Vietnamese coffee master Nguyen Van Cuong, who escaped the Marxist regime to live in the US in 1975, said coffee drinking reflected a person's class. "Those who drink bitter coffee with high caffeine are peasants, but those who drink smooth coffee with fl
He said poor peasants have nothing to add to their coffee, not even sugar, so they drink it dark and bitter, while the rich can afford to add a lot of things to their cup.
The temperature and duration of roasting the beans also determines the level of caffeine, he said. People in different corners of the world have different tastes, so the secret is in the selection of the coffee beans and in how you roast them, Cuong said.
He went on to explain that normally coffee would be roasted at 250 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes, then the temperature reduced to 30 degrees. At this point, flavours can be added and then after a 24-hour wait, more flavour can be added before packing.
He said Vietnamese, like their French rulers in the early 20th century, love dark-roasted strong coffee, while the Italians like brown roasted coffee. Americans and Brazilians like their coffee to taste different, he said.
In his 18 years in the US, Cuong said he learned a lot about the coffee-drinking habits of people from different parts of the world – enough start his own business when he returned to Vietnam in 1993.
There was already a market as Vietnam is a coffee-drinking country, where people hang around coffee shops at all times of the day and night.
He said every true coffee connoisseur knows that the secret of perfect coffee lies in the roasting. There are three ways of roasting coffee beans in Vietnam.
“The first is roasting the beans on their own, the second is roasting with some flavour – the American coffee chain Starbucks is successful with this formula – and the last is roasting in the traditional Vietnamese way,” Cuong said.
“In Vietnam we roast coffee with something else like corn, soybean, red or yellow bean,” he said.
Vietnamese coffee, notably Robusta, is very high in caffeine and is very strong, he said, adding that mixing something else in it changes the taste, even softens it.
However, the coffee business is not easy. Cuong tried several different ways to kick off his small business, but failed every time he tried to introduce machine for espresso, because it did not fit with traditional tastes.
“I began by retailing my coffee to coffee shops, before moving on to supermarkets. I also began producing coffee for other brands, and later began exporting to Australia and the US,” he said.
Once he began exporting, a friend of his opened an outlet distributing his coffee in Australia, while his son opened three in the US state of Ohio, he said, adding that though the foreign market is not big, it is solid because they have regular customers.
However, he said, his business was quite small, earning just US$30,000 (Bt964,000) per year locally and some $10,000 from the Australian and US markets. Orders from abroad only accounted for two to three tonnes per year.
Cuong also has tourism and restaurant businesses under the Vietpacific Company, but they too are quite small.
At the age of 60, Cuong said he does not have much energy to expand his business, but is ready to offer advice if anybody is interested in opening a coffee outlet. He already has a few young Vietnamese followers, and previously, he helped some big Vietnamese coffee producers, including some that are at the top of the market these days.
Cuong said he has many ideas on running a coffee-related business and hopes the young generation will learn from him. For instance, he asked, why has nobody opened an international coffee outlet in Bangkok, when it is crowded with foreigners?
“If your coffee shop can offer different kinds of coffee according to their tastes, I think it would do well,” he said. “If I had a small plot of land in the Dak Lak or Buon Me Thuot areas, I would plant different varieties and roast the beans in front of customers who come to visit my site. It would be a beautiful business.”