Vietnam's coffee hero

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A cappuccino offers hope in dark and mysterious times

EastGate Coffee (8A Le Thanh Ton Street) serves a 100 percent Vietnamese cappuccino (photo below) that's so rich and complex it would easily fetch $6 in a less civilized part of the world. Photo by Calvin Godfrey

The ca phe sua da has been Saigon's drink of choice since the late 19th century.

Like everything in Vietnam, it comes off like a magic trick: unpalatable ingredients whipped into something delicious. Vendors continue to sell the drink on every street corner.

But it has also spawned a galaxy of weird and wonderful café spaces a galaxy that appears to be forever expanding.

To put a neat little bow on everything, the explosion of coffee culture in Vietnam has coincided with its slow death in France. Since 1960, French cafés have dwindled from roughly 200,000 to less than 40,000.

 

There's just one problem. No one knows what's in the coffee.

Everyone has a guess. This paper has published several vague reports about the practice of dumping carbonized soybeans and an undefined chemical cocktail into cheap roasts. But I ignored them.

For years, I didn't bother to wonder why it had the consistency and flavor of motor oil without the addition of heaps of sugar or condensed milk (the cow's revenge).

I even scoffed at a rather unconvincing "investigation" published in this paper featuring blurry photos of shirtless men pouring mysterious black liquid over coffee beans on a filthy factory floor.

But the moment of truth came at work, when one of my fellow employees told me that I should stop drinking Vietnamese coffee because it was poison. She didn't know which type of poison. Just that it's poison.

I spent the rest of the day asking everyone in the building what they thought.

Everyone I asked said they believed that Vietnam's most iconic beverage is (at best) fake and (at worst) poison.

I still don't know whether they're right or not.

When pushed about the content of their beans, local roasters tend to describe their process of adulteration as somehow "unique" or "authentic" a super-secret yet benign recipe involving butter and fish sauce that turns junk coffee into something tasty.

Other roasters have sought to distinguish themselves by creating brands that explicitly claim not to do those things. But a lot of that hasn't tasted very good.

Expat-centric restaurants almost universally favor imported beans and more and more middle-class consumers are heading to Starbucks for garbage green tea lattes and caramel frappuccinos.

It looked, for a moment, that the globalization goblins were going to force me to drink Italian espresso in Ho Chi Minh City for the rest of my life. Thankfully, a hero has risen out of the soybean ash.

Last year, a Vietnamese-American coffee savant named Will Frith returned to the motherland determined to bring about some quality coffee.

His blog, asitcools.wordpress.com, chronicles his obsessive quest"” starting with a wicked motorbike spill in Da Lat and ending with his descent, last April, into Saigon.

Since then, Frith has been too busy to update it. Earlier this summer, he helped advise a group of Vietnamese guys as they opened a breezy bakery and café in a ritzy alley off Le Thanh Ton.

EastGate Coffee serves 100 percent Vietnamese beverages that are 100 percent beautiful.

Their cappuccino (blended with milk from Da Lat) has lately become my favorite thing in life. It requires no sugar and boasts a richness and complexity that could easily fetch US$6 in less civilized parts of the world.

And it's better than anything I've drank anywhere. It seems somehow fitting that the alley with perhaps the best pizza in Asia would also hold its best cappuccino.

For VND55,000, you can spend all morning drinking one at a long bamboo counter overlooking the alley. You might even catch Frith hauling new roasts up from the basement and testing them out at the new bar. 

In the not-so-distant future, he plans to open his own coffee lab and consulting business.

"It's only going to get better from here," he said.

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