Tuesday, October 19, 2021

New vision behind the brew: Vietnam’s secret coffee is drinkable like vodka

Coffee is arguably one of the easiest, most pleasurable activities to undertake. Whether you sip on the best baguette, feel the seduction of sitting on the back patio after a good afternoon stroll or sip an unusually slow morning coffee in the bushes, coffee grounds are only a choice of nibbles away.

That is unless you are looking for something more coked-up, skillful and worth further exploration. Like blood, coffee beans that never age (such as arabica and robusta) are too good to store in your attic. They’re better off scooped up, braided and ground into a new concoction. And then the odds and ends of your homebrewed coffee can be served directly to your holiday barista.

America’s craft coffee movement – shacked up in cafes and fast-food chains – is merely a taste of what’s to come from Vietnam.

Talented coffee bean brewers and curious gourmands alike are discovering the secret to the Vietnamese coffee on offer at Shopflow’s new restaurant Vietnamese Café. This modest spot in Austin’s Riverside neighborhood is the brainchild of owner Trinh Ngoc, a former Austin jazz musician who had considered his culinary career a half-hearted pipe dream. Today, Nguyen – and Vietnamese Café – is his second win in two weeks.

“All of my previous jobs were great experiences, but I always thought I would have an opportunity [to open a coffee shop] with something really special,” Nguyen says. He holds a Masters of Food and Beverage Management from Arizona State University, where he obtained his MBA.

Shopflow , Nguyen’s first venture, is a hobby shop that serves up imaginative teas, exotic spices and locally sourced artisanal foods. Faced with the difficulty of finding 100% dark roasted Arabica, Nguyen knew he had to develop his own method for roasting his coffee beans. The solution? Bathe them in hot water, remove the sand and sop the moisture from the beans. Then, with the help of his experienced cousin Trinh, get the beans to steep quickly and rack themselves up in a horizontal column shape. This way, Nguyen says, the beans are uniformly ground. He charges $7 a pound for his beans.

Trinh Ngoc checks the temperature of an Ethiopian coffee bean. Photograph: Tom Game/StoreFlow

Other variations are also available from Nguyen, including pesto and an infusion made with pine bark. The secret behind these concoctions, Nguyen says, is the blending of two varieties of beans. Vietnamese coffee can have darker, even toffee notes. While most Indonesians call it silan, the Vietnamese people use a new word: “Vietamun.”

Shopflow has also found an old friend willing to lend a hand in the cafe: Nguyen’s uncle Truong Viet Cong. The former wine bar boss runs Nguyen’s rôlé, a “rièvre-liqueur” made from coffee, milk, raisins and bitters. It’s made in central Vietnam’s Bac Ninh province, off the coast of central Vietnam, which is known for its goldfish ponds and strong homespun culture.

These days, Nguyen is also mindful of the 7,000-mile vista, which covers the country’s entire northern coast. “The tea trees are up higher than in years past and the crops are more successful,” he says.

With a boom in demand for locally grown beans, Nguyen hopes to export his product to the Americas and Europe. His aunt is currently leaving the US, where she runs the small grocery Bien Nguyen (her maiden name), to help her nephew get the word out. She has no plans to return to America. “When I leave, I’ll go to Vietnam,” she says.

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