A Primer to Vietnamese Coffee

What makes Vietnamese coffee different and tips for a better brew

Coffee was deeply ingrained in the Vietnamese culture after its introduction to the country by French missionaries in 1857. “To get coffee” in Vietnam is “to talk” or “to discuss”. Once an expensive product only available to the rich, it has become an affordable drink often found on sidewalks where people of all classes gather to catch up and chat about everything under the sun. Sipping coffee while watching the busy street activity unfold is a fascinating experience for international visitors and locals alike. 

What makes Vietnamese coffee different?

Vietnamese coffee is marked by its strong and bitter taste that immediately hits the drinker. That’s because it’s made from a type of bean called Robusta, which accounts for 97% of the country’s production output. Robusta’s tasting note is typically stronger and nuttier than Arabica, which is the main variety at many global chains, such as Starbucks. It contains twice the amount of caffeine than Arabica, but less sugar and fat. The distinct flavour can also be attributed to how the coffee is roasted with the addition of butter and chicory.

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In its iconic image over the world, Vietnamese coffee is enjoyed with a layer of condensed milk, a dairy product brought over by the French (as Vietnamese did not have a habit of consuming milk). That yields an even more concentrated flavour, which remains rich even when diluted by ice.

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Photo by Simon Law via Flickr

Vietnamese brewing method

Back when coffee was still a privilege for the rich, a cruder type was available for the middle class. This was not finely filtered and thus brewed in a cotton bag, which gave rise to the name “sock coffee”, as explained in Rice and Baguette – A History of Food in Vietnam by Vũ Hồng Liên.

Subsequently, coffee is made in a filter (phin), which consists of a chamber, filter press, cup spanner, and lid. In this set-up, the coffee slowly drips into a cup below, allowing drinkers to leisurely read a newspaper or talk to their friends, while waiting for their beverage to brew.

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Photo by Andrea Nguyen via Flickr

Each component of the filter kit has a function indispensable to the taste and aroma of the drink. The brewing chamber is where the coffee rests as its flavour is being extracted by the press. The lid is to retain the temperature and prevent the aroma from escaping. Sometimes, to maintain the heat, vendors keep the coffee cup in a small bowl of hot water. If it’s a cold drink, ice will be served on the side.

Notes when brewing Vietnamese coffee

Vietnamese coffee is easy to prepare and highly adjustable, depending on the drinker’s personal preference. Here are a few tips to keep in mind if you want to achieve a perfect brew:

  • For the best flavour, use boiling water that has cooled down a little. The best temperature is about 90 degrees Celsius.
  • Soak the serving cup in hot water before using if you want to enjoy hot coffee. That’ll help retain the temperature of the drink.
  • Add the condensed milk to the cup first so it can dissolve gradually in the hot coffee.
  • Tap the chamber lightly to distribute the coffee grounds evenly inside. Do not shake, as it may cause some to drop to the bottom of the cup, resulting in a grainy drink.
  • Cover the coffee grounds with the press, but avoid too much pressure, which could clog the filter.
  • Add a little bit of the water into the chamber first, allowing the coffee to bloom for around 20 seconds before pouring the remaining hot water.

Other ways to enjoy Vietnamese coffee

In addition to the most popular plain black coffee (cà phê đen) or with condensed milk (cà phê sữa), both of which can be enjoyed with ice, there are two other notable variations.

Egg coffee (Cà phê trứng)

In 1946, Nguyễn Văn Giảng was working as a bartender at Metropole Hotel when he started using eggs in coffee in response to a shortage of dairy products. The result was a creamy egg custard that complemented the flavour of bitter coffee, which was well received by both Vietnamese and foreigners at the time.

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Because of its popularity, egg coffee is now found all over Vietnam, but it is said that the best version is still from Giảng cafe, a family-run business owned by Nguyễn Văn Đạo, Nguyễn’s son. The recipe consists condensed milk, egg yolks, butter, and other components combined at a secret ratio.

Salted coffee (Cà phê muối)

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Photo kinhdoanhcaphe.com

Elsewhere, people from Huế prefer to have salt in their coffee, which enhances its flavour and temper its bitterness. The salt is added into the coffee grounds before brewing. This drink has a relatively short and obscure history; it is believed to originate in a cafe on Nguyễn Lương Bằng Street about ten years ago.

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