Michael Tatarski sits down for a cup of joe with Vichai Saetia, who is working to bring a greater appreciation of quality coffee to Vietnam. Photo by Vinh Dao.

How did you get involved in coffee?
It’s been a long time that I’ve been involved, even before I owned Scoozi. It started with Centro Café, and I have almost 12 years in the coffee business. Now I supply coffee-related accessories and machines to local businesses.

You have become interested in cupping and roasting coffee. What does that entail?
When I went to Chile to upgrade my knowledge I discovered that cupping and roasting are the new thing. What I can do is help people here in Vietnam improve the quality of their coffee. As you can see at the moment, coffee in Vietnam is very much about flavoured coffee but in the last two years it’s changed a lot. People are getting used to using coffee machines and are getting into clean coffee.

Regarding the cupping and all this I also took an exam to be a Q-Grader. It’s a new system which lets you grade coffee. The body that set it up is from America and it’s meant to help farmers to improve the quality of their coffee from the beans. There are probably only about 4,000 people worldwide with the certificate, and it’s fairly new.

What does it take to become a Q-Grader?
First you have to learn how to judge your coffee by cupping, which involves using your taste buds and nose to identify which coffee has defects, just one of which will affect your coffee aromas very badly. A whole batch of coffee can be affected by one defect. A good cup of coffee starts with good beans and we need to make sure they are correctly milled and have distinguishable characteristics.

I’m actually organizing for a Q-Grade examiner to come to Vietnam next month. I cannot teach it and this guy who was my instructor from America will come do a class and an exam. This will be very important for the Vietnam coffee industry. Q-Grading isn’t just about producers, it involves baristas and roasters as well. It’s about identifying your coffee and trying to find the best coffee without defects. This system allows Q-Graders to communicate with the same language regarding the set standards of good coffee.

Is high-end equipment necessary to make good coffee?
It’s all involved. There are many different kinds of equipment nowadays. There are different styles like syphoning, where you boil water and then the pressure pushes the coffee up. There’s hand drip where you don’t get a lot of pressure and you get a better fruitiness and acidity. This is why speciality coffees are coming in. The specific region it comes from produces a different character of coffee.

Do you see people in Vietnam gaining a better appreciation of coffee in the future?
Yes, at the moment you can see a lot already. I’ve been putting a lot of my effort since the beginning into selling coffee that is about six times more expensive than Vietnamese coffee, which is difficult. I’ve always been involved with importing coffee. I think Vietnam is getting up there thanks to a lot of the competition and barista training, these help to lift up the market and people start to understand. You get more offerings, better coffee for people to try, and that’s how you get a better result.

What do you think of the average cup of coffee at cafés in Saigon?
The coffee industry has changed a lot over the last three years. With Highlands, Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf coming here things have improved. The next big thing is the Korean chain Café Bene. I think this will help, as they are really pushing towards hand-drip speciality coffee which you can select from a single region.

Where do you get your coffee from?
In the beginning it was very much from Italy, but I believe in Vietnamese coffee coming up and improving. We can contribute what we’ve learned from the Q-Grader knowledge and experience. It can help the farmers to grow better coffee beans and have better, defect-free harvests. Good coffee needs to come from a high altitude. In Vietnam the only growing region above 1,400 metres would be Dalat, particularly the Dalat-Cau Dat coffee.

Will people here be willing to spend on high quality coffee when street coffee is so cheap?
There are a few starting now. Like I said it can catch on very fast. It depends on how many people are investing in the market and really pushing forward. I believe Vietnam is catching up fast, I see a few people doing speciality coffee already in Dalat and different places. They will help to promote the coffee by providing the best coffee. I think in the future it will catch on, not only here but around the world.

Speaking of Dalat, do you visit farms to learn more about coffee from the source?
Yes, and next year I will probably spend a lot more time at farms here and in Thailand. Once there are many people promoting coffee, people will come. The Q-Grader class next month is already fully booked, which is surprising. We have 18 people who will be built into the market. Vietnam at the moment only has two or three Q-Graders, including me. When you compare to countries like Indonesia, which is a major coffee player, they have many Q-Graders. This is how you can see the quality of coffee has improved a lot in Indonesia. So I believe in Vietnam, especially once people have more knowledge and learn how to bring coffee to the next level. It’s a big producing country so there’s a lot of potential here.

To learn more about Q-Grading, visit CoffeeInstitute.org/The-Q-Coffee-System/Overview