Will Frith: On Building Vietnam's Specialty Coffee Scene
After a career spanning across the globe and the coffee production process, enthusiast Will Frith is now using his experience to facilitate the specialty coffee scene in Saigon. ‘Specialty coffee’ refers to coffee that is high-quality, typically single origin, and thoroughly mindful of every step of the supply chain – from equitable relationships with the farmer to exceptional flavors for the consumer.
Now, in Saigon, where cafes envelop every street, specialty coffee is poised to diversify the city’s already-vibrant coffee culture. Will’s latest project, building.coffee, hopes to empower the ambitious coffee entrepreneurs at the frontier of this new movement. Vietcetera had the opportunity to chat with Will about building.coffee, his career, and the future of Vietnamese coffee. Read our conversation below.
Can you share what building.coffee does and what you do at the company?
building.coffee is the space to start and grow your own coffee business in Saigon. We’ve got everything a coffee entrepreneur needs to source, roast, package, run quality control, and train baristas. We’re also the behind-the-scenes coffee roaster for cafes in Saigon, developing and producing in-house coffee brands for our customers.
Can you tell us more about your personal day-to-day work?
The first thing I do in the morning is check the temperature and humidity in our green coffee storage room. Then I turn on some music, make sure all of our lab machines wake up, and then I make myself some coffee. Depending on how many clients I have scheduled that day, I’ll either conduct a quality cupping, which is open to the public, teach a roasting course to a small class, or develop a custom roast profile for one of our private label customers. There are some days when all I do is roast coffee, and others when all I do is meet with customers to brainstorm or plan their growth.
Who was your mentor you when you first started?
I sort of accidentally got started in specialty coffee when I applied for a barista job at Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters in Olympia, Washington in the United States. I had barista experience, but for some reason, their head of HR put me in production instead of behind the bar. I’m so lucky she did, because that’s where I met Oliver Stormshack. He taught me everything I needed to know about roasting and production. He left Batdorf to start his own company, Olympia Coffee Roasters, and I followed him a couple years later, where we won Roast Magazine’s Micro Roaster of the Year for 2013.
What challenges do you encounter at work when you see your clients?
A lot of people are still trying to figure out what they like, and what their personal preferences are. Part of my job is encouraging people to make choices based on that, rather than trying to meet some standard as established by the Specialty Coffee Association or as seen on Instagram. Authenticity in entrepreneurship really comes through experiencing lots of different ideas and then creating your own.
I also think many of my clients are still centering the barista, rather than the customer, in the retail experience. Back in the US, the barista is service-oriented and concerned with the experience of their customers. But in Vietnam, somewhere along the way, the barista became this sort of exalted figure, and the service orientation hasn’t really caught hold in the same way. While this is something the market here really needs to discover for itself, it’s definitely a challenge when it comes to training my clients’ baristas.
If a person wants to enter a coffee roasting career, where do they start?
I think the best place for someone to start if they want to get into specialty coffee is at the farm level, which we’re lucky enough to have access to here in Vietnam. Everything that happens from soil to seedling all the way to processing and drying is arguably where a great coffee starts. From there, I think it’s necessary to spend at least some time behind the bar as a barista, learning how to interact with customers. Sure, pouring beautiful lattes is important, but a barista is the representative of a coffee business – as well as for the entire production chain – and an entrepreneur needs to understand how to recruit and train the right talent for the job.
Why open a co-roasting business and not your own coffee shop? Who are your clients?
I may very well start my own cafe, stay tuned! But I think my best contribution at the moment is to provide a platform and a learning environment where people can start their own thing, whether it’s a roasting company, a cafe, or something else entirely. Honestly, one of the reasons I started building was because people kept coming to me for help with their business, but I couldn’t be everyone’s private consultant. So this is a way to democratize that knowledge base, and give more people access to the tools we’ve learned along the way.
building’s co-roasting clients include Brave Bean, Running Bean, some folks who roast for coffee companies and just want to roast their own coffee for fun, along with many more individual enthusiasts. We do private label roasting for Day Cafe and The Workshop among others (some of the private label roasting is confidential). We’ve also rented out our lab space for folks like Amber Coffee, 2nd Mile (Singapore), Beanspire (Thailand), D’Codes Lab, Quest Coffee Academy, and Neo Frey.
We also offer quality control services for coffee companies and cafes who need independent, third party feedback about their coffee, equipment, and cafe conditions, while consulting services are available on a case-by-case basis.
What does the future look like for the coffee industry in Vietnam?
The global coffee industry has never seen anything as unique as a producing nation with such a robust and diverse independent cafe scene and sophisticated coffee consumer. I think we’ll see even more diversification as more people find success in their small businesses. What happens in the future here is really up for grabs, since there’s not a template for how a market like this grows. I truly believe that Saigon’s coolest cafe hasn’t opened yet, and that’s really exciting.
What I also think we’ll see are innovations at the farm level, since there’s such a great feedback loop between roasters and growers. Vietnam has the chance to truly shape the future of specialty coffee globally, since the factors that combine here are very rare.
What are your favorite coffee blends?
Sweet Bloom’s Hometown Blend and The Workshop’s espresso blends are my favorites. Andy Springer at Sweet Bloom is one of the best coffee buyers I know, and he always seems to deliver fresh, clean, sweet coffees – single origins and blends. The Workshop also seeks the same, with their goal being to bring out the most sweetness possible. Many other companies do a great job with this as well – too many to list.
And because we have to ask: what’s your favorite coffee shop (or two) in Saigon? How about the world?
The Workshop and La Viet will always be close to my heart, so they’re my favorite places to enjoy coffee. La Viet’s Dalat location is the only one like it that I’m aware of – with everything from cafe to roasting to processing under one roof. It’s an amazing place to learn about the steps that coffee goes through to get into our cups. In the US, I have many favorites: Coral Sword (a gaming cafe in Houston, Texas), Proud Mary (Portland, Oregon location), Olympia Coffee (Olympia, Washington), La Marzocco Cafe (Seattle, Washington) are the first ones to come to mind.