exposing fake coffee producers, but it is still widely available on the streets of Saigon. A good rule of thumb: if your coffee costs less than a bottle of water, it's probably not coffee. As far as "clean" coffee goes, your best bet is to stick to those with traceable, transparent links to their producers. Some people think that coffee like this in Saigon is "too expensive," but I would urge people to wonder instead why the coffee on the street is so cheap.

+ Are you Vietnamese?

Kind of. My mother was born in Sóc Trăng in the Mekong Delta, and my father is from Arkansas, in the southern United States. They met when my father was a helicopter pilot with the American Army. I was born in Arkansas and grew up in Texas. I speak an embarassingly small amount of Vietnamese. I do not identify as Hyphenated-American. I identify as mixed race, or, an American of Vietnamese descent. Culturally, I am as American as any of my friends also born in the United States.

+ Who do you work for?

Right now I work for Modbar Inc, which is based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but I live in Portland, Oregon.

+ Why aren't you Q Grade certified?

Though I look forward to taking the course and becoming certified someday, I don't think Q Grade Certification is a prerequesite, or even a requirement, to being a qualified quality control specialist. Nothing is the same as training, experience, and good mentorship.

+ Why do you focus on Vietnam?

I'm interested in what's happening there on a personal and a professional level. I came to Vietnam in 2004 to meet my Vietnamese grandparents for the first time. Since then I've come and gone several times, buried both of my grandparents, and been amazed at how quickly Saigon in particular changes and grows. I think it is an exciting place to be and watch right now, and I'm interested in helping smallholder coffee farmers become small businesses. I think there's immense potential for Vietnam to be an exporter of high quality arabica, and I acknowledge that it will take many years for that to happen. In the meantime, I am happy to work with the retail and consumer side of the coffee industry in Saigon and Dalat.

+ Why don't you open a cafe?

That would be cool, and I may end up doing that in the future. For now, I am helping cafe owners and coffee farmers to become more successful.

+ Are you going to the SCAA Event this year?

Yes! I'll be there on behalf of Modbar, and I would love to talk to you. Holler at me ahead of time via email (willfrith at gmail dot com) and I'll watch out for you.

+ When are you coming back to Vietnam?

I'll be there from late July to early August this year to check in on a few ongoing projects and attend a friend's wedding. I try to visit as often as possible, and my goal is to spend an equal amount of time each year in Vietnam & the US.