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How One Brand Is Combating Elitism in Coffee, One Delicious Cup at a Time

Nguyen Coffee Supply is reimagining Vietnamese robusta coffee with shockingly fruit-forward results. Founder Sahra Nguyen tells us a story that's about so much more than beans.

a woman pouring coffee
Nguyen Coffee Supply

If Vietnam is the second-largest producer of coffee in the world, why is it so rare to see “Vietnam” listed as a coffee’s country of origin? This is the question that led Sahra Nguyen, a first-generation Vietnamese American, to create Nguyen Coffee Supply in 2018.

The Brooklyn-based brand is the first importer & roaster to champion Vietnamese-grown coffee in the United States. Its primary focus is robusta, a coffee species with a reputation for being overwhelmingly bitter, of which Vietnam is the leading grower. Nguyen Coffee Supply sources its beans directly from family-run farms in Đà Lạt, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, as well as from women co-ops in Son La.

"I wanted to bring visibility and representation, but also to help humanize the communities behind the Asian products and culture that people here already consume and love... this is how we push culture forward and how we build bridges."

For Nguyen, building a brand around robusta is about more than just coffee, it’s deeply political. As she sees it, the invisibility of Vietnamese coffee is inextricably linked with economic exploitation and anti-Asian hate.

Arabica coffee dominates the global market, but it’s highly sensitive to pests, rot and the effects of climate change. In contrast, robusta is, as its name suggests, more resilient. As arabica crops become increasingly unstable, investing in robusta is a means of investing in the future of coffee and giving farmers a more sustainable source of income.

But chipping away at the elitism surrounding arabica hasn’t been easy. For the past four-plus years, Nguyen has been working to shift the narrative by producing products that demonstrate what robusta can be when treated with care. In 2022, Nguyen Coffee Supply launched the Robusta Pledge, calling on coffee shops and roasters to explicitly name robusta when it is used rather than burying it in blends, as a means of fostering a more inclusive coffee industry. Third-wave coffee pioneer Blue Bottle is a signatory, and in early 2023 it introduced a robusta blend with 20 percent Vietnamese robusta. A number of Whole Foods employees have also signed on, and Nguyen Coffee Supply's 100% robusta cold brew cans can be found at over 280 Whole Foods markets across the country.

I spoke with Nguyen about the invisibility of Vietnamese coffee, the need to move past a binary of “good” and “bad” and why “too fruity” was the best compliment her coffee could receive.

Why don’t people know about Vietnamese coffee? Why is Vietnam invisible relative to other coffee-producing countries?

The simple answer is, whoever is using it in coffee just doesn't care to bring visibility to it. They render it invisible.

Coffee culture in the United States values transparency. If a coffee is from an African or South American country, you see transparency the whole way through. And for me, as an Asian American, as a Vietnamese American, it brought up larger questions of who is deserving of care, because I was witnessing an inconsistent application of industry values.

There’s a pattern in the United States where people love Asian culture — across food, beverage, entertainment, beauty, all that. But so many Americans don’t understand Asian lives and experiences. There’s very little care for the people behind it. I see this with the coffee industry, and that’s part of why I started Nguyen Coffee Supply. I wanted to bring visibility and representation, but also to help humanize the communities behind the Asian products and culture that people here already consume and love. It’s why I named the company Nguyen Coffee Supply — even if people don’t know how to say Nguyen, this is how we push culture forward and how we build bridges.

sahra nguyen roasting coffee
Nguyen Coffee Supply is out to change the industry’s biased perception of coffee from Asia while fighting economic injustice committed against those who produce it.
Nguyen Coffee Supply

Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer in the world and the primary producer of robusta. Why has robusta had such a bad reputation, historically?

When I talk about robusta, I like to move past the dichotomy of good or bad and instead talk about robusta and arabica as their own species. They’re like lemons and limes. Robusta beans have double the caffeine content of arabica; robusta beans have double the antioxidants of arabica. Robusta beans have 60 percent less fat and sugar, which means that robusta skews toward nutty, dark chocolate in flavor, while arabica is more fruity and citrus-forward.

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The brand specializes in robusta beans from Vietnam, which have a nuttier flavor and contain more caffeine than the more common arabica beans.
Nguyen Coffee Supply

The coffee industry has a lot of elitist, hierarchical biases around arabica, where arabica is good and robusta is bad. That elitism has trickled down and trapped certain coffee-producing countries in cycles of economic exploitation because robusta is sold at a lower cost and perceived as less valuable. We’ve been working to get the industry to reframe their perceptions of robusta because by upholding arabica they’re perpetuating economic injustice.

There’s an economic argument in favor of robusta, too. Robusta gets its name because it’s resilient, it grows robustly. The high caffeine content acts like a natural pest repellent and it’s easier for farmers to grow. So when it comes to conversations about economic justice, the barrier to entry for robusta is much lower and it’s less volatile.

One of the ways you’re celebrating robusta is through innovative processing techniques. Can you share a bit about your anaerobic robusta?

The anaerobic robusta is one of our proudest innovations. This has never been done, at least to our knowledge, in the US market. It’s 100 percent robusta from Vietnam that’s fermented for eight days and sun-dried for 25 days. It creates these really unique levels of sweetness and fruitiness that are just so wonderful and have never really been experienced with robusta.

nguyen coffee supply
Nguyen Coffee Supply currently offers seven different varieties of brewable coffee, plus three canned cold brews and a variety of coffee-making sets.
Nguyen Coffee Supply

The anaerobic robusta was recently presented at the US Barista Championships. What was that like?

We competed with the anaerobic robusta at the US Barista Championships this year [in partnership with Maya Crowley of Vermont’s Uncommon Coffee], which is hosted by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), and we made it all the way to nationals. It’s the first 100 percent robusta to be presented on a national level — it was really exciting.

One of the things we discovered during the competition is that the SCA scorecards are arabica scorecards. There’s a category around acidity but robusta doesn’t have an acidity profile, it has a salt/acid balance. If you want to properly evaluate robusta, you have to evaluate it on a robusta scorecard. Otherwise, we’ve had coffee professionals trying to make robusta act like arabica for decades, and it has failed.

While we were at the SCA Expo, there was one person at the Poursteady booth who tried the anaerobic robusta and said, “I don’t like it — it’s too fruity for me." [Yelps excitedly]

Which flies in the face of what everyone thinks about robusta — that’s incredible.

Exactly. We’re expanding the possibility of what robusta can be. We’re giving it some care, some innovation, some experimentation. It’s not about making everyone love robusta, it’s about giving this bean and the communities that grow it a chance to be elevated.

We want to continue experimenting and expanding the robusta experience. That could look like releasing a honey process method, or a blend of different robustas from around the world … Just expanding imaginations and reshaping perceptions of robusta.

Nguyen Coffee Supply


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