February 1, 2021

Exploring Vietnamese coffee

Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world by volume, after Brazil. It is renowned for producing large volumes of robusta. However, in Vietnam, coffee is much more than a cash crop – it’s consumed on almost every street corner in every town, enjoyed from morning until night. 

But Vietnamese coffee doesn’t just refer to beans grown in and exported from Vietnam. It is also the name of a certain style of beverage found in the country. Typically made from robusta beans, Vietnamese coffee is made using a unique dripper, known as a phin, that steeps the coffee before filtering it down into the cup. 

It is customary that Vietnamese coffee is made with condensed milk, and it is often served over ice to make Vietnamese iced coffee, also known as cà phê đá or cafe da. The resulting brew is sweet, rich, and strong. Read on to learn more about Vietnamese coffee, and how the country’s history of production has shaped this popular beverage.

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A brief history of coffee in Vietnam

Coffee was introduced to Vietnam by French colonists in the mid-1800s, and became a major source of income in the early 20th century. Production was hampered during the war in the 1970s and 1980s. However, by the end of the century, it had all but recovered thanks to a range of government initiatives.

Today, it is the country’s second-most valuable exported agricultural product after rice. Vietnam exports more than 30 million bags of coffee every year.

Robusta coffee accounts for 97% of production in Vietnam, which has had a considerable influence on its reputation around the world. It is generally affordable, strong, and bitter. Coffee consumers broadly regard it as being lower quality and less desirable when compared to arabica.

Annee Nguyen is the founder of Annee’s Caphe Sua Da, a Vietnamese coffee shop in Queensland, Australia. “Due to the favourable climate and topography in Vietnam, robusta is widely grown and produced,” she says. “Though traditional Vietnamese coffee is made with robusta, these days, blends of robusta and arabica can still give you the bold, bitter, and chocolatey tastes that match perfectly with condensed milk.”

Condensed milk is a staple in Vietnam. It has been used in coffee for decades. It was first used as a substitute for fresh milk by French colonists, after they discovered that fresh dairy in the country was in limited supply.

What is Vietnamese coffee?

Most countries have their own unique set of tastes and customs when it comes to consuming coffee. Vietnam is no different. 

Traditional Vietnamese coffee is a strong and bitter brew made using a dark roast, typically robusta. Condensed milk is added, and the beverage is often chilled over ice. It can sometimes be made with fresh milk, but this is not common.

Chen Dien and his wife are the owners of Coffeeholic House in Seattle, Washington. Chen says: “There are only two ingredients in Vietnamese coffee: condensed milk and drip coffee. But it’s not a typical drip coffee.

“We use a traditional phin [dripper] to brew our coffees. It’s essentially a slow drip, similar to a pour over, but it takes longer. We use robusta beans because they produce a strong, bold, nutty aftertaste.”

The combination of bitter robusta and sweet condensed milk creates a unique texture and flavour. Annee describes it as “sweet, thick, and strong” with a “punch of boldness and flavour”. 

“It’s meant to be sipped slowly, so that you can savour the flavour of its lingering chocolate notes,” she says.

How do you prepare Vietnamese coffee?

Vietnamese coffee is always prepared with a phin. This is a Vietnamese dripper that has similarities to both the French press and a standard pour over filter coffee dripper.

Unlike most other drippers, the phin consists of a perforated metal filter (that sits over the drinking vessel), a brewing chamber, an insert that fits over the chamber to tamp the grounds down, and a cap that stores the heat. It uses no paper filter, and brews more slowly than alternatives like the Hario V60, meaning the coffee steeps for longer.

To prepare a Vietnamese coffee, the phin is placed over the drinking vessel (often a tall glass) and ground coffee is added to the chamber. A filter insert tamps down the grounds and a cap is used to retain in the heat. Hot water is slowly poured on top and left to bloom for 45 to 60 seconds. More is then added to make up the full brew weight. 

The coffee slowly drips into the cup below (usually onto a good spoonful of condensed milk). It takes several minutes to brew a full cup of coffee.

To create a typical iced coffee or cà phê đá, a few tablespoons of condensed milk are placed into a serving glass, and the coffee is poured over without being stirred to create an attractive layered effect. Ice is added either before or after brewing to chill the drink. 

The distinctive intense, sweet taste of Vietnamese coffee is largely due to the flavour of the beans and the roast profile. Robusta beans tend to ripen at varying times in Vietnam, so to mask any possible difference or defect, the beans are roasted for longer, giving them a more intense flavour. Flavourings may even be added during the roast, including butter, suggar, vanilla, and cocoa.

This takes several hours, and produces a dark roast that’s thick and smoky. While modern roasters might skip this process if they have access to uniformly ripe beans, some still choose to add butter to their roasts to give the beans a slightly sweeter flavour.

Vietnamese coffee is also renowned for having a very thick and dense mouthfeel. While there is some truth to this, Vietnamese street coffee in particular is often brewed with additives. Many street coffee vendors add starches such as corn, soy bean powder, and even more butter to thicken the brew.

As Vietnamese robusta is typically bitter and intense, it is sometimes served with added ingredients to create a more balanced flavour.

One of the most popular variations is Vietnamese egg coffee, or cà phê trứng. This is made by topping Vietnamese coffee with egg custard.

“It can be enjoyed hot or iced.” Annee explains. “It’s more common in North Vietnam, and is made using egg yolks blended with cream and milk. These are then poured over the coffee. 

“It’s almost like a thicker, creamier cappuccino, but not overly rich or sweet. It is very smooth.”

Other variations include mixing Vietnamese coffee with coconut milk (cà phê cốt dừa), combining it with coffee, ice, and yoghurt (cà phê sữa chua), and even just increasing the amount of condensed milk used to create a lighter, sweeter version that masks the darker flavours of the robusta (bac xiu).

Vietnamese coffee’s simple recipe (intensely brewed robusta coffee and condensed milk) means that it can be adapted in a number of different ways to suit the consumer’s taste.

Chen tells me that he’s created his own version, which he calls the “Coffeeholic Dream”. “[I make a] Vietnamese coffee with a layer of salted cheese foam, topped with a sprinkle of chocolate powder.”

Ultimately, it looks like traditional Vietnamese coffee isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Not only is it closely linked to the country’s rich heritage of coffee production, drinking coffee in this unique style has become a way of life for millions of people across Vietnam.

Enjoyed this? Why not read What Is An Affogato?

Photo credits: Coffeeholic House, Paul Arps, Ann and David

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