Everything You Need to Know about Vietnamese Coffee

Vietnamese Coffee
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Traditional Vietnamese coffee has taken the world by storm. If you’re a fan of this coffee like me, I’m guessing that you did not have to go to a coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh to discover this rich coffee.

In my case, I discovered hot Vietnamese coffee, or what they call cà phê sữa nóng, in a local restaurant that served big bowls of pho and tasty fried spring rolls.

Having this sweet and full-bodied coffee for the first time was an experience unto itself.

Here are some answers to the commonly asked questions about Vietnamese coffee. I’ve written everything that you need to know about this unique beverage, including its origins and a recipe, so you can make a cup of your own in your kitchen.

Where does it come from?

Introduced by the French back in the 19th century, coffee is one of Vietnam’s most beloved beverages. Vietnamese coffee comes in many forms, with some variations making use of yogurt, eggs, or fruit.

Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world by volume, next to Brazil. Owing to political and economic reforms after the war, Vietnam’s coffee industry flourished and eventually made its way to specialty coffee shops around the world in the mid-2010s.

From 1986 to 2016, the amount of coffee produced in Vietnam increased from 18,400 tons to 1.76 million tons in 2016.

Many of Vietnam’s coffee plantations are located in Đà Lạt in the province of Lâm Đồng, which is situated in the country’s Central Highlands.

Other provinces in the region, such as Đắk Lắk and Gia Lai, are also among the top producers of coffee in the country. The temperate climate and the hilly landscape in this region make it ideal for growing coffee and cacao.

What does Vietnamese coffee taste like?

In Vietnam, it’s common to brew coffee very slowly. In the morning, coffee is usually prepared hot (cà phê sữa nóng), and in the afternoon, people usually take their coffee with ice (cà phê sữa đá).

If you’re wondering why Vietnamese coffee is so strong, it’s because it’s made using dark roast Robusta beans. Compared to Arabica beans, Robusta tends to have a bolder flavor profile.

The brewing method also plays a part in making the coffee taste too strong: this coffee is brewed using a phin, a small metal filter drip that functions similarly to a French press or a pour-over.

This filter allows the coffee to brew slowly, which makes for a drink that can only be described as a thicker, more caffeinated espresso. Because Vietnamese coffee is commonly prepared with more coffee grounds for a small cup, it makes the coffee taste stronger.

In Vietnam, you’ll likely be served a more intense and more flavorful cup that has a slightly oily mouthfeel. This interesting texture is achieved through the traditional roasting method used by the Vietnamese: they sometimes roast it with rice wine, some salt, or butter.

Various flavors like chocolate, caramel, vanilla, or mocha can also be added to the roast. Some add sugar to their roast, so it gives off notes of caramel. In some cases, they even use whiskey!

Another reason why coffee in Vietnam feels thicker is that they commonly use around 3-4 oz water. The sweetness of the condensed milk doesn’t fully mask the bitter taste of the coffee, so cà phê sữa nóng there usually has a denser feel and a bolder flavor.

Caffeine Content

As for the caffeine content, Vietnamese coffee is more caffeinated compared to coffee made using Arabica beans. A 6 fl oz or 177 mL cup of Robusta coffee contains around 200 mg caffeine, which is almost double what you’ll find in the same amount of Arabica coffee.

Calorie Content

The amount of calories in your cup of Vietnamese coffee depends on how much condensed milk or sweeteners you use. A cup of coffee (around 235 mL) with about 2 tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk will contain about 130 to 187 calories.

So even if you’re obsessed with Vietnamese coffee like I am, you might want to reconsider drinking it every morning. Like caffe breve, it’s not the most healthful of beverages, and its high caffeine content might be too much for some folks.

What sets it apart from other coffee drinks?

What sets a cup of Vietnamese coffee apart from other milky coffee beverages? Why, it’s the condensed milk! This drink is traditionally prepared with sweetened condensed milk, which complements the strong taste of the Robusta coffee grounds.

If you’re not a fan of sweet coffee, you can always take the sweetness down a notch by adding just one tablespoon of condensed milk. This way, you’ll be able to enjoy the flavor of the coffee, without the overpowering sweetness of the condensed milk.

The tradition of using condensed milk in coffee dates back to the time when Vietnam was still a French colony. Back then, fresh milk was hard to come by, as the country’s dairy industry was still in its infancy.

As an alternative, the French imported milk from other places. To prolong the fresh milk’s shelf life, they preserved it by turning it into condensed milk. They prepared condensed milk by sterilizing evaporated milk and heating it at reduced pressure, which makes for a thick, concentrated, syrupy concoction.

How to Make Vietnamese Coffee

Preparing your own cà phê is very easy. Aside from the phin (Vietnamese coffee press), here are what you need to prepare:

  • 3 tbsp (about 22 g) Vietnamese ground coffee (French roast medium coarse)
  • 1 to 3 tbsp sweetened condensed milk
  • 6-8 oz water (200 °F or around 93 °C)

Before you start, I suggest that you rinse your phin filter and the brewing chamber (the small metal cup) with boiling water. Aside from pre-heating and cleaning the filter, this step will also make the coffee grounds bloom better.

To prepare a fresh cup, follow these steps:

  1. Pour the condensed milk in your cup. You can try using 1 tablespoon to start and then just add more later, depending on the sweetness level that you prefer.
  2. Put the lower filter over the rim of your cup, then put the brewing chamber on top of the plate.
  3. Add 3 tablespoons of your Vietnamese coffee grounds into the filter. Lightly shake the cup so the grounds will be distributed evenly.

    (Take care not to shake it too hard, or the coffee grounds will fall into the holes of the filter, which might plug the holes and the coffee will take longer to drip.)
  4. Gently place the filter press; you don’t have to press it all the way down to the coffee grounds. When the coffee grounds is packed too tight, the water might not flow through the grounds. 
  5. Pour a small amount of hot or boiling water (around 2 oz) into the filter and wait for five seconds for the coffee to “bloom.” At this stage of the brewing process, the coffee grounds expand as it releases carbon dioxide after coming into contact with the hot water.
  6. Press down the filter gently and finish adding 4 to 6 oz of water, depending on how diluted you want your coffee to be.
  7. After five minutes, your drip coffee is ready! Remove the lid and stir the coffee mixture with a spoon. Enjoy!

Remember, coffee is all about your personal preference, so make sure to adjust the taste to your liking. If you want to have a lighter coffee, you can try doing a second pour of hot water.

You can also pour the coffee over ice for a refreshing drink. Just remember that adding ice to your drink will make the coffee more watery, so consume it immediately.

If you’re not too fond of milk, you can use granulated sugar, maple syrup, or honey to sweeten your coffee. However, the texture and consistency of your coffee will obviously not be the same.

Where can I buy a phin?

You can purchase a phin from most Asian grocery stores or on Amazon. It comes in different sizes, depending on how much coffee you’ll be brewing. For a single or double serve, an 8 oz phin will be enough.

I highly recommend getting one, if you don’t have it yet. It’s easy to use, eco-friendly, and very versatile. You can use it at home, or you can take it with you when you’re out traveling, backpacking, or camping.

If you don’t have one at home, here are some alternative ways you can brew a cup of cà phê sữa nóng.

French Press

The easiest way to make Vietnamese coffee is by using a French press. Make sure to use a medium-coarse grind. I prefer using 2 tablespoons for an 8 oz cup, but if you want something stronger, you can adjust the coffee to water ratio.

By the way, I found a tip on Reddit that said you should put the coffee grounds on top of the filter. When I tried that, I found that the coffee grounds were too large for the mesh filter, so it was practically impossible to get a good coffee drip. So don’t try it!

Stove-Top Coffee Pots

Another way to enjoy a cup of Vietnamese coffee is by using a stove-top coffee pot or an espresso machine. Prepare your espresso as usual, and just add the hot espresso to a glass or mug lined with sweetened condensed milk.

K-Cups

Some brands carry K-cups for Keurig machines. You can try Saigon Rocks Vietnamese Iced Coffee or any dark roast K-cup added to a dollop of condensed milk.

Why doesn’t my coffee taste like the one I tried in Vietnam?

In case you’re wondering why your brew is not as thick as the one you’ve had in Vietnam, the answer lies in the type of coffee. To tell the truth, using coffee alone won’t give you that thick, syrupy consistency. Street coffee in Vietnam usually contains additives such as corn, soy, or even butter.

To recreate that fatty texture, you can try adding more sweetened condensed milk or other ingredients such as coconut oil or coconut milk to your cup. What you’ll get is something similar to the Bulletproof coffee.

Other variations of Vietnamese coffee

In Northern Vietnam, cà phê trứng (Vietnamese egg coffee) is a commonly served coffee beverage. Invented by Nguyen Giang, the egg coffee a smooth and creamy beverage with egg custard on top.

The Vietnamese have been lining their coffee cups with condensed milk for a long time now. But during the French War, milk was scarce, so Nguyen substituted egg for milk in his coffee.

The egg coffee wasn’t popular at first: whipping the egg by hand took a long time, and the drink was just too eggy. In the 1980s, the arrival of electric blenders and the rising popularity of coffee in Vietnam led to innovations in the coffee industry. At the same time, the egg coffee gained popularity across the country.

If you’re visiting Vietnam soon, or if you’re just looking for something to liven up your mornings, you can also try these:

  • cà phê cốt dừa – Vietnamese coffee served with coconut milk;
  • cà phê sữa chua – Vietnamese coffee with ice and yogurt; and
  • bac xiu a light, sweet version of the drink made with more than the usual amount of condensed milk

Don’t have condensed milk?

Want to try making your own version of the store-bought condensed milk? Try this recipe to make your own condensed milk at home:

  1. Mix 1 ½ cups of white sugar and about 6 fl oz of evaporated milk in a sauce pan.
  2. Bring it to a boil and stir it constantly.
  3. Allow the mixture to cool down before you use it.

For a dairy-free alternative, just replace coconut milk with 14 oz of coconut milk. I recommend mixing it with simple syrup (which is made by heating a combination of water and 6 to 8 tablespoons of sugar).