What Is Vietnamese Coffee?
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? How is it distinct from that of other cultures? And why has it risen to such global prominence?
Brewing Method: The Phin Coffee Brewer
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 here.
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.
Robusta Beans Put To Good Use
A second unique aspect of Vietnamese coffee 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”.
Vietnam, however, is a hotbed of Robusta growth. 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.
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 Vietnamese coffee to global recognition.
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.
Vietnamese Iced Coffee
Iced coffee is extremely popular in Vietnam, as you might imagine in a place where temperatures regularly soar north of 95 F. This icy treat is prepared by thoroughly blending brewed coffee with sweetened condensed milk and pouring the mixture over a glass of ice.
In a traditional Vietnamese coffee house, you’ll be served a glass of still-brewing coffee coupled with a tall glass of cracked ice. It will be your responsibility, and pleasure, to combine the two along with the appropriate serving of creamy condensed milk.
Vietnamese Egg Coffee
The Vietnamese have come up with a number of creative and delicious ways to put their Robusta crops to good use. A popular alternative to plain sweetened condensed milk, is Vietnamese egg coffee also known as ca phe trung.
In this case, the strong brewed black coffee is topped with a creamy mixture created by whipping condensed milk and egg. As strange as it sounds, this rich concoction is rampantly popular and a must-try.
Vietnamese Coffee Makes The Best Of A Bitter Bean
What is Vietnamese coffee? It’s a simple blend of inexpensive Robusta beans, hot water and sweetened condensed milk. It’s a delicious way to kick off your day, with its slow pace and unique flavor able to transport you straight to the tropics. Consider picking up your own phin and trying out Vietnamese ca phe for yourself.
Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.