Huan Le is a 37-year-old Houstonian who speaks with the quiet confidence of a man who has created something utterly new where nothing new seemed possible. In short, he has come up with a new coffee drink, a $4 bottle of Vietnamese iced coffee that is, he assures us, a consistent sell-out wherever it is sold. Then again, there aren’t so many bottles or outlets selling Caphin, as it is called. That will change if the drink goes national, as is planned.
The name (pronounced “caffeine”) is a nod to both its active ingredient and the percolator used to make it—a phin—and the culmination of a sentimental journey of sorts. Le, it turns out, would not be in the Bayou City if it weren’t for coffee. It was his parents’ java-drinking friends who encouraged the Les to relocate to the Houston area in 1982; they’d originally settled in Seattle following the fall of Saigon.
“On Sundays,” says Le of his childhood, “no matter how poor we were, my father always tried to do something cool for us.” Sometimes the family of four would share a small tin of caviar, or a single giant lobster. And nearly every Sunday meant café sua da, Vietnamese iced coffee, prepared the traditional way. Le’s mother used a phin to slowly brew a strong, chicory-laced concoction that was then poured over a thick dollop of sweetened condensed milk. “We weren’t allowed to have a lot,” recalls Le. “It was always special.”
Decades later, it still is, and that’s putting it mildly. Le’s beloved Sunday drink has become wildly popular thanks to the Bayou City’s thriving Vietnamese population—it turns out that the sweet, strong perkiness of café sua da is perfect on hot, humid days, whether here or in Ho Chi Minh City. Given that, it was only a matter of time before someone like Le bottled it—he was tired of ducking into a restaurant every time he had a jones for the sweet stuff. An attorney already involved in other entrepreneurial projects, Le thought that drawing up a financial plan would be easier than finding folks enthusiastic about his product. Nope, other way around.
“I found that I did have to explain the financials to people,” Le says, “but I didn’t have to explain the market. Because this is Houston, I just said ‘Vietnamese iced coffee.’ People get it; people grew up with it, and they know exactly what it is.”
Less than a year later, and with the backing of a venture capital group, Le and his team began bottling what might be termed an artisanal version of Caphin. The coffee is roasted a pound at a time, mixed with sweetened condensed milk, and then bottled and labeled individually, by hand.
Considering Caphin’s elaborate production process, it’s easy to understand why its brown glass bottles sell at the price they do and are only available at a few Houston-area locations, such as Agora and Eatsie Boys Café. “You’re not going to see the artisanal stuff anywhere other than Houston,” Le assures us.
There’s a different plan for the national launch. As currently brewed, Caphin must be consumed within two weeks of bottling; a revamped, stabilized recipe will allow the drink to stay fresh on shelves much longer. Not that Caphin bottles tend to last longer than two weeks anyway.
“My friends and family are having a hard time finding it,” says Le, “because we keep selling out everywhere.”