Although UCC has 650 similarly low-key cafés in Japan and abroad, they’re more active on the back-end than most chains — with coffee farms around the world and several coffee-connected concerns that help them attend the process “from cup to seed”. Maybe more notably, they took the process one step further in the space-age year of 1969, becoming the first company to put coffee in a can.
Now that we’re caught up, let’s step inside. Underneath the high rafters lies a clever coffee counter, well-appointed with espresso machines and waffle makers and a collection of syphon coffee brewers — the type that brew the coffee in their upper chamber by boiling the water in the lower chamber, then letting the result filter downward upon the heat’s removal. It’s a process that makes for a nice clean cup of acid-toned coffee, and UCC has varieties like Guatemalan, Jamaican Blue Mountain, Brazilian, Hawaiian Kona, Colombian Supremo and a house blend to choose from.
It’s Still a Chain
Before you get too excited, though, take a look at the per-cup prices: ranging from VND50,000 for the house blend to VND200,000 for Blue Mountain No. 1. The Guatemalan blend I tried lacked the clean edges I look for in a cup of syphon coffee. In speciality coffee consultant Will Frith’s estimation, “They are legit speciality, though their preferences are a bit bland and old school.” [A] Café (15 Huynh Khuong Ninh, Q1) still makes the best syphon brew in town, at a better price point.
But chains don’t get popular off of stylistic brilliance, for the most part — they’re sought after for predictable products and atmosphere. And it’s atmosphere where UCC really excels.
The interior is blessed with clean lines of wood and steel, and framed avant-garde angles of decaying Saigon colonials in nostalgic black-and-white. It has a calm, intimate feel that suits work or quiet conversation. There are three Wi-Fi hotspots in a space that measures something close to 60sqm.
The café is popular with Japanese expats, like Hide. “I like this café because it’s quiet,” he told me. “The coffee is good and... it’s hard to say... there are not many Vietnamese people coming here. That’s why it’s quiet.”
One of the other two patrons at that mid-afternoon hour was Vietnamese, although Cady admitted to liking Japanese-style hangouts like MOF. Like the other two, she was quietly absorbed in electronic pursuits.
“I like it because it’s quiet,” she said, “and the drinks are good. This is the best caramel latté I’ve tried.”
“Is it better than Starbucks?” I asked, the only question that came to mind.
“Mmm, yea,” she said, sipping her drink lower and lower. — Ed Weinberg
UCC Coffee is at 106 Nguyen Trai, Q1