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What Makes Vietnamese Coffee Taste so Unique?

Written by Phil

A coffee enthusiast and traveler, Phil primarily spends his days thinking and writing about coffee. He also writes for HittingEject.com where he explores ideas of culture, psychology, and travel, and occasionally dabbles in horror.

One of my favorite styles of coffee is the not-so-commonly found Vietnamese coffee. Luckily, I stumbled upon one cafe in my town that actually serves it. This got me wondering: why is this beverage so wonderful? I hear it tastes even more unique in Vietnam itself, but how do they do it?

Vietnamese coffee is made with robusta beans, which are more bitter, mixed with condensed milk. Roasters will also spray freshly roasted beans with rice wine, sugar, salt, fish sauce, and even butter.

In America, you’ll have a hard time finding straight robusta beans, so there is a popular brand called Cafe du Monde that sells arabica-chicory root blends that gives a flavor that’s said to be similar to the potency of robusta.

What is Vietnamese-Style Coffee?

Being the second largest producer of coffee in the world, Vietnam has made a number of beverages which blend the strong, bitter robusta coffee with local favorites, crafting complex flavors by adding condensed milk, yogurt, fruit, coconut – and even eggs.

In general, condensed milk and strong coffee are what set the Vietnamese style coffee apart, as well as the use of the metal “Phin”. You can make it with or without the Phin, but the Phin is typically inexpensive (roughly $10 on Amazon), and doesn’t require paper filters.

Is there anything unique about the beans they use?

As mentioned above, they tend to use robusta coffee, which has a more bitter, intense flavor – and also more caffeine. During their roasting process, local roasters will even spray the freshly roasted beans with various combinations of rice wine, sugar, salt, fish sauce, and even mix butter into the process.

What is a Phin?

A phin (pronounced: fin) is the Vietnamese word for a French drip filter, which is typically made of metal (often aluminum) and sits on top of the cup, similar to an Aeropress.

It is made up of three or four pieces that fit together comfortably:

  • the spanner
  • the brewing chamber
  • the filter insert
  • the lid

The spanner is the saucer-like object that sits directly on the mouth of your cup and has a bunch of small holes punched in the middle, or sometimes one larger hole. The brewing chamber sits on top of that and looks like a metal coffee cup – also with some holes in the bottom. These two pieces sometimes come as one.

The filter then sits inside the chamber. The lid, of course, goes on top to keep the heat in and serves as a place to set the filter aside when done brewing.

The filter insert comes in two styles:

  • a gravity filter, simply placed on top of the coffee inside the brewing chamber
  • a screw-type filter that allows you to tighten the filter to the desired tension

What is Robusta Coffee?

To put it simply, it is one of the two dominant strains of coffee in the world, comprising roughly 20-40% of the world’s coffee production. Also called coffea canephora and coffea cobusta, robusta coffee is often blended with the other dominant strain, arabica, to create a more palatable flavor profile for western tastes.

The level of caffeine found naturally in the dominant strains is:

Robusta: 2.7%

Arabica: 1.5%

Or, put simply, robusta has nearly double the caffeine. It is a more hearty plant, which is where it gets its name, and is used in Vietnamese coffee.

How to make Vietnamese Coffee with a Filter (aka a Phin)

Vietnamese Coffee

An intriguing bitter-sweet combination of strong coffee with sweetened condensed milk.
Prep Time 1 min
Cook Time 4 mins
Total Time 5 mins
Course Drinks
Cuisine Vietnamese
Servings 1
Calories 135 kcal

Equipment

  • Phin (Vietnamese coffee maker)

Ingredients
  

  • 2 tbsp Sweetened Condensed Milk
  • 2 tbsp course ground, med/dark roast coffee Robusta Coffee
  • 1 cup water (195-205F)

Instructions
 

  • Add the condensed milk to the bottom of your cup.
  • Scoop the coffee into the brewing chamber. Tap the chamber away from the cup until the coffee is level (some small grinds may fall out as you do this)
  • Place the spanner and brewing chamber (aka the plate-thing and the cup-thing) on top of your heat-proof cup
  • Place the filter inside the brewing chamber on top of the leveled coffee. If it is a gravity filter, you’re all set.
    If it’s a screw-type filter, you will have to twist the screw clockwise to tighten it. Make it snug, but not too tight or the water will not filter through. Screw it in until it has some resistance, then back it off a little.
  • Pour a small amount of water, 1-2 ounces
  • Wait 20 seconds for the water to filter into the coffee grounds
  • Fill the brewing chamber with hot water
  • Place the cap on the phin and wait 3-5 minutes. It should take about 4 minutes (3-4 drops/second) if the filter isn’t too tight. With a glass cup, you can see when it’s done
  • When done, take off the filter’s lid and place it upside down on the table. Now you’ve got a little dish for the phin itself! No muss, no fuss.

Notes

As you may notice, it drips very slowly. This makes the coffee stronger but can end up with a lukewarm cup of joe when using a larger phin. Not a huge issue - when making larger volumes, place the cup in a bowl and surround it with hot water to keep it hot.
Keyword Coffee, condensed milk

How to make it without the Vietnamese Filter

Vietnamese Coffee - Sans Filter

Phil Shea
Same as a normal Vietnamese coffee, but with an alternate way of making the coffee
Prep Time 2 mins
Cook Time 3 mins
Total Time 5 mins
Course Drinks
Cuisine Vietnamese
Servings 1
Calories 135 kcal

Ingredients
  

  • 3/4 cup Espresso Freshly Brewed

Instructions
 

  • Spoon the condensed milk into a glass
  • Layer the coffee by pouring it onto a spoon just above the milk.

Notes

City Foodsters on Flickr (Size Modified)
https://www.flickr.com/photos/cityfoodsters/16338011772/in/photostream/

If you don’t happen to have an espresso machine, the inverted method with an Aeropress will help make a stronger cup, as will using a french press or Moka pot. Drip coffee could do in a pinch, but it doesn’t tend to be as strong as methods that let it brew for longer or under pressure.
Keyword Coffee, condensed milk

How to Enjoy Standard Vietnamese Coffee

There are two approaches: stirring the ingredients together so that they thoroughly blend, or letting them stay separate. I’m not the kind of person who likes leaving the fruit at the bottom of the yogurt cup, so I recommend a good, quick stir.

However, if you prefer to contrast of flavors and saving the best for last, leaving it un-stirred is also a perfectly acceptable option.

How to make Cold Vietnamese Coffee

Simple: follow one of the above two methods, thoroughly stir the drink to dissolve the sugars, then add ice cubes or pour it into a second glass that is full of crushed ice.

I recommend that order because otherwise your sugar and condensed milk will not dissolve properly.

Skipping the sugar? Then you can add ice at literally any point in the production. Knock yourself out.

Alternatives to Vietnamese coffee blends in America

If you can’t find pure robusta beans in America, there is an option that was made by Vietnamese immigrants back in the mid-’70s. In New Orleans, they made a blend of coffee and chicory, which is a kind of bitter root from the dandelion family, giving the coffee a strong flavor with chocolate notes that resembles the intense, bitter coffee that is normally served in Vietnam. You can find it on Amazon here (non-affiliate link).

Brief History – Why do they use Condensed Milk?

Back in 1887, the French colonized Vietnam. But, apparently they had arrived some time before that since coffee had apparently been introduced by a French Catholic priest in 1875 – 12 years earlier – when he planted a single cafea arabica tree.

That’s right, a French priest found that coffee could be grown in Vietnam! Was the subsequent colonization connected with this revelation? Probably not, but coffee has been known to drive some people to obsession – just look at this site!

In the 1940s, the Vietnamese grew tired of being under French rule and held a communist-led rebellion to fight off both the French occupiers and the growing Japanese influence – with assistance from America. It was WWII after all.

As a result, there was a dairy shortage, causing people to use condensed milk, eggs, and even yogurt in their coffee instead of “fresh” milk, as it’s called in modern day Vietnam.

The country didn’t become a major exporter until after the Đổi Mới (Doy-Moy) economic reforms in 1986. I guess it took a while to realize there was lots of money to be made in that bitter bean.

Since then, Vietnam has become the second largest producer of coffee in the world – most of which is 97% robusta coffee! As such, they’re actually the largest producer of robusta in the world.

However, you generally won’t find bags of Vietnamese coffee in North America because robusta isn’t very appealing to the Western palate because it’s far stronger and more bitter than arabica tends to be – and roughly double the caffeine. As such, it’s often mixed in with arabica blends or used to make instant coffee.

Why and how they made the jump from arabica to robusta probably has to do with the fact that robusta is more, well, robust. It is a hardier plant and can endure more hardships, likely making it more appealing to the farmers.

But in recent years, rumor has it that they want to transition over to the higher-price fetching arabica. Time will tell!

How do you say Coffee in Vietnamese?

You’ll be happy to know coffee is pretty near universal, so it’s “kah-fey”.

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