Debbie Wei Mullin Has Brewed the Perfect Cup of Vietnamese Coffee, and She Wants You to Taste It
Copper Cow Coffee, which is known for its pour-over and natural creamers, is currently found across the country in Whole Foods Market, Wal-Mart, and Cost Plus World Market.
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In her sustainable-development career at the World Bank, Debbie Wei Mullin encouraged women to follow their business dreams; one day, she took her own advice. "From a very young age I was sure I wanted to do something around creating opportunities, such as better living situations, in Vietnam," she says.
Startled to not find Vietnamese coffee on the market, which is what she grew up sipping, Wei Mullin launched Copper Cow Coffee, the first all-natural flavored ready-to-drink coffee. Hot water is poured over organic, pre-ground coffee sourced from Vietnam and packaged in sustainable bags that hook to the sides of one's cup. Once the accompanying packets of sugar and sweetened condensed milk are stirred in, it's a veritable taste of her family's homeland.
Wei Mullin was shocked to read a survey that 90 percent of Americans are unfamiliar with Vietnamese coffee, marked by "really rich mocha and nutty undertones" and "this really amazing, balanced latte," she says. But Wei Mullin grew up on it—thanks to her Vietnamese mom and coffee-addicted American dad. "I was really into café culture, especially growing up in the Bay Area," she says. "But why wasn't there a take on Vietnam coffee when other cultures were represented?"
It was important for Wei Mullin to make her products available outside of large U.S. cities already familiar with Vietnamese food and drink culture. Thus far, bundles of five packets are sold through a subscription-mail service and national retailers like Whole Foods Market, Walmart and Cost Plus World Market. There are eight flavors: Churro, Classic, Just Black, Lavender, Mint Latte, Salted Caramel Latte, The Coconut and Vanilla Latte.
Copper Cow Coffee also embodies a healthy edge. "I was coming of age through Starbucks, drinking a pumpkin-spice latte or a vanilla latte but I aged out of it with the unnecessary calories," says Wei Mullin. "This is a natural take on that." For instance, mint leaves harvested within the U.S. and real vanilla beans (not syrup) are used.
Perfecting the Brew
There were a few road blocks along the way. When Wei Mullin approached the second-largest coffee company supplier with her idea for ready-to-drink Vietnamese coffee, and suggesting the coffee be organic and workers treated fairly, "they laughed at me and told me it wasn't possible," she says. This only made her work harder to find a supplier partner. Wei Mullin hopped a plane to Vietnam and visited coffee farmers and suppliers herself. She already knew Vietnam had evolved into "one of the fastest-growing economies in the last few years." By the time she flew home, she was a key part of it—and had found her partner.
The U.S. continues to be the largest specialty-coffee market, she says, and "we pay twice the market rate to have the standards we do." Sustainable packaging is made in Vietnam at a woman-owned factory. "I get to work at a different speed than when I was at the World Bank," she says. "I felt like a cog wanting to move faster."
One milestone she's already reached is becoming one of only six coffee brands nationally distributed. "A lot of coffee companies are incredibly regional," says Wei Mullin. "When you're in San Francisco, you're drinking Blue Bottle and in Chicago, Intelligentsia." Her first plan to bring Vietnamese coffee into the U.S. was a planned café in California. But she quickly realized that limited her scope: only people living in or traveling to the Golden State would be able to experience. "Vietnam is the largest coffee producer in the world but had been left out of the coffee space until recently," she says.