Two years ago, Mark Firr set off on a journey through Vietnam – and a few short weeks later, emerged a coffee fanatic. Since then, he embarked on a whirlwind expedition to find, source and serve Vietnamese brew as The Coffee Ring Co in his native England. After dozens of journeys through Vietnam’s coffee country, hundreds of bumpy bus rides and countless cups of caphe sua da, we caught up with him to talk coffee beans, bizarre travels and the life of a Vietnamese brew guru!
How (and when) did you fall in love with Vietnamese coffee?
Around two years ago, I went to visit a friend who had moved to Vietnam for work. He’d persuaded us to go on a motorbike trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Vung Tau. About 2 hours into the journey and a few kilometres outside of Ho Chi Minh City, we stopped for a break at a plastic table and chairs roadside café. My nerves were frazzled from the Vietnamese traffic since I’d only been riding a day, and ordered a coffee to keep me on my toes.
A tall glass stuffed with ice and an incredibly dark liquid didn’t look like the type of coffee I was used to, but upon drinking it, the sweetness of condensed milk perfectly balanced the seriously strong roasted coffee. It made a perfect “caphe sua da”. This was my first taste of Vietnamese coffee, and I fell in love it with it right there and then. In fact, one of the first phrases I learnt in Vietnamese was how to order an iced coffee – a phrase that I must have used hundreds of times over the coming months!
What makes Vietnamese coffee so special among all the different kinds of coffee out there?
I think the huge variety of flavours available with Vietnamese coffee makes it stand out in the crowd. The roasting techniques of adding anything from butter to cocoa, chicken fat and even fish sauce impart really unique flavour characteristics.
Also, the ancient volcanic soil coupled with an ideal wet/dry season climate means that coffee plants thrive here, and has helped Vietnam become one of the major exporters of coffee in the world.
Curious what goes into a classic Vietnamese cup of coffee? Check out our Coffee Infographic!
Why did you decide to focus your energy on Vietnamese coffee – despite the challenges of sourcing it – and bring it to England?
Coffee is a huge business in the UK with every street corner dominated by large coffee chains like Costa and Starbucks. Whilst serving their purpose very well, I think it’s easy to become a little underwhelmed with the coffee sold in these large establishments. Similar styles of roasting and sourcing techniques make for a very uniform and consistent cup, but sometimes you just want something a little bit different!
Vietnamese coffee fills that gap perfectly, and we’ve seen repeat customers come back again and again – which only reaffirms our beliefs in this special bean!
You travelled through Vietnam when sourcing coffee. Where are your favourite places to visit again and again? What’s next on your travel list for Vietnam?
Where to begin! Vietnam has to be one of the most diverse country’s I’ve ever visited, and there’s not one area I wouldn’t like to visit again. Saigon will always hold a special place in my heart as the first city I ever visited in Vietnam – a real 24-hour hub of culture and commerce with a serious Asian kick. There are people and food from every corner of the planet, amazing hotels and bars, but you can still easily find authentic and traditional Vietnamese experiences there, as well.
The explorer in me loved making the trip to the steamy jungle of Nam Cat Tien. Renting a bicycle and riding through the park has to be one of the highlights for any nature-lovers trip! I’d love to revisit Nam Cat Tien to again experience the song of gibbons whilst watching the sun set over the jungle canopy.
Why do you think coffee-lovers should head to Vietnam?
The perfect café culture! The French influence shows sharply here, and the Vietnamese have taken that long coffee break attitude and really made it their own. If you like to sit and watch the world go by whilst sipping on a seriously good brew, then you’ll be in heaven.
Perch yourself upon one of the thousands of tiny plastic chairs dotting the streets with coffee in hand, and you can learn a lot about how the country works just by watching people go about their daily lives. Plus, you’ll have some really quirky coffee the Vietnamese like to brew up in a unique way too.
How has travel in Vietnam changed the way you think about coffee?
Until I visited Vietnam I was never actually a massive coffee fan. Like many, my experience of coffee was mainly instant varieties and the occasional major coffee chain brew… pretty uninspiring stuff.
Having fallen head over heels for this amazing brew once in Vietnam, the whole wide world of coffee from bean to cup became of great interest. Coffee is so much like wine in its intricacy and variances. The soil type, altitude, shade, heat of roast, length of roast and brewing method all make a difference to the taste of the final product. There are always new innovations and ideas coming out which keeps you on your toes!
Want more? Find them online!
The Coffee Ring Company stock 13 blends of Vietnamese coffee, and 32 varieties of tea. Find them online and on Amazon and Ebay. Follow along on Mark’s upcoming adventures in Vietnam by following them on Facebook and Twitter.
If you’re in England, keep an eye out for them at dozens of food and drink events – information on each you’ll find on the events page on their website. Plus, with a percentage of Coffee Ring Co’s proceeds going toward the Kianh Foundation to assist disabled children in rural Vietnam, each coffee cup does something good for the community.
Want to experience Vietnam’s cafe culture firsthand? Let Buffalo Tours be your guide!