Vietnamese Coffee: What Is It And How To Make It
Vietnam is a coffee-fueled nation with locals and visitors alike starting each day with a satisfying cup of ca phe.
Though the tradition was imported by French colonists as early as the 18th century, the Vietnamese have refined it into a uniquely Southeast Asian experience.
So, what is Vietnamese coffee and how to you make it?
A Quick History of Vietnamese Coffee
Coffee in Vietnam began in the 18th century when both French and Dutch colonial settlers brought the coffee phenomenon (and coffee plants themselves) along with them, starting large plantations in the process.
Not only did they bring coffee, but the French also brought another element that was critical to the development of Vietnamese coffee: Sweetened condensed milk.
The French colonists brought this ingredient along with them because they had trouble getting a steady supply of fresh milk in Vietnam, which was not a milk-dependent culture.
It wasn’t long before it was discovered that the uniquely mountainous areas of the country, along with the multiple micro-climates that they created, were ideal for growing a variety of different coffee plants. From there, the entire industry was off to the races.
However, while the French, in particular, were key players in establishing the coffee culture, the coffee industry didn’t leave when the colonial power did. Instead, the Vietnamese took things into their own hands.
Over time, the Vietnamese have taken these “coffee roots” and have expanded so successfully that, at this point, they have become one of the top coffee-producing nations in the world.
3 Unique Elements Of 'Ca Phe Sua Da'
1 - 'The Phin' (Vietnamese Coffee Maker)
The first distinguishing feature of a cup of Vietnamese brew is the brewing apparatus known as the phin. The phin is a decidedly low-tech and inexpensive device that is placed atop your mug and acts like a combination of a drip filter and a French press.
Coffee beans, ground medium-coarse, are added to the phin and weighted down with a thin lid. Hot water is then added and allowed to trickle through the beans and into the waiting mug. An easy-to-follow video tutorial can be found below.
The process is not fast, and yields only a single cup at a time, but in many ways, this is part of the appeal. The brewing of Vietnamese coffee is a cathartic exercise with the slow pace stemming from the laid-back nature of its hot weather origins.
Need a phin? you can pick one up easily on Amazon:
2 - ROBUSTA Beans
A second unique aspect of authentic Vietnamese joe is the use of Robusta beans.
As any coffee aficionado can tell you, there are two species of coffee that make their way to grocery store shelves: Robusta and Arabica.
Though Robusta beans are easier to grow, possess a higher caffeine content, and generate better crema, they are widely ignored by higher-end brands. This is the result of an unfortunate bitter taste many a palate has described as “burnt rubber”.
Indeed, Robusta plants make up 95% of their coffee plantations and they provide half of all Robusta grown in the world. It only makes sense that they would find a secret way to yield a delicious brew from this burnt rubber starting point.
'Robusta Beans' is the answer when people ask "why is Vietnamese coffee so strong?"
3 - Sweetened Condensed Milk
The secret, it turns out, is sweetened condensed milk. This thick, syrupy beverage was developed to allow milk to endure long storage periods in the hot climate without refrigeration and has found widespread popularity and use throughout the region.
While an Arabica brew might taste cloyingly sweet in combination with the saccharine condensed milk, it offers the perfect counter balance to the bitter flavour of the Robusta beans. This is the distinctive combination that has brought coffee from Vietnam into the spot light.
In Northern Vietnam, this mixture is known as ca phe nau (brown coffee), while in Southern Vietnam it’s called ca phe sua (milk coffee). If black coffee is your go-to, you may want to consider expanding your horizons on a trip to Vietnam, or settling for a very bitter morning cup of joe.
How To Make Vietnamese Coffee
Vietnamese Iced Coffee
We’ve all been there, desperately awaiting a cool and creamy iced Vietnamese coffee after slurping down a fiery bowl of exotic, oriental spices. And let's face it, there is nothing like having an authentic Vietnamese style iced coffee!
- 2 tbsp sweetened condensed milk
- 2-3 tbsp ground coffee Trung Nguyen’s Premium Blend coffee grounds or Café du Monde coffee with chicory
- near boiling water
- 2 glasses
Bring your water to a boil, then let it cool to somewhere within the range of 195–205°F
Put two tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk into an empty glass
Pour between 2–3 tablespoons of coarsely ground coffee into your Phin, but don’t put the filter press on yet
Place the Phin on top of the glass with sweetened condensed milk and pour in just a smidgen of hot water to wet the grounds
Tightly screw on the filter press, then fill the Phin nearly up to the brim with hot water, and cover with the little top
Wait for three to five minutes for all the water to drip down through the filter and into the glass
Use a spoon to stir and dissolve the sweetened condensed milk at the bottom of the cup
Fill the second glass with ice and delicately drizzle your coffee concoction over it
Now all you have to do is follow these simple Vietnamese coffee recipe steps:
- A Vietnamese, slow drip coffee infuser (Phin).
- Two glasses, one filled with ice.
- Trung Nguyen’s Premium Blend coffee grounds or Café du Monde coffee with chicory.
- A burr grinder (we are using a hand burr grinder here)
- Sweetened condensed milk.
- A pinch of patience.
- Near-boiling water (between 195-205°F).
#1 - Prepare Your Water
Bring your water to a boil, and then remove it from heat and let it sit for about a minute to a minute and a half.
This will let it cool to somewhere within the range of 195–205°F, which you want because boiling water will burn your grounds.
#2 - Measure Your Milk
While you wait for your water to cool, put two tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk into the empty glass.
The amount is really up to you and your own personal tastes, so if you like your coffee a little sweeter, feel free to add a touch more sweetened condensed milk. However, be careful not to add too much, because this stuff is sweet!
#3 - Prepare Your Phin
Now pour between 2–3 tablespoons of ground coffee into your Phin (again, the amount is totally up to you), but don’t put the filter press on yet.
We are going for coarsely ground coffee here - too fine and it will fall straight through the filter into your glass. Go as coarse as a french press brew (which is; very coarse)
Once you’ve poured in your grounds, place the Phin on top of the glass with sweetened condensed milk and pour in just a smidgen of hot water to wet the grounds.
Wetting the grounds allows the aromas and trapped oils to bloom, leaving you with a more flavorful cup of coffee.
With a traditional Phin, you tighten the press by screwing the top, but some Phins don’t have a screw-on press. If you are using one of these, then just press the filter down tightly and give it a little twist.
#5 - Brew Your Coffee
Next (assuming that your water is at the right temperature) fill the Phin nearly up to the brim with hot water, and cover with the little top.
Now wait for three to five minutes for all the water to drip down through the filter and into the glass. A Phin takes a some time to brew, so be careful not to rush this step.
#6 - Stir Your Coffee
Once the Phin is done dripping, take it off and set it aside (Protip: you can use the Phin’s top as a tray to set it on).
You’re almost done now, so bend over and take one big sniff of your fresh Vietnamese brew. Then use a spoon to stir and dissolve the sweetened condensed milk at the bottom of the cup.
Side note: If you were wanting hot coffee this is where you would stop.
#7 - Pour and Mix
And finally, with the grace of a highly skilled mixologist, delicately drizzle your coffee concoction over each individual cube of ice in the other glass.
Alternatively, you can just unceremoniously dump the coffee into the glass with ice, but I leave that choice up to you.
And there you have it - you just made an Authentic Vietnamese 'Ca Phe Sua da 'Coffee.
Enjoy your tasty, sweet, strong coffee.