Meet Michael Nguyen, a 30-year-old, British-born Vietnamese aspiring coffee professional who currently works as a Production Assistant in an established London-based roastery The Gentlemen Baristas. Mike’s coffee adventure started 3 years ago in the bustling streets of Vietnam. The coffee shop in Hanoi where he plied his trade as a barista has been shut down due to the lockdown in Vietnam, forcing him to return to London.
Beyond his dedication to the world of coffee, Michael’s life is full of diverse interests. His primary passion is fitness, with a particular focus on callisthenics, weight lifting, and yoga. Mike also experiments with grip training and steel bending, which he enthusiastically showcases on his fitness-centric Instagram profile. In addition to his athletic pursuits, Michael finds comfort in the thrill of motorcycle rides, often embarking on memorable journeys across picturesque landscapes.
Michael’s story is a testament to the power of determination and the pursuit of excellence, making him a captivating personality to follow on his inspiring journey.
Michael, what is your first memory of coffee?
When I was really young, my parents would brew Nescafe instant coffee, single sugar and some fresh milk. Vietnamese Phin coffee was also a popular choice my parents would have on occasion. I remember my first sip of them and could not understand why adults loved it so much!
What inspired you to pursue a career in the coffee industry, and how did you get started? What did you do before coffee?
My first career was in IT. I worked for a social enterprise that focused on IT support services for other social impact companies and charities. My role for the first five and half years was support technician, then moved on to account management for a year and a half. It was through working there I had a passion for people who shared common values and social impact in the work we did.
Before I pursued coffee as a career, it was the idea of coffee shops that inspired me. When I was living in Vietnam in 2020, I learned that most people would visit coffee shops to understand and get a feel of local culture, especially when visiting or living in a different country. At the time, I had the ambition to open my own in Ha Noi but knew absolutely nothing about coffee itself (great business plan!) so I reached out to a local social enterprise called Simple Coffee, which had a cafe and 1-kilo roaster at the time, and signed on as a barista intern. A month in and I was working and training further as a barista part-time for over a year before returning to London in 2021.
Tell us a bit about the place where you work at. What is your role there?
I work at The Gentlemen Baristas as a Roastery Production Assistant – a more behind-the-scenes role where I would pack coffee and dispatch to wholesale clients as well as our six coffee houses around London. I am also involved in the quality control process, working alongside our Senior Roaster and Head of Production such as cupping coffees roasted during the week, espresso brewing, as well as roasting samples and being involved in the production roasting as I am a Production Roaster-in-training. All exciting stuff with lots to learn and train.
The role itself is very manual as it requires lifting, moving around a long and being hands-on – all very suited to my style of work. I like being active and the role provides that.
How in your opinion does the coffee culture in Vietnam and the UK differ? Do you also see some similarities?
Very noticeable differences in the way each culture paces itself. Vietnam, in particular to coffee drinking, is a slow culture. With a strong background in drinking green tea and Phin coffee, both beverages take time to extract so people generally are not in a rush. There isn’t a sense of needing to be somewhere and encourage a culture of ‘being present’, which I incorporate in my coffee-drinking style.
That said, depending on which part of the UK you are in, the culture can differ. About a month ago, I visited Oxford, based in central southern England, and their culture is very different from London. Much more slow-paced and chill, whereas London (like most big cities) can be fast-paced and people in a rush to get to places. Working as a barista can give a real insight and outlook to the people as most of the time, you look out to the world around you. In Vietnam, people were willing to wait 10/15 minutes for a pour-over, a trait naturally transcending from tea drinking and takeaway isn’t too common. In London, there are huge queues during rush hours where you would be pulling espresso shots and steaming milk non-stop until crunch time is over.
It is fascinating how much you can learn about a culture by sitting in a coffee shop or working in one.
Coffee, fitness and passion for motorbikes are all demanding and require specific skills. What similarities have you found between these passions in terms of skill development and personal growth?
Fitness is beyond passion as it is incorporated into my lifestyle. Consistent effort and learning from failures are the biggest life skills which I incorporate into other passions of mine. With coffee, I love experimenting whether it be brewing techniques, adjusting variables like temperature, grind size, etc to brewing coffee roasted for espresso as a filter, and vice versa.
From riding motorcycles, a lot of people I know would only ride during sunny weather whereas I ride all year round – rain, snow, ice, whatever. From the type of training I do, which is calisthenics, to my learning approach to coffee and motorcycle culture, I am drawn to doing the unconventional, simply because I like to experience for myself.
Of course, a lot of informational books and resources are useful to read, but applying knowledge and experience for yourself is to do it. Most of the time, to me anyway, means doing the unconventional and seeing for yourself what can be achieved, embracing the opportunity to experience and learning from it. It can sometimes spark an idea, which can lead to something greater in future. Who knows!
Do you think your passion for fitness has had any impact on the way you approach health and wellness within the coffee industry, either for yourself or your colleagues?
Absolutely! I mentioned my role being very active and manual, similar to how fitness and overall training are. I train around body mobility, incorporating how well our bodies move without pain, as well as areas of weakness. Wrist movements, for example, aren’t a commonly trained part of our body to the vast majority, yet what do baristas do most of their time behind the bar? Tamping, locking/unlocking portafilters (some espresso machines aren’t the most ergonomic), hitting the knock box to empty the espresso puck.
A lot of baristas talk about experiencing wrist pain, lower back aches from standing a lot, and hunching/rounded shoulders when pouring latte art. People don’t think about it, but you can imagine doing the same movements for hours upon hours for years behind the bar, your body will become accustomed to it over time.
Fitness is not just about being ‘fit’, it is the very component in which our bodies are designed – to move and be active. The training aspect, especially related to mobility and body movement awareness, can mitigate a lot of the aches and pains experienced by many.
Physical and mental well-being are crucial in both fitness and coffee. Can you elaborate on your personal approach to a healthy and motivated mindset in your career?
Motivation itself is not enough. I may get you started, but commitment and consistent effort are the key drivers. It is about creating a disciplined mindset, then with that mindset, you can fill it with any task you wish. For example, let’s say you want to do 10 push-ups every morning. You set the alarm and get on with it, no excuses.
Do that over some time without fail, habit starts to become natural. I love waking up early and brewing coffee in the morning. Sometimes on occasion waking up early hours before work to do so. The process of brewing a cup is calming and a sensation of being present. Nothing else is on my mind, the same as when I am training. Doing the exercise is the focus at that point in time.
When I first set out to learn about coffee, to many it may feel like starting from the beginning, and it was. However, with consistent effort and drive to learn more (which can only be driven by passion, in my opinion), it can take you places. From a barista intern to a roastery production assistant, in the span of 3 years isn’t a long time but the key question to ask is, “What, in that span of 3 years, have I learned?”.
How do you stay motivated and inspired to keep improving your coffee-making skills?
There is a quote I like to share:
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. – Aristotle
Experimenting, and discussing with fellow coffee enthusiasts and like-minded people can create good conversation. In coffee, there are so many variables to play with and through changing variables. Experimenting keeps the whole process fun. Personally, coffee is part of my lifestyle and is completely driven by passion. I am inspired by the people in coffee culture as a whole.
When meeting people from different parts of the world, their stories of how coffee relates to them, and keeping an open mind teach me a lot. Not only do I get to learn about their background, we can share our perceptions and views about coffee as a whole thus giving an insight into each other’s culture. Visiting coffee shops and having the chance to speak to the baristas, and their experiences are always insightful.
What coffee challenges are you looking forward to? Any new projects or collaborations?
I look forward to learning more about coffee roasting, as well as the work involved from the producers. One of my ambitions is to work my way to the forefront of coffee production, that is the farmers. There may be opportunities in the coming year, but I will wait and see!
Quick Fire Questions for Michael Nguyen:
Would you serve filter coffee with milk if asked for it?
If the customer asks for milk, no problem.
Do you ever take sugar with your coffee?
No sugar, thank you!
Espresso or Filter coffee?
Do you aim for Sweetness, Acidity, or Body?
Milky or Black?
Black coffee (an oat flat white as an occasional treat!).
Slurp or Spit?
Conical-shaped or flat-bottom brewer?
Tough one! I would brew the same coffee on V60 and Orea, then decide.