Will Frith


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, Binh Thanh District
  • Saigon Coffee Roastery - 151/5 Dong Khoi St, District 1

+ 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), send us an email: weare at building dot coffee. Or, go ahead and contact La Viet Specialty Coffee in Dalat.

+ 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, talk to us at building (weare at building dot coffee), or get in touch with Comco Trading in District 1 (five kg minimum).

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

La Viet Specialty Coffee in Dalat and K'Ho Coffee in Lac Duong. (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 building?

building is a dream I've been working on in small and large ways for most of my coffee career. I've watched over the years as more and more cafes and roasteries have opened, and I've noticed that it's those with the most access to capital and resources who are able to scale, while other equally creative and unique places struggle to do so.

I think the industry at large and the scene in Saigon particularly will benefit from more diversity in the coffee business landscape. I also just wanted a central space where we could all gather, regardless of the brands we work for or competitive landscape. So I built it. Along with Anh, Kel & Truong, and our partner Dung, we are hosting Saigon's new and next roasters, cafes, and coffee nerds and giving them tools and support to make their dreams happen.

+ 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 very likely 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. Since robusta is typically mass-produced, as opposed to carefully selected and developed, it is roasted very darkly, and most of the coffee tastes like burnt rubber tires. It is also often combined with butter, chicken fat, fish sauce, and other mysterious additives. Maybe try some of the more delicate versions of the drink available in specialty cafes, rather than on the street (I like Vietnam Coffee Republic's the best right now). 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?

I do not identify as Hyphenated-American. I identify as mixed race, or, an American of Vietnamese descent. 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 am not fluent in Vietnamese. Culturally, as well as racially, I am a bit of a hybrid. I feel at home in Saigon, but also in Texas and the Pacific Northwest. I understand the impulse to label people like me, because I am not white. Please consider the complexity of race, immigration, migration, and culture when asking people of color to self-identify.

+ Who do you work for?

Right now I work for myself at building, the place to start and grow your own coffee business in Saigon. I also work as consultant on a limited basis. You can check out my CV if you want to lurk on my work history.

+ Why aren't you Q Grader 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; I also believe in the potential of robusta as a completely unique product that isn't only compared to arabica. I acknowledge that it will take many years for this to happen, and that I will likely be on this mission for the rest of my career.

+ 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 focusing on my co-roasting space, called building, as well as helping cafe owners and coffee farmers to become more successful. From time to time, Kel and I create short-term pop-up experiences we call Secret Cafes, which are a lot more fun than running retail full-time. Follow my instagram for details!

+ Are you going to the SCAA Event this year?

I gotta skip it this year, since I'm helping to train Vietnamese baristas for the competition, and working to launch building.

+ When are you coming back to Vietnam?

I moved back to Saigon in December 2018. Get in touch when you're in town!