On a sunny Thursday in August, we went to The Workshop, an artisan coffee shop on Ngo Duc Ke street in Saigon’s District 1, to meet with Dung, a true expert on coffee in Vietnam. The Workshop is located in the same part of the street as Tandoor, but well hidden. Only a blue sign by the entrance indicates that a pearl of worldwide artisan coffee culture can be found upstairs.
The Workshop is nicely decorated with wooden elements. It appears like a mix of modern designer café and coffee science museum, the tools of trade exhibited in shelves along the walls. In the center there is the bar, where the trained staff performs the brewing process in front of your eyes. There is original artwork on the walls and we instantly felt at home. We met Dung in the conference room adjacent to the spacious guest area. We introduced ourselves and he immediately started talking about coffee.
Dung Tuan Nguyen’s first experience with coffee was when he was two years old. His mother gave him coffee and the rest of the night he spend walking around the bed - to the very displeasure of his father who had to get up early. He really started drinking coffee when he was 12 or 13 years old. By the time he was in high school, he used the delicious brew to survive his tests.
As a trained architect it was hard to find good work in Vietnam, so he switched between project management and hotel consultancy, until he found his passion in coffee.
Working in the coffee business makes Dung feel good, and doing something that changes the fundamental thoughts people have about coffee is fun. His passion for the bean and the confident conversation that comes right to the point shows he knows as much about coffee as the second man.
[Answers are paraphrased for purposes of brevity and readability.]
City Pass: What makes coffee so attractive to people?
Dung: There are several things that make us love coffee. First the reaction of our body and mind to the caffeine. It makes us alert, excites us and makes the brain work better. Second, the cafés became an intellectual and social place for doing business or politics. And third, it tastes good and smells even better. Alone the smell of coffee makes people happy, even those who don’t drink coffee.
City Pass: Tell us about the significance of coffee in Vietnam.
Dung: Since the French introduced the coffee plant around 150 years ago, Vietnam became the second biggest producer in the world, right after Brazil. The country is number one in growing robusta. Since 1993, the government focuses on mass production, so many arabica plantations got destroyed and replaced. Today, 99.9% of the coffee grown in Vietnam is robusta and catimor, but the quality is rather poor.
City Pass: What is the difference between robusta and arabica?
Dung: Apart from the great difference in taste and the shape of the beans, the trees are very distinct. The arabica tree has 22 pairs of chromosomes, while the robusta tree has only 11 pairs. Robusta is, as the name already indicates, very robust and grows in lower altitudes. Arabica trees need much more attention and care. One hectare of arabica trees yields about seven tons of coffee, while the same area planted with robusta gives three times as much, but of low quality.
City Pass: What is the main constraint associated with the production of more arabica coffee in Vietnam?
Dung: People don’t care about the quality of the coffee. There is not much commitment from the buyer’s side, since they want a high production and a cheaper price. You have to go directly to the farmer and work with him. Just staying in the city and ordering the beans you want remotely is a bourgeois attitude. There are a lot of wealthy farmers in Cau Dat, but many coffee farmers of other regions of Da Lat, like Lang Biang for example, are poor and have to borrow from loan sharks to survive. At harvest time they collect every cherry to pay the interest. Farmers in debt are very common. If you really help them and be transparent about what you do, they trust you and are willing to enter a long-term relationship.
City Pass: How is coffee, especially more sophisticated specialities, perceived in Vietnam?
Dung: In Vietnam, coffee has to be thick, black and bitter. That pretty much sums it up. But I am not trying to convert hardcore traditional coffee drinkers. I rather target people who love to drink good coffee, people overseas, people who usually don’t drink coffee and expats.
City Pass: What is the greatest weakness of Vietnamese coffee?
Dung: One of the greatest weaknesses of the country is that Vietnam doesn’t have an international brand, not even international recognition when it comes to coffee despite being the second largest exporter in the world. The big brands in Vietnam just screw the people. They just want to get the cheap coffee and are obsessed with tons, even if they say they care. It is the same as with rice.
City Pass: How is the opportunity to create a brand around Vietnam?
Dung: We are at an age where quality and moral production becomes more important. In order to do that you have to be an authentic person, passionate and have a love for what you do. We have to do things properly.
City Pass: What is the most important aspect in your work with farmers and customers?
Dung: Transparency. Everything has to be done transparent. If you offer a single-source product, it is pointless if you can’t name the farm where the coffee comes from. Several companies claim to source locally and sustainably, but they don’t disclose the origin. It really is all a matter of transparency and trust.
City Pass: Tell us something about the taste of coffee.
Dung: Dark roasted coffee usually tastes bitter and burned. When you roast light, you bring out the specific types, which we divide into seven general categories: Floral, fruity, herbal, honey/molasses, acidic/wine-ish. There is a lot of fruitiness in Kenyan and Colombian beans, while coffee from Laos, Panama and Ethiopia is more floral. Vietnamese coffee is more fruity than floral. Check out the taste wheel at scaa.org to get a better idea of the flavors.
City Pass: How to create a perfect cup?
Dung: Nothing is perfect. Working with artisan coffee is a world of trying and experimenting. In the past, people thought dark roasted beans make the best coffee. The community of speciality coffee lovers discovered that roasting light brings out the best flavors. We always try new things.
But to make a good cup of coffee, you need great beans, filtered water and the right temperature.
However, the most important piece of equipment is the grinder. Invest in your grinder. You can buy a decent machine for around VND 700,000 up to VND 2,500,000. Electric grinders may be even pricier. The coffee should be ground evenly and not like dust or sand.
If you crave to taste Dung’s expertise firsthand, I recommend visiting The Workshop in 27 Ngo Duc Ke, Ben Nghe, District 1 ( on the 2nd floor) yourself. Pick one of the three beans they have on the menu, combine it with your favorite brewing method and you’re ready to go.