Kim Dam has been drinking coffee her entire life. She remembers the ritual of drinking coffee with her family even as a 5-year-old: They would press coffee grounds in a phin, which Dam describes as “if a French press and a Chemex had a baby,” producing a dark, concentrated elixir. They’d give it a chill and then swirl it with condensed milk. The final product, ca phe sua da, is known in America, somewhat reductively, as Vietnamese iced coffee. “Coffee culture in Vietnam is ridiculous,” Dam says. “It’s our way of life, it’s the way we communicate and socialize with everyone.”
Vietnam is the largest producer of robusta beans, a coffee variety that serves as the foundation for instant coffee, espresso, and ca phe sua da. But while helping out her mother at the family restaurant, Portland’s House of Banh Mi, Dam discovered that they weren’t using Vietnamese beans in their coffee; in fact, not many Vietnamese restaurants or households in the city were. And finding Vietnamese coffee beans in grocery stores or on wholesale order lists proved to be incredibly difficult. “Robusta beans, which are quite popular in Vietnam, weren’t being used, because people were like, ‘Robusta beans are gross,’” Dam says. “I tried some other companies, and I said, ‘You know, this isn’t as bad as people think … you just have to roast them in a different way.’”
In the coffee industry, arabica beans, a variety known for its sweeter notes and lower caffeine content, are generally regarded as higher quality than robusta. As a result, many Vietnamese growers specializing in robusta beans aren’t interested in jumping through hoops to appease global buyers, especially American ones. “There are small farmers who do produce high-quality beans; it’s just that no one wants to import them,” Dam says. “I did recently start connecting with a Vietnamese importer in California, and he said, ‘It took me forever to find a coffee farmer who wanted to work with Americans because of everything that’s happened, past history.’”
Last year, Dam started roasting coffee sourced from the central highlands of Vietnam, and launched an online store to sell her beans. As the business grew and more and more Vietnamese restaurants and carts began asking for her coffee, she decided to go all in and open her own cafe. This past April, Dam opened Portland Ca Phe, a Southeast Portland cafe where she serves her coffee — made in a phin or in espresso drinks — alongside an assortment of banh mi made by her mother.
Dam is one of a new generation of coffee roasters in the Portland area who are trying to reframe the narrative that shapes our understanding of modern coffee. For her, roasting Vietnamese coffee is more than just a way to represent her heritage; it’s a way to redefine Vietnamese coffee outside the narrative projected by the mainstream specialty coffee industry. Specialty coffee is typically and most conspicuously represented by Stumptown, Blue Bottle, and thousands of other minimalist cafes that dot cosmopolitan districts around the globe, along with the coffee they sell and the stories they tell. It has long self-identified through specific, if evolving, sets of taste and value markers — from chronicles of the beans’ origins (microlots, nanolots, fair trade, direct trade) to the meticulous preparation of the drink itself (artful ceramic cones, $10,000 coffee robots, latte art) to distinct flavor profiles (brightness, light roasts, terroir). This rarefied (if ever-expanding) domain is built on a crop that is planted, harvested, and processed by people of color. But it’s white gatekeepers and tastemakers who have largely constructed and propagated it, and they have historically seen little value in coffee that does not neatly fit within their parameters — whether it’s as pedestrian as Maxwell House or as novel as the coffees forming the basis of Vietnamese or Mexican traditions, which pair darker, chocolatey roasts with sweetness and, in the case of Mexican cafe de olla, spice.
Roasters and baristas with ties to traditionally undervalued growing regions like Mexico, China, and Vietnam are increasingly pushing against long-standing definitions of what makes “good” coffee, from crop to cup. Roasters, from immigrants with family farms to first-generation cafe owners, are auditing their sources’ farming practices, factoring in not only the environmental impact of their methods but also the livelihoods of the workers on those farms. In the U.S., baristas are making use of their platforms as business owners. They talk about racism within coffee spaces and specialty coffee at large; they’re entering the beans in roasting competitions and educating other industry professionals at events and cuppings; they’re brewing beans behind the counter at their own cafes, showing customers what makes these beans and this coffee culture special. For them, making coffee is an opportunity to not only celebrate their culture but also deconstruct — or intervene in — the ways racism, classism, and colonialism have impacted the way they interact with coffee.
Ethiopia is often considered the birthplace of coffee. The beverage eventually spread through the Arabian peninsula, but many of the places we often associate with coffee production — Java in Indonesia, Latin America, Jamaica — were introduced to it through colonization when Dutch, Spanish, and English colonizers brought coffee plants to plantations as a potential export. Those beans were often shipped back to Europe or consumed by local white landowners. The structures of those initial colonialized processes continue to influence the way coffee is grown and processed: Much of the coffee crop in places like Brazil still relies on slave labor, or close to it, while in Latin American nations, the racial divide between coffee farmworkers (specifically indigenous workers) and landowners is still significant. Buyers are, on average, still purchasing coffee at a price that often aids and abets the extreme poverty of growers and workers.
In the perspective of some coffee owners of color, the farming process is often undervalued outside of the glossy photos of farmworkers in fields displayed on cafe walls and websites. Instead, the notion of where the artisanship lies is often on the roasting, as if that’s where coffee really begins. “The roasting was the most glorified part of the process,” says Augusto Carneiro, owner of the Portland coffee chain Nossa Familia. “Either people never stopped to think about where coffee comes from, or it seemed like such an exotic thing.” Not many American coffee roasters have actually picked coffee or worked on a coffee farm. Winemaking and vineyard work, by contrast, is often tightly intertwined, the mash taking place within a few miles of where the grapes were grown. But coffee grows thousands of miles away from where it’s eventually roasted.
Carneiro was uniquely positioned to start a specialty coffee business in 2004. His family owns coffee farms in Brazil, and he happened to be living in Portland during a time when people were starting to think more seriously about both high-end coffee and the origins of their food. But starting out, he says, things were far from smooth: He was working with green beans only from the family farms, and he had to outsource the roasting. “I didn’t have the money for a cafe, and I didn’t know how to roast coffee,” Carneiro says. “People would be like, ‘You don’t roast your own coffee?’ like it was a huge sin.”
Carneiro, who grew up in Brazil, comes from a long line of farmers; he would spend his summers in the Brazilian highlands, working and playing on a large farm owned by his grandfather and great-uncle. “I remember as a kid, having this awareness that I get to be in this big house, and all these people are working for my grandpa. I remember being a little bit uncomfortable,” he says. “I got a really good sense of how my grandpa and my uncle treated everybody, but that was really important in my formative years. I did have this awareness that my grandpa was the boss. It was both a privilege and a responsibility.”
As Carneiro got older and started growing Nossa Familia, his perception of his relationship with the farm changed. “It was my retreat place. I’d restore my soul with the food, the memories. But as I got into coffee, I started to think about the processing, the harvest season. I’d go at the end of the harvest so I could participate in the harvest and cup, and I could call it a business trip,” he says. “Now a new generation is running the farm. There’s much more communication, and there’s much more desire from the farmers to participate in experiments.”
Working with his relatives’ coffee farms as a collaboration of family businesses allowed Carneiro to more intimately understand both sides of the relationship between the producers and the roasters. He had his own vested interest in the sustainability of the land, but knowing and living with the farm’s workers, he also factored in their quality of life into the way he ran his business. In 2013, he moved his family to his cousin’s farm, where they lived in spare housing set aside for the farmworkers. His young kids went to the school on the farm for the workers’ children, they picked alongside the workers, and played soccer with the community. “(We) really immersed ourselves in the farm community life,” Carneiro says.
Early on, Carneiro discovered that some technological advancements — techniques sometimes written off as a non-artisan way to produce coffee, like picking coffee with mechanized harvesters — are crucial to making the lives of the workers easier. “Every year, we work alongside the farmers out there and harvest the coffee. But it’s backbreaking work,” he says. “In the future, the industry and workers have to get used to the idea that coffee that isn’t 100 percent processed by hand is actually helpful.”
In recent years, Carneiro has extended Nossa Familia’s coffee sourcing outside the family land, seeking out roasters in other countries who seem to have the same interest in making the supply chain more equitable. Timoteo Minas, who grows coffee in Southwestern Guatemala, leads a coffee cooperative there known as San Miguel Escobar, mentoring other coffee growers in the region and helping growers get better rates for their beans. Bayardo Reyes is another supplier for Carneiro. Reyes grew up on a coffee farm in Nicaragua; at his farm, Finca San Jose de las Nubes, he uses solar panels and wind turbines to help power worker housing, pays for an on-site teacher for the workers and their children, and built a greenhouse and communal kitchen for the farmers. During the coronavirus pandemic, the communal kitchen provided meals to not only the workers but other families in the larger community; Nossa Familia helped fund that farm kitchen. For Carneiro and other roasters in Portland, adjacency to the actual farm is irrelevant if it’s not backed up with a real urge to improve the lives of the people growing the coffee.
Carneiro hopes that as more immigrants and first-generation roasters open shops, that solidarity will help motivate more changes within the coffee world at large. “When I started [Nossa Familia], I didn’t know anyone else who was doing this, going back to their roots. Now there are so many more, whether they have a family farm or they’re making those connections in their home countries,” he says. “The more people who open roasting companies using beans from their home countries, the more transparency there will be in coffee. And if you’re an immigrant and you’re buying coffee from your country, you’ll have more pride, and you’ll be more likely to pay people fairly.”
Angel Medina grew up hundreds of miles from the nearest coffee farm, so to learn more about the experience of coffee farm workers, he decided to move to where he could get to know them. Medina, who’s Mexican American, owns Reforma Roasters, the cafe La Perlita, and the Mexican restaurant Republica. He fell in love with specialty coffee when he moved to Portland in 2010. But after a while, as he started to look around, he noticed that he was often the only person of color in the room. “I realized, like, ‘Wow, there’s not a lot of Brown folks, Black folks in this thing.’ I’ve gone to the famous coffee shops, the best representations of specialty coffee, and it’s all white dudes.”
Where he did see people of color, however, was in the marketing materials for those roasters and cafes. Latin American farmworkers were props in the marketing of specialty coffee. Medina would walk through coffee shops and see framed photos of smiling coffee growers on the walls, while all the workers in the shop were white; he’d browse Instagram accounts and see cafes posting images of farmworkers in the field to signal their tight-knit relationship with those producers. When Medina looks at images like this on white-owned coffee roaster pages, he sees brands profiting off the ethos of workers who are underpaid and who have very little control over the final product. Those tropes are trotted out to justify the higher prices charged by those roasters for their beans; but in Medina’s experience, those shops rarely know how farm workers live or how much they’re paid. Ultimately, the money made off those likenesses goes into the pockets of the roaster, not the farm worker.
“It’s the way this white savior tone is used. Let’s focus on the fact that these folks aren’t movie extras. The photography is beautiful, but you’re exploiting them,” Medina says. “There’s a thin line between telling a story and being a good marketer. If you’re marketing and exploiting someone else’s culture or someone’s hard work, you’re not being genuine in the way you’re telling this story.”
So when Medina started to roast his own coffee professionally in 2016, he decided he would do it in a way that would have a direct, positive impact on Mexican Americans. He donated his sales to United We Dream, an immigrant rights nonprofit. He opened a cafe, Kiosko, mere months after he sold his first bag of coffee. But in 2019, he sold Kiosko and moved to Mexico to develop relationships with Mexican coffee growers.
Medina came to Mexico in search of Mexican coffees for the same reason Dam started to dig into Vietnamese coffee: He wanted to change preconceived notions about the quality of the beans. Medina wanted to show Portlanders that Mexican coffee can be just as intricate and layered as the roasts coming from Colombia and Guatemala. When he arrived, however, he developed a deeper understanding of the issues of inequity between owners and workers at the farms. The farm workers would travel up and down the stretches of coffee growing regions in Latin America, following the harvest from country to country and earning less than a living wage; meanwhile, the farm owners lived in lavish mansions and didn’t seem to work among the plants much, if at all. “I moved to Mexico because I wanted to live with producers. People say, ‘We’re focused on the producers, we work with the producers,’” Medina says. “But the producer is the person who lives up on the hill; the people growing the coffee are the people below.”
By 2020, as COVID-19 spread across the globe, Medina lost some of his funding and clients and decided to return to Portland to start his Mexican coffee roasting company, Reforma Roasters, relying on the relationships he’d developed while living in Mexico. Reforma’s beans come from farms in places like Chiapas, Puebla, and Nayarit; the company buys directly and also imports coffees from farms like Finca La Esperanza in Veracruz or producers like Ernesto Perez, who farms shade-grown coffees and supports a shared coffee mill and export service with other farmers in Coatepec. Through Perez, more of the micro-lots and tiny farms in this community have access to the higher-paying buyers in the specialty market — buyers like Red Fox, a coffee importer Medina often works with. And the way Medina roasted his coffee changed compared to his early roasts in 2017: Instead of sticking to on-trend fruity roasts, he leaned into the chocolatey, nostalgic roasts he grew up with, as well.
Beyond the physical coffee, Medina decided to be even more deliberate about the ways he used his platform as a coffee roaster. In Medina’s view, the entire industry needs an audit, a deep look into the language used to talk about coffee, cafes as work spaces, and the images and people used to market coffee. He began to have difficult conversations with some Portland-area roasters about the way they described their drinks (“Mexican mochas,” for instance, for a spicy mocha). He started dialogues about the causes they chose to champion and the ones they ignored. (“How can you own a coffee shop and not be for Black Lives Matter? You can’t tell the story of organic single-origin coffee without doing the other thing that supports it,” he says). He raised the uncomfortable topic of virtue signaling to sell beans.
Medina often feels searing frustration with many of the roasters around him, those who sell the products of countries populated by people of color without, he feels, supporting them politically, interpersonally, or financially. Many of those business owners express discomfort with openly supporting causes like Black Lives Matter, protections for farmworkers, and immigration reform. “There are a lot of people who love to sell coffee but don’t like to support those issues,” he says. “You need to support DACA, you need to support immigration.”
Medina is still often seen at the counter, brewing coffee for cafe de olla or his “true Mexican mocha,” topped with cacao nibs, but he shares his lobby coffee stand with pop-ups run by women and people of color. He opened a restaurant next door, with a food menu designed by Latino chef Lauro Romero, paired with Latin American wines picked out by sommelier Miguel Marquez Garcia. And on his Instagram, he details the instances of micro-aggressions he experiences as a business owner of color, whether it’s in coffee, restaurants, or Portland at large. For him, it’s not even simply about coffee; it’s about the larger issue of white supremacy and inequity in the world around him. But, as a roaster and a barista, coffee is the sphere he can address: one that is heavy with all of its problematic entanglements and historical baggage, but also malleable enough to grow and change.
Now in her third month running her cafe, Dam is trying to give Portlanders a real idea of her experience of coffee, one born out — but not solely defined by — of her experience as a Vietnamese American woman. Her cafe isn’t meant to replicate the cafes found across Vietnam; she incorporates her years as a Portland barista into her menu, serving brown sugar and cinnamon iced coffee and cardamom mochas, banh mi, and mochi doughnuts. Her ca phe sua da, available with traditional or vegan condensed milk, is made with both robusta and arabica beans — all grown in Vietnam. The result is a coffee that is balanced — sweet and earthy, and specific to Dam as a roaster and barista. “A lot of times, personally, when I try [ca phe sua da], you either get really burnt flavors, or they’re overly sweet and you can’t taste the coffee,” she says. “I wanted that balance of the sweetness but you can still taste the coffee.”
Her method of roasting and serving her Vietnamese coffee has been enough of a hit that Dam hit the ground running, selling out on her grand opening, Instagram tags filling with shots of her lavender-hued ube lattes. “I cannot put into words how successful our grand opening was. We were not fully staffed, we didn’t have enough coffee or banh mi to serve,” she says. “And the momentum keeps going.”
Dam isn’t interested in opening more cafes. When she can, she sells her beans to other Vietnamese restaurants and cafes around Portland, helping them develop their own roasts. She’s hosting pop-ups owned by other Vietnamese-American chefs and bakers. She’d like to roast more Vietnamese beans, of course, to give more people an opportunity to understand that coffee culture, the multifaceted qualities of those beans. But more than that, she wants to teach more women of color how to roast coffee. “The roasting industry here in Portland is so male and white dominant, that it was extremely hard for me to find a way in,” she says. “I’m thankful that I had allies, but I know not everyone else does. I want to open that door.”