Goodbye Ca Phe Phin

drink - Saigon/HCMC: Nov. 3, 2016

What’s the deal with all these cafes everywhere? Seems we are seeing another 5-10 new cafes opening every time we blink. Do people have more leisure time to hang out and sip coffee and browse Facebook?

Let’s have a look and dive into this nouveau coffee culture blooming in Vietnam, and particularly in Saigon. It used to be: relax and take a sip of traditional Vietnamese coffee, filter sitting on your cup with thick black liquid slowly creeping down as it brews. It may not be the purest form of coffee in the world but it does wake you up! For decades this has been the local standard brew. Then by the early 2000s we began to see some espresso machines around, often reserved for the 5 stars and high-end hangouts. Classy Italian coffees started to be seen, the beginning of the Italian espresso style cafe culture.

Coffee

Established coffee chains, sprawling multiple locations, arrived on the scene. They often appear first in emerging markets, introducing espressobased beverages. Locals then study their style and open their own versions, often pulling off a decent rendition.

One cafe owner suggests the multinationals are not doing so well, contrasting specialty cafes working side by side with the others of their kind to facilitate the growth of the market.

“If we can get along with competitors… if we work together, we can [succeed].”

You may notice the trending signs on cafes proclaiming 100% Cafe Nguyen Chat (Pure Coffee), as the demand for quality coffee grows. Local quality is steadily increasing as farmers, roasters and retailers learn the techniques of brewing, combined with discerning customers aware of the profit-before-quality template. Still, the general consensus is that less than 5% of Saigonese actually seek out pure coffee houses, although the trend is growing. More and more Vietnamese cafes are 100% espresso-based, no longer using the traditional “Phin Ca Phe” for brewing.

So what’s going on? I asked some locals, including specialty cafe owners, customers, and regular cafe owners for their opinions. Let’s take a look what they had to say.

“The coffee market is slowly maturing to accept new specialty coffees,” says Dung, a local cafe owner, as he sips a high grade Kenyan drip.

Kim, a young barista perfecting her latte art at a high-end downtown cafe, believes many Vietnamese are not so concerned whether the coffee is 100% pure, or dry processed, fair traded or even pooped out from our friendly civet cat (Cafe Chon), they just want good coffee!

“If it’s good, they’ll drink it.”

Khoa, a passionate roaster in District 3, describes the cafe explosion as a trendy, follow-the-flock phenomenon. New businesses are trying to cash in on the beans, but few are successful – around 50% in his humble opinion.

“Specialty cafes will prevail as many owners have stakes in local coffee farms helping drive the industry.”

He predicts that the brewing methods of Chemex, Syphon, V60, and his specialty cold-drip will excel.

“Cold drip extracts maximum flavour from the beans in four hours.”

Son, a local cafe owner in Dong Nai Province believes in the past few years Vietnamese have begun seeking pure additive-free coffee. His small roadside cafe between Saigon and Vung Tau is blooming with locals, seeking this virginal brew for an intoxicating quickie. Even here, many customers are seeking pure coffee, lending to his growing success.

Coffee 3

Not only are cafes sprouting exponentially, many are roasting coffee on-site, adding to the ambiance of cafe culture.

“The smell of freshly roasted coffee is evocative, intoxicating and all-round delicious.” - James Hoffman, 2007 World Barista Champion.

Specialty coffee is in its infancy stages, priming the current generation’s palates to build on this coffee knowledge. This new education and awareness of local quality coffee from bean to cup is exciting, especially for a country that produces the most Robusta in the world. This may help kickstart high-end Arabica trade, improving Vietnam’s coffee ranking worldwide.

Despite the renaissance, Saigon remains the epicenter of “pure” cafe culture. Once outside this former pearl of the orient you’ll be very lucky to find “just coffee” in your cup. Espresso-based coffee increases the odds, but there are no guarantees.