Introduction of Coffee in Vietnam:
Coffee came to Vietnam in 1857, when it was under the rule of the French colonial government. Even though local production picked up pace fairly rapidly, it was essentially for local use. It wasn’t until after the Vietnam War, when economically the country was a complete disaster that the Communist Party reverted to private ownership of coffee plantations and production really picked up. Coffee production picked up by twenty to thirty per cent each progressive year in the 90s. Currently Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world, second only to Brazil.
Even though the Arabica coffee beans are more valued in the international market, the Vietnamese coffee bean of choice is Robusta. In the international market, the Robusta is more commonly used in preparations of instant coffees and blended roasts produced for the mass market.
The Robusta coffee plant is easier to cultivate, better at resisting insects and disease and produces greater yields. The Robusta beans contain roughly twice as much caffeine, 2.7% compared to the 1.5% in Arabica, as well as sixty per cent less fats and sugar, giving it a taste that is much sharper, almost bitter. Contrary to the flavour of Arabica, which is more mellow, the taste of coffee made from Robusta beans is more typically compared to burnt tires that leave a heavy lingering feel in the mouth with greater acidity. For the Vietnamese, this is the only coffee worth drinking.
Dark Roasts for Vietnamese Coffee
There are two basic philosophies that differentiate coffee – single origin and multi origin. The craving for single origin and 100% Arabica coffees with their milder flavours are more commonly seen in the Americas. However, the limited sourcing narrows the field of flavour ranges. The multi origin coffees are more preferred in Southeast Asia; where the blending of different species and varieties offers a broader range of flavours, mouth feel and aromas. This is the basis for Vietnamese coffee.
Another important factor that plays a key role in the characteristic flavour of the Vietnamese coffee has to do with the roasting process. The age old Vietnamese roasting practices where the beans are exposed to low temperatures for long durations produce a bean with a dark colour that is evenly distributed throughout, without any burning. This is nothing like the French roast produced under high temperatures. The burning incurred during production of French roasts using high temperatures degenerates the sugars and oils in the beans. This leads to rapid fermentation and oxidation when coffee interacts with air. Such ills are unheard of in the Southeast Asian dark roasts.
The traditional “home grown” coffees in Vietnam were given a final caramelized finish by roasting the beans in oil, sugar and a hint of cocoa or vanilla. The coating helped give the beans an even dark colouration, as well as produce a thin shell around the bean. This was done because the Robusta beans tend to ripen very slowly and when crops were picked, they contained a mixture of berries in different stages of ripening. While the taste of a small portion of unripe berries in a lot of ripe does not impact the blend to any significant degree, the colours do vary. The caramelizing process allowed the lot to be of same colour.
Vietnamese Coffee Filters/Phin:
The blend of Vietnamese coffee beans, coupled with processing and its brewing technique give it the characteristic taste. The phin (originating from the French “filtre” meaning filter) is a very basic pot/filter combination used for making Vietnamese coffee Cà phê sua dá (or Cafe sua da). The phin is a small sized pot intended to be used for single servings. It is also fairly cheap so several can be purchased online or at Asian stores to make multiple servings at once. It requires no special set-up or additional accessories. Cleaning these gadgets is super easy, simply soap and rinse. Like an espresso these traditional filters are designed to deliver roughly one ounce of concentrated infusion that is intended to be sipped at a leisurely pace.
The base of the pot houses the filter with holes onto which the grounds are added while a thin plunger-like lid is used to compress the grounds. Since the punctures are fair sized, coarse grounds are used so sediment does not end up in the cup. The pot is then filled with hot water and as brewing proceeds, the water extracts the flavours from the beans and trickles into the cup below. The resulting brew is dark and very strong. To balance the flavour the French started the practice of adding condensed milk, partially due to the difficulty in acquiring fresh milk at the time and partially due to storing convenience it offered in the tropical climate.
Brewing Vietnamese Coffee – Step By Step Instructions
Vietnamese coffee can be enjoyed hot or cold. However, considering the long time it takes to brew (four to five minutes) the hot drink only comes out warm – ish at best! Since it is generally hot in Vietnam, it is traditionally enjoyed over ice.
- 2 tbsp Vietnamese coffee grounds
- ½ cup boiling water
- 1 tablespoon sweetened condense milk (may use more depending on taste. Also do not substitute evaporated milk, it does not taste the same!)
- ½ cup crushed ice
- Place the desired amount of milk into a glass or cup.
- Add the coarsely ground Vietnamese coffee to the base of the phin and wet with a couple of teaspoons of water to moisten the grounds.
- Screw the press on to the phin, ensuring that the grounds are tightly packed.
- Pour the remaining boiling water on top of the press.
- Now just wait in anticipation or just go and grab the crushed ice.
- As soon as the all the water has filtered through, stir the contents to mix the milk and brewed coffee. Add the crushed ice, mix and enjoy.