How to Make Vietnamese Coffee – Hot and Iced
The first thing you need to know: the Vietnamese are coffee magicians…
But to understand why, we need to talk about the beans.
The term “Arabica” coffee is something that’s familiar to both coffee pros and casual drinkers alike. A simple walk down the grocery store aisle demonstrates just how popular Arabica coffee is.
In fact, Arabica makes up nearly 70-85% of all the coffee grown worldwide. Why is that? Arabica beans contain more sugars, and generally have better flavor.
That leaves us with the remaining percentage of coffee grown — Robusta beans. Robusta has a lot of benefits. It’s easier to grow, it has a higher caffeine content, creates better crema, and the stocky bushes generally produce more than its Arabica counterparts. So why isn’t it more widely used?
It’s the taste. Robusta has often been described as tasting bitter or of “burnt rubber”. Which is why so little of it makes up the coffee available in stores — around 25%, and usually “blended” with Arabica to improve the flavor.
And of all the Robusta grown in the world, Vietnam grows almost half of it. In fact, even though Vietnam is the 2nd largest producer of coffee in the world (after Brazil), 95% of it is Robusta.
So the bottom line is that Vietnam has a lot of coffee, and most of it, (let’s be honest), is quite bitter.
Vietnamese Coffee: Bittersweet Perfection
Now we come to the magic of Vietnamese coffee culture – the unique balance of bitter and sweet. Most traditional Vietnamese coffee recipes contain a common denominator: sweetness. Whether it be from sugar, egg custard, or sweetened condensed milk, the large majority of traditional recipes from the region are heavily sweetened. And while this might create a disgustingly sticky-sweet beverage with Arabica beans, the intense bitterness of Vietnam’s Robusta creates a magical, bittersweet counterbalance that is hard to duplicate by any other method. The people have taken an abundant resource with some less-than-palatable challenges, and tweaked the presentation — the result being a unique flavor that’s popular on every side of the globe.
Where to Find Vietnamese Coffee
Among Asian households abroad, Trung Nguyen is a household name. Their coffee is deep-roasted, and has added hints of vanilla, cocoa, and other spices. You can find Trung Nguyen pre-ground at most Asian markets (or on Amazon in whole bean varieties as well.)
If you don’t have access to an Asian market, most grocery stores carry Cafe du Monde pre-ground. Cafe du Monde is a staple among Vietnamese-American families, but isn’t “Vietnamese coffee”, per se. It is, however, very similar due to its dark roast, high Robusta content and use of chickory, which adds a familiar bitter bite.
Whatever coffee you use, at a minimum, you should shoot for:
- dark roast (or French Roast)
- medium coarse ground
- Robusta or Robusta-blend
The second-most important ingredient in Vietnamese coffee is the sweetness, which typically comes from sweetened condensed milk. Many believe this milky-sweet ingredient became a staple after the French arrived in the 19th century, and sought ways of preserving milk for long-term storage when fresh milk was not available.
“Longevity Brand” is commonly used and is usually found in Asian markets, but any sweetened condensed milk will work in a pinch.
The Vietnamese Phin Coffee Brewer
The Phin’s beauty is in it’s simplicity. While many modern coffee-makers take up whole sections of our kitchen countertops, the phin is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. It consists of a small cup, a filter press for tamping and holding the grounds beneath the water, and a lid, which serves double-duty as a plate for your phin once brewing completes.
The phin is traditionally placed on a glass containing a layer of sweetened condensed milk on the bottom. The bottom of the phin is perforated with tiny holes from which the coffee drips. Once filled with coffee and water, the brew begins its slow journey, drip-by-drip, into the glass below. I hope you don’t have any pressing appointments, because this is a long process that’s meant to be savored. The slow, methodical dripping is almost hypnotic. It’s a refreshing mental break to watch.
Two Types of Phins
The phin is usually between 4-6 ounces in size, and can be made of either aluminum or stainless steel. The two most common designs are the “screw” type, where the filter press screws down to keep the coffee grounds in place, or the “gravity” type, where the filter simply weighs-down the grounds. I’ve found both to be perfectly effective, but the screw type gives you a little more control over the drip-rate.
Controlling the Phin Brew Rate
To use the phin, lift the filter press, place 1-2 tablespoons of ground coffee inside the chamber, then replace the press. The tighter the grounds are compacted in the phin, the more difficult it is for the water to drip through the bottom, thus slowing the brew rate and creating a stronger coffee.
The grounds can be too-tightly compacted though; so tight that the water won’t drip through at all. (This is usually seen with screw-type filters). If you notice a lack of coffee being produced, turn back the filter screw to give your grounds a little more room to breathe.
Variations of Vietnamese Coffee
In this video, we’re demonstrating three types of Vietnamese coffee: hot, iced, and shaken.
Hot Vietnamese Coffee
In northern Vietnam, the mixture of hot, black coffee with sweetened condensed milk is called ca phe nau (brown coffee), while in the south it’s referred to as ca phe sua (milk coffee). It may also be referred to as cà phê sữa nóng in some regions.
Vietnamese Iced Coffee
Called ca phe sua da or cafe sua da (iced milk coffee), This variation is the same as the hot recipe, but it’s poured over ice after the mixture is stirred and the condensed milk blended-in well.
Shaken Vietnamese Iced Coffee
Similar to the iced version, this variation is placed in a jar or cocktail shaker with ice, then agitated for 30 seconds-1 minute before pouring over ice and serving. The result is a thick, foamy upper layer. This can also be done by passing the brew between two large glasses, but this took more coordination than I had available. For a spiked “adult” twist, add a shot of Kahlua or rum for a coffee cocktail. It’s similar to the Italian caffe shakerato, where espresso is shaken with ice then poured into a martini glass.
Enough history. Let’s make it, already!
- Vietnamese-style coffee filter (phin) or similar device for making strong coffee.
- 1 rounded tablespoon coursely-ground Robusta coffee (Trung Nguyen or Cafe du Monde work well)
- 1 cup of 200-degree (F) water
- 2 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk
- 1 cup of ice (if many the iced version)
- Boil water.
- Place sweetened condensed milk in a heat-resistant glass.
- Place the phin over the glass. Remove the filter press, and place 1 rounded tablespoon of coffee inside.
- Tap the side of the filter to evenly distribute the grounds, then replace the filter press until tight against the grounds.
- Place a splash of hot water in the filter and allow the grounds to "bloom" for 20-30 seconds.
- Proceed to fill the filter the rest of the way with hot water.
- Coffee should slowly drip into the glass below. When brewing is complete, remove the filter and stir well. Serve immediately if enjoying hot.
- Complete the steps above, then slowly pour the mixture over a glass of ice. Stir and enjoy.
- Complete the steps for hot coffee above.
- Place the mixture in a large jar or cocktail shaker with approximately 1 cup of ice.
- Shake until foamy. Serve over ice.
- If you don't have a Vietnamese phin (coffee filter), a moka pot or espresso can be used.
- Robusta beans are preferred for their bitterness (which counterbalances the sweetness of the condensed milk)
Diversification by smallholder farmers in Vietnam:
FAOSTAT Rankings by Commodity:
Photo of coffee cherries taken by Neil Palmer (CIAT).
License: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo of arabica coffee beans by Dirk Ingo Franke
License: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)