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Not Just a Drink: As Vietnam's Coffee Scene Matures, It's Also Getting More Serious

If motorbikes are the choice mode of transportation in Saigon, coffee has got to be the choice stimulant and legal addiction. 

The opening and shutting of hundreds of cafes and roasters in the same year has lead me to wonder if they were the result of misplaced expectations or proof that the market had become too congested. When a new modernist coffee place called Brave Bean opened at 18A Nguyen Thi Minh Khai a little while ago, I assumed it was just going to be another example of this trend. I braved a potential bad cup and realized that Nhan, owner of Brave Bean, was a man of expectations when it comes to coffee.

“We only serve single-origin espresso and espresso-based drinks here,” he said. They don't list the type of beans used either, though the team is happy to chat beans with anyone who asks. I then realized that I was talking to a well-known figure in Saigon’s growing barista community. Nhan runs a Vietnamese-language Facebook page called Thợ Cà Phê, translating roughly to The Coffee Maker, which shares weekly stories of baristas and coffee entrepreneurs in Saigon and beyond.

Nhan (right) and his team at Brave Bean.

“If you want to know more, you should meet someone [I know],” Nhan said enigmatically.

We exchanged Facebook contacts and soon enough, I received a Facebook invitation to the open house of a new coffee-related venue named building (yes, it's lower-case). The description alone triggered instant curiosity, especially when the page admin insisted, on every occasion, for the b in building to be standardized with small caps.

‘building is a place to roast coffee in Saigon,’ read the brief description on its Facebook page.

It took a good ten minutes beyond the ride to Thu Thiem before I finally found myself in coffee nirvana on one of those numbered streets off District 2’s Tran Nao Street. It was just after 10am, but numerous familiar faces from Saigon's specialty coffee scene had already arrived. I reckon I was the only person without proper sensory training.

The mastermind behind building, possibly Vietnam’s first co-working roastery and cupping laboratory, is Will Frith, a Vietnamese-American coffee expert who has helped to revitalize many of Da Lat’s Arabica coffee farms in recent years. Through his time in Saigon, his interactions with many of the city's new-found coffee industry leaders has given birth to a new personal mission. 

Will Frith speaking to guests at building.

“Many people just kinda dive in. And then it becomes all passion and lots of disappointments because they don't have the chance to really just try things without risk. Once you sink US$50,000 into something, it's really hard to back out,” Frith said, as we began discussing the hurdles many new cafe owners face.

I began to understand the simplicity of the building’s work space. White walls and an exceptionally unimposing arrangement of counters and tables stacked with every piece of equipment you’ll need to, hopefully, become a coffee expert.

“We're intentionally minimalist, we want to get out of the way, really...You want to dream up and impose your vision in our space,” Frith said.

“'Building' was the simplest word we could find. It's a place, it's a thing, [and] it's also a verb. We hope to use all three meanings of that word here,” he added, explaining the context of the facility’s chosen name. Helping coffee entrepreneurs build their companies, business, skill sets and coffee knowledge is key to his plan. For example, Nhan from Brave Bean, roasts at building up to five times a week.

This allows him, and others without the financial resources of a major cafe company, to hone their craft and experiment with different types of beans and equipment while avoiding the overhead costs of renting a large space.

The gear runs from items that only die-hard coffee nerds would need to use, down to equipment more suitable for people just getting into the roasting game. Beyond that, trained personnel are always ready to assist with orientation when first-timers roast on a machine or brew on a device they aren’t familiar with.

Ideally, this will give hopeful coffee roasters and cafe owners the room they need to learn the tools of the trade before they take the risk of pouring thousands of dollars into a brick-and-mortar location.

Visitors checking out equipment at building.

As I experienced caffeine-induced sweat from two cups of double espresso and 200mL of pour-over coffee, we moved on to discussing the next phase of cafe development in Saigon.

“It’s a market that’s maturing with a few businesses that have stuck around for a while,” Frith explained. “They know what sells and they know business and profitability and how to make their customers happy. All of these things sort of combine to create even more enthusiasm. Even regular customers want to get involved in coffee.”

All in all, building seems destined to become a place where people can find coffee mentors. And for Frith, perhaps even destined to be a hot spot of different expressions of specialty coffee.

As my initial caffeine buzz began to wear off, I caught Frith letting out a smirk. One that glowed with determination: “This is, I think, the most exciting point in specialty coffee history.”

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