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What is Vietnamese Coffee? How To Create Bitter Sweet Bliss

Vietnamese coffee, what is Vietnamese coffee

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Vietnamese coffee, or cà phê sữa đá, is an integral part of the country’s fascinating coffee culture. But exactly what is Vietnamese coffee? Here we’ll explore the beans, brewing methods, and unique flavors this Southeast Asian nation offers.

Using dark roasted Robusta beans, this traditional brewing process using a special “phin” filter produces a distinctively bitter and sweet taste, usually enjoyed with condensed milk and ice. Join us as we delve deeper into the flavors and techniques that make Vietnamese coffee uniquely delicious.

Let’s get brewing.

What is Vietnamese Coffee?

Unique Characteristics

Compared to Arabica beans, Vietnamese coffee is made with Robusta beans grown in Vietnam, known for their bold, intense flavor profile and higher caffeine content. The beans are typically dark roasted, giving the coffee a rich, robust taste with hints of dark chocolate and cacao. It’s often served in small quantities of 2-2.5 oz./60-75 ml, mixed with sweetened condensed milk and ice, resulting in a slightly thick, rich, and bitter-sweet beverage.

Vietnamese coffee farm along river

Cultivation and Harvesting

Vietnam is a significant player in the global coffee industry, accounting for almost 20% of all coffee exports worldwide and second only to Brazil. However, about 95% of Vietnam’s coffee production is Robusta, vs. other major contributors that export Arabica (Vietnam ranks 13th in global Arabica production). Vietnam is responsible for more than half of the global Robusta coffee supply.

The Robusta beans thrive in the country thanks to Vietnam’s unique climatic conditions, particularly in the Central Highlands region. Much like Ethiopian coffee, most of Vietnam’s coffee production (95%) comprises privately run farms; 63% are small, family farms with less than one hectare.

The Robusta bean is far more resilient than Arabica. While it’s not entirely resistant to the effects of climate change, it has evolved to withstand temperature fluctuations far better than Arabica. Top Arabica-producing countries (like Brazil, Columbia, and Honduras) have been hit hard in recent years by hurricanes and fluctuations in rainfall and temperatures. There is an ever-increasing need for more resilient coffee plants grown organically with sustainable farming practices.

Vietnamese robusta coffee cherries

Robusta beans have always been considered “less than” by coffee connoisseurs due to their sometimes harsh, bitter flavors. They are also used to produce instant coffee, which has never had a reputation for its sophisticated flavor profile. But Vietnamese farmers are flipping the script on Robusta beans and have been experimenting for years with various species of Robusta, processing methods, and fermentation techniques to highlight different flavors in the beans.

While organic coffee farms have been virtually non-existent in Vietnam, as most American coffee snobs wouldn’t pay a 47% markup for organic Robusta beans, an increase in demand for resilient Robusta beans may create an opportunity to increase organic production in Vietnam. Because Robusta beans are less expensive to grow, and the world view of Robusta is starting to shift, this could potentially create a massive opportunity for Vietnam to claim a significant space in the global organic coffee market with affordable premium organic coffee.

Roasting and Grinding

Vietnamese Robusta beans are usually roasted to a dark roast, contributing to their bold and intense flavor profile. The beans should be ground to a medium-coarse grind size for optimal extraction using a Vietnamese coffee filter (“phin”). The unique combination of dark-roasted Robusta beans and specific brewing methods set Vietnamese coffee apart from other coffee styles, making it a must-try experience for coffee enthusiasts.

Lucky for us, it is super easy to brew Vietnamese coffee at home.

Brewing Techniques

Brewing Vietnamese coffee with Phin filter

The Phin Filter Brewing

To make traditional Vietnamese coffee, use a phin filter. This brewing device is usually made of stainless steel and has four distinct parts: the brewing chamber, the base plate, the strainer, and the lid.

Here’s how to make Vietnamese coffee using the Phin filter:

  • For a single serving, grind 2-3 tablespoons (10-20 grams) of robusta beans to a medium-coarse grind. The total amount of coffee used depends on how many servings you’re brewing.
  • Place the ground coffee in the brewing chamber over a cup.
  • Spread the coffee grounds evenly and press the strainer down gently to compact them. This will help maintain a slow and steady flow of water through the phin.
  • Next, pour enough hot water into the brewing chamber to cover the grounds. We recommend using water around 195-205°F (90-96°C). If your kettle lacks a thermometer, wait 20 seconds after the boil.
  • Wait about 30 seconds to let the ground coffee bloom. This allows the coffee grounds to expand and release carbon dioxide, which can interfere with the water’s interaction with the beans.
  • After the bloom, continue filling the chamber with hot water. Make sure to pour slowly, as this will give the coffee ample time to extract its flavors and create a robust and flavorful brew.
  • Place the lid on top once the chamber is full to keep the heat in. The coffee should begin dripping into the cup.
  • Once the coffee is ready, add sweetened condensed milk to your liking. Consume with or without ice.
Technivorm Moccamaster coffee maker

The Drip Coffee Method

You don’t need any specific equipment to make Vietnamese coffee at home. If you don’t want to add yet another piece of specialized equipment to your coffee brewing arsenal, we get it.

Another approach is to use a drip coffee maker instead of a phin. This method also requires coarsely ground coffee for proper extraction. As with the phin filter brewing method, use 2-3 tablespoons of coffee grounds per serving, depending on your taste preferences.

  • Start by filling the coffee maker’s water reservoir with filtered water. Remember to set your coffee maker to a brewing temperature between 195-205°F (90-96°C).
  • Grind your coffee to a medium-coarse grind and place the coffee grounds in the filter basket, ensuring they are evenly distributed.
  • Turn on the drip coffee maker and let the brewing process begin. The hot water will flow through the coffee grounds, extracting their flavors.
  • Once the brewing process is complete, you can stir in sweetened condensed milk or serve it black, depending on your preference.

Experiment with these techniques and adjust the variables, such as grind size, amount of ground coffee, and water temperature, to find the perfect brew for your taste buds. And don’t forget to store your coffee beans properly to ensure a fresh and flavorful coffee every time.

Airscape coffee storage canister in turquoise
Airscape Stainless Steel Coffee Canister

Traditional Vietnamese Iced Coffee

The traditional Vietnamese iced coffee, also known as cà phê sữa đá, is a staple beverage in Vietnam. As we discussed, the traditional brewing method involves brewing a strong, dark-roast Vietnamese Robusta coffee using a Phin filter, adding sweetened condensed milk, and then pouring the warm mixture over a glass filled with ice cubes.

We prefer a less traditional take on the iced Vietnamese coffee. Pouring hot coffee over ice results in significant melting and dilution, which affects the flavor of the brew. Instead, try flash-brewing the Vietnamese robusta beans, then add sweetened condensed milk and ice. By flash-brewing the coffee, it will already be cool before the ice is added, thus reducing dilution.

The result is a delightful combination of bitterness and sweetness, making it an absolute treat to enjoy on a hot day.

Vietnamese egg coffees

Egg Coffee

Egg Coffee, or ca phe trung, is a unique and creamy variation of Vietnamese coffee. Instead of sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks, sugar, and hot water are whisked until the mixture is frothy. Then, brewed coffee is poured over the egg mixture. The result is a rich, velvety coffee with a thick and sweet egg foam on top. Not really our cup of tea, but if a custardy coffee is your thing, you’ll dig this.

Coconut Coffee

Coconut Coffee, also known as ca phe cot dua, is a personal favorite of ours. It’s an intoxicating blend of bold Vietnamese coffee with super creamy coconut cream (or milk), and it tastes like vacation.

We combine flash-brewed Vietnamese robusta coffee with coconut milk or cream (depending on how decadent we want it to be) and ice for this delightful variation. The fusion creates a smooth and tropical nuance, perfect for those who enjoy starting the day with laid-back island vibes. Yes, please.

365 sweetened condensed milk

Avocado Coffee

Yep, you read that right. Avocado Coffee is a thing. It’s an unexpected yet popular choice among Southeast Asian residents, particularly Indonesians. It’s also a smart option to boost the nutritional value of your coffee and turn an ordinary iced coffee into a meal.

Toss a ripe avocado, condensed milk, brewed coffee, and ice in a blender to make this unique concoction. It’s a creamy and smooth coffee smoothie packed with healthy fats and richness from the avocado. Give it a try; you might be pleasantly surprised by this guy.

coffee shop in Saigon Vietnam

Coffee Culture in Vietnam

The Cafe Culture

Like many countries, Vietnam has thousands of coffee shops scattered throughout the country, from bustling cities like Hanoi and Saigon to smaller towns and rural areas. These shops play an integral role in daily Vietnamese life.

These cafes are not only places to enjoy a cup of coffee but also to socialize, work, and take a break from the hectic pace of daily life. The cafe culture in Vietnam is casual and relaxed, with people often spending hours sitting, sipping their drinks, and chatting with friends.

Hanoi and Saigon, in particular, are known for their vibrant cafe scenes, each with unique character and style. You’ll likely stumble upon a retro-themed cafe in Saigon or a minimalist coffee shop in Hanoi. Each city’s cafe culture reflects its history and modern vibe.

Ascaso steel duo pid v2 in black
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Influence of French Colonization

The origins of Vietnamese coffee culture can be traced back to the 19th century when the French colonization introduced coffee to Vietnam. The French influence can still be seen in various aspects of Vietnamese coffee, from sweetened condensed milk to the use of robusta beans initially brought to the country by the French colonizers.

A prime example of the lasting French influence on Vietnamese coffee culture is the ubiquitous presence of café du monde-style coffee shops. These cafes serve robust, bold coffee alongside warm, flaky pastries reminiscent of French patisseries. Many locals enjoy spending their mornings in these cafes, sipping their cà phê sữa đá while nibbling on a croissant or pain au chocolat.

Prominent Coffee Brands in Vietnam

Trung Nguyen Coffee

Trung Nguyen Coffee

Trung Nguyen is a well-established and widely recognized coffee brand in Vietnam. Their coffee is known for its rich flavor profile and high-quality beans sourced from the Central Highlands region of the country.

You’ll find their coffees in many Asian markets nationwide, on Amazon (pre-ground only), and as of September 21st, in their first-ever US cafe in Westminster, CA. Trung Nguyen’s coffee supports local farmers and promotes sustainable practices. If you’re lucky enough to live in the Westminster area, go and snag an iced coffee for us.

Nguyen Coffee Supply Hanoi robusta beans

Nguyen Coffee Supply

Another noteworthy leader in the Vietnamese coffee market is Nguyen Coffee Supply. This company prides itself on being the first specialty Vietnamese coffee company to import and roast 100% Vietnamese beans in the United States. With a mission to bring the true essence of Vietnamese coffee culture to the global stage, they source their beans from family-owned farms in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

We’re fans of their Hanoi coffee beans (100% robusta) and can attest to their ultra-bold taste and distinctive aroma. We love these beans on espresso or, of course, as iced Vietnamese coffee. We appreciate the company’s commitment to sustainability, ethical sourcing, and forging direct relationships with farmers.

Both Trung Nguyen Coffee and Nguyen Coffee Supply are outstanding brands that provide delicious options for anyone interested in exploring the world of Vietnamese coffee. Each brand offers distinct flavors and styles, allowing you to choose the perfect coffee based on your taste preferences while supporting ethical and environmentally-conscious businesses.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does Vietnamese coffee differ from other types?

Vietnamese coffee is made with dark roasted Robusta beans and brewed using a unique tool called a Phin, or Vietnamese coffee filter. While most types of coffee use Arabica beans, Vietnam primarily produces Robusta coffee beans, which have a more bitter taste.

Additionally, the preparation method creates a distinctive brewing process, resulting in a unique coffee experience. Vietnamese coffee is often served in smaller quantities, around 2-2.5 oz./60-75 ml, and can be enjoyed black with sugar, mixed with condensed milk, or served over ice.

Is Vietnamese coffee stronger than others?

Yes, Vietnamese coffee is generally considered more robust than other types of coffee, mainly due to its use of Robusta beans. These beans contain approximately twice the caffeine content of Arabica beans, leading to an intense and bold flavor. Furthermore, the brewing process using a Phin filter produces a more concentrated and intense cup of coffee.

Bella 14755 12 cup coffee maker

How can you make Vietnamese coffee without a filter?

While using a Phin filter is the traditional method for making Vietnamese coffee, it’s still possible to prepare a similar beverage without one. You can use a French press, a Nespresso machine with a compatible dark roast, or a drip coffee maker with a paper filter. The essential elements include Robusta beans, hot water, sweetened condensed milk, and ice if you prefer it cold. Remember that the taste might be different due to using an alternative brewing method.

What’s the role of condensed milk in Vietnamese coffee?

Condensed milk plays a significant role in Vietnamese coffee, as it adds sweetness and creaminess to balance out the intense, bold flavors of dark roasted Robusta beans. Sweetened condensed milk can be traced back to the French colonial era since fresh milk was not widely available then. Today, it remains a popular choice for Vietnamese coffee drinkers who appreciate the rich, velvety texture it brings to the beverage.


Heather Calatrello

Heather Calatrello owner of ShedLight Coffee Roasters