There are two traditional types of barista in Vietnam according to Han Tran: those that work in street vendors selling roadside coffee that’s “dark, dense, and bitter Robusta” or in male-dominated cafés that are attracted more to the female baristas than the overpriced beverage in front of them.
When Han told her parents she wanted to pursue a career in coffee, naturally, she says, you can imagine their disapproving reaction.
“They were against it,” she says. “Barista work had a bad reputation because of the stereotypes. A barista was not considered a profession in Vietnam. It was not respected. My parents were worried for my safety and that I would not earn a secure income.”
If only they had a crystal ball to predict the future. They need not have worried.
Han never believed her career path would be coffee focused. She only started drinking it three years ago. She had tried the beverage in high school but wasn’t a fan of Vietnam’s classic, dark-roasted, bitter coffee profile.
“I just couldn’t drink it,” Han says. “For most people in Vietnam, they drink coffee as a morning ritual to wake up and go to work. It’s a habit, but we don’t drink it for the quality. People pay on average 50 to 75 cents for a cup. It’s so cheap because it’s a low-grade coffee. It’s not really pure coffee. In fact, we add other things like artificial flavouring to compensate for the bitterness and add sweetness.”
Han says some people will substitute real coffee for chemically soaked and roasted soy beans that smell like coffee.
With a tainted view on coffee’s potential, Han pursued a university course in hotel management. It was only when she started working in a restaurant part-time that she was reacquainted with coffee.
“I had wanted to apply for a pastry chef position at the restaurant but one day we were short-staffed on baristas and I jumped in to help out. I ended up staying in that role for six months,” Han says. “It was unlike anything I had imagined. I found the work very inspiring. The head barista taught me how to do latte art and that’s when I first fell in love with coffee.”
Han took a barista class and latte art class to improve her skills. She started drinking more Arabica coffee, lightly roasted, and the more she learned, the more passionate she became.
“I found my path,” she says. “Not many people pursue work in specialty coffee so I had to really think if it was a hobby or a passion, but I was confident it could make me happy. I still feel that I made the right decision.”
Han’s first taste of specialty coffee came in the form of a fully washed heirloom varietal from Ethiopia. She says the differentiation was immediate.
“The flavour was acidic and vibrant,” she says. “The Vietnamese are so used to drinking iced coffee or Phin filter coffee with low grade Robusta, but I knew I could challenge them to try something else, something different.”
Traditionally a tea drinking country, it was the French who introduced coffee to Vietnam in the 19th century and started processing and manufacturing instant coffee in the 1950s. Vietnam is known as the world’s second largest coffee producer and biggest Robusta producer with an estimated 2017-18 crop season of 1.6 million tonnes and an export total of 1.55 million tonnes in 2018.
It’s not surprisingly then that when Han visited Laviet Coffee in Lâm Đồng to learn more about coffee origin, she realised there was a lot to learn about the country’s unexplored specialty coffee production.
After coming back to Ho Chi Minh City, Han worked at different cafés and eventually met Nguyen Canh Hung, Owner of Bosgaurus Coffee where Han now works. Hung taught her the intricacies of the specialty industry and suggested she try Vietnam’s first barista coffee competitions. Thanks to Hung’s encouragement, and Han’s willingness to benchmark her skills, she started practising just three weeks out from Vietnam’s first barista competition.
“When it came to the competition day I was nervous but excited,” Han says. “We had no previous standard to benchmark the competition. The other baristas really focused on their presentation, but I focused on flavour. I used a blend of Panama and Ethiopia beans and really worked on harnessing flavour. This focus, and the fact that my boss understood the rules of the event and the criteria so well when others didn’t, helped me win.”
Han became the country’s first national barista champion. She trained hard and flew to Dublin to compete in the 2016 World Barista Championship (WBC) where she first met Chris Short, Founder of Cafetto cleaning products. Cafetto was a WBC title sponsor, and along with other sponsors, hosted the Barista Base Camp, a dedicated space for national barista champions to prepare for the world stage.
“I’m grateful for Cafetto’s support of me and the other baristas. I still use their cleaning products at my café,” Han says.
On the world stage, however, Han used a blend of Vietnamese Pacamara to help put her country on the map for its quality, in addition to a Honduran coffee to balance the acidity and sweetness of the Vietnamese beans.
Han describes competing as a fairly overwhelming experience.
“All the other national barista champions had lots of different equipment on stage. I was quite scared at that point. But when it came time to perform on the stage, I enjoyed it. I wasn’t worried about being in the spotlight. I treated the judges as my customers and made sure my customer service was spot on – that’s something I’m passionate about,” she says.
Han finished in 42nd place, a result she says was disappointing but an immense learning experience.
“I learned about myself, my learning style, my technique, and my abilities. It was the experience I needed to help me improve and show the world that Vietnam is not only a producer of coffee, but specialty coffee too,” Han says.
Han may not have achieved a finalist position in the WBC, but her routine and bravery were enough to inspire a new generation of baristas who want to be like her, and learn how to treat specialty coffee with respect.
“Our specialty coffee culture is growing slowly, but what’s exciting is the development of knowledge sharing. The more we can encourage others and transfer skills and education, the more we can help the entire Vietnamese specialty coffee industry grow. Maybe then we can help baristas justify charging $3 for a specialty cup of coffee. It’s a slow process, but we will get there.”
Just recently, Han says her company hosted a Coffee Talk event that introduced eight guest speakers representing different segments of the supply chain. They spoke to an audience of 40 people about their work in the specialty value chain. Han also hopes to release a blog to educate the local Vietnamese community about specialty coffee.
Taking a step even further, Han’s café Bosgaurus is working closely with local Vietnamese producers to introduce new hybrid varietals and experiment with new methods of production to change the dominant supply of Catimor coffee.
“The results won’t be known for at least five to 10 years time, but I’m excited about the possibilities of what we can create. Our company is devoted to trying new things and pushing Vietnamese coffee to be more than what it currently is,” Han says.
As for her competition career, Han won Vietnam’s Championship title back-to-back in 2017, which landed her a spot at the WBC in Seoul, South Korea. This time, Han placed 39th after round one. She tried to go for a hat-trick at Vietnam’s 2018 Barista Championship but narrowly missed out.
“I placed runner up while my friend won that national competition. I can’t tell you how excited I was. That feeling of happiness and pride to see a friend’s success gives you shivers. It’s an amazing feeling that I want to see a lot more from Vietnam’s baristas,” Han says.
“Now when I meet a new barista the first question I always ask them is, ‘are you competing in barista competitions?’ If not, my response is always ‘do it.’ They fear they don’t have the skillset of more experienced baristas, but I tell them there’s no greater learning experience than competitions.”
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Image: Khoa Nguyen