Coffee: Vietnamese Style (Cà phê sữa đá)

Drip…drip…drip – watching that black gold descend one precious drop at a time from the filter suspended over the condensed milk and ice is almost more than I can take.  My impatient nature takes hold and I want to confirm that the flavor is as good as I remember… drip…drip and I want to know… NOW.  Sigh, but consuming Vietnamese coffee is an exercise in patience so I wait.  Vietnamese coffee appeals to even those protesting not to be coffee drinkers or have disdain for iced cofee, that combination of rich coffee and condensed milk seems to be sufficient to sway even the loudest “bah humbugs.”

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Vietnamese iced coffee, also known as ca phe sua da or cafe sua da (Vietnamese: cà phê sữa đá, literally “coffee milk ice”) or ca phe nau da (Vietnamese: cà phê nâu đá, “iced brown coffee”) in northern Vietnam.

At its simplest, ca phe sua da is made with finely ground Vietnamese-grown dark roast coffee individually brewed with a small metal Vietnamese drip filter (cà phê phin) into a glass containing about a quarter to a half as much sweetened condensed milk, stirred and poured over ice.

Coffee in Vietnam

As you may have already suspected, coffee came to Vietnam via the French and Dutch settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Vietnamese adopted the beverage and made it their own.  A number of regional variations can also be found. Because fresh milk was not readily available, the French and Vietnamese adopted sweetened condensed milk with a dark roast coffee.

French colonists first introduced coffee growing to Vietnam (the Annam Region – a mountainous plateau extending into several countries) in the late 19th century.  Vietnam quickly became a strong exporter of coffee, and today is a leading producer.  Laos and Cambodia were probably earlier producers, but Vietnam soon lead in coffee production in this region.

Other Reads:

Vietnam and Southeast Asia have a topography that makes for ideal coffee growing.  The mountainous regions traverse the area roughly parallel to the prevailing winds, and the north-facing slopes offer distinctly different climates than the south-facing slopes.  These wide region differences are well suited to grow a multitude of different coffees.  these same sort of discussions could just as easily be applied to grape varitals.  The Vietnamese coffee plantations offer several varieties, including Arabica (with the “indigenous” Sparrow, or Se, Arabica), Robusta, Excelsa (also called Chari), Liberica, and Catimor.

When it pays not to be single

There are two basic approaches to coffee – single origin versus multi-origin blends. In Southeast Asia, with the diversity of beans, a multi-origin, blended coffee approach is preferred. Blending bean species and varieties is inherently superior in achieving a broad flavor range, sophisticated nose, and overall mouthfeel.  In other words, a happier palate.

Contrast this approach with South America’s and other coffee-producing regions that have a single-source philosophy and a penchant for  100% Arabica.  This single minded dedication narrows the flavor range and appeal of modern coffee to only those consumers with palates preferring Arabicas.

Secondly, roasting preferences establish decades ago favor a lower-temperature, longer roasting process. The dark “French” roast probably originated not as a high-temperature roast, but a long, slow roast that results in beans with consistent color through the entire bean, and a dark color (no bubbling or burning).  Nothing like the French roast most people associate with Starbucks and other coffee house chains. Burning coffee breaks down the sugars and oils and fast oxidation and fermenting of coffee once exposed to the air.  These ill effects do not occur in the more stable Southeast Asian dark roast.

Finally, the beans are generally roasted in what is referred to as “butter oil”, which can be clarified butter oil, although vegetable oils can be used.  Historically, traditional “home-grown” coffee roasting involved creating almost a caramel-like coating effect using small quantities of sugar, oil, and generally a touch of vanilla or cocoa. This coating blackens in the roast and the beans wind up with almost a thin, hard shell. Why is this done? Robusta beans are uniquely slow to ripen on the bush, and pickers often pick unripe beans along with ripe beans. This coating gives all the beans a consistent color, and the presence of a few unripe beans does not hurt the taste of the blend.

The most common brand I’ve found in the states is Trung Nguyen and seems to be readily available in most Asian markets.

The technique is key too

Vietnamese style coffee is not unique to Vietnam, rifts on this drink can be found in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and a few other regions. The brewing style is low-tech, using a simple metal filter called a Phin (assumed to have originated in Cambodia in the 1800s) that is essentially a single-serving brewer and filter – just add water and mindlessly watch the dripping.

Unlike Italy, in Vietnam, coffee is not consumed on the run (for what should now be for obvious reasons), people relax and brew the coffee at their table leisurely in single servings.  So break out that extra can of condensed milk that did not go into the Thanksgiving pumpkin pie and make yourself a glass of Vietnamese coffee, and sit back and relax.  Its going to be a while, but this drink is worth the wait.

A note on the phins, these filters can be found in Asian focused restaurant supply stores for less than $3 apiece.  I acquired my phins at Kamei on Clement.  If you are interested in authentic Vietnamese coffee, I suggest you acquire your own phin.  As noted in most articles on Vietnamese coffee you can use other methods such as the French press and you get a nice cup of coffee, but it does not taste the same.  I’ve made the coffee side by side using a phin and a French press and the taste difference is apparent.  That being said, how many times are you going to make them side by side?  Other coffee lovers swear by percolators and drip coffee makers, so a bit of research may be required to settle on the technique that works best for you.

Other Reads:

Badass History of Vietnamese Coffee – via VietWorld Kitchen

Bay Area Bites – In Pursuit of the Perfect Cup

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27 comments for “Coffee: Vietnamese Style (Cà phê sữa đá)

  1. January 30, 2011 at 2:46 PM

    I had the pleasure of experiencing Vietnamese coffee a few years ago. I must agree, it is a unique experience.

    I must add though, many Italian families I know enjoy relaxing with a good cup of coffee:)

    Thanks for sharing…
    Louise recently posted..Happy 150th Birthday Kansas!

  2. January 30, 2011 at 6:05 PM

    I do love Viet coffee…does that mean Viet coffee has fat in it though? Since it’s roasted with oil?

    Oh, and have you ever tried HK-style coffee? It’s awesome, too. Half tea half coffee!

  3. January 30, 2011 at 8:54 PM

    I think I only had Vietnamese style coffee once or twice, but I really enjoyed it. Well, I enjoy most coffee! 😉 Love reading the story behind the coffee.
    Andrea@WellnessNotes recently posted..Lettuce Wraps with Bulgogi and Pace Picante Sauce

  4. January 31, 2011 at 2:40 AM

    I love Vietnamese coffee. I could also drink a can of condensed milk by itself, if allowed, so that might explain it. 🙂
    Brenda – Aesthetic Dalliances recently posted..Italy Part I- San Martino- Il Bel Far Niente

  5. January 31, 2011 at 9:21 AM

    I love coffee!!!I would love to try Vietnamese coffee!

  6. January 31, 2011 at 10:58 AM

    Vietnamese coffee is divine. I used to love getting a bowl of cold rice noodles, veggies and sprouts etc, bbq pork, and a delicious glass of that addictive coffee. True, the sweetened condensed milk is yummy.
    lisa recently posted..Broccoli Soup and A Little News

  7. OysterCulture
    January 31, 2011 at 8:53 PM

    Louise – You are right not to generalize, I stand corrected. I had in my head those shops where you stand and drink your espresso at the counter. I’m glad you tried and enjoyed the Vietnamese coffee.

    Sophia – I think by the time you at the condensed milk, Vietnamese coffee most definitely has fat, the roasting part seems a bit inconsequential. =) I have tried and love HK coffee, what a brilliant combination. Its another addiction. Its harder to find here, except for the instant packets.

    Andrea – Its really hard not to like and so glad you enjoyed it.

    Brenda – I’m with you!

    Erica – I can only imagine you would and I hope you are able to soon.

    Lisa – That sounds like the perfect pairing.

  8. February 1, 2011 at 6:49 AM

    I am sorely out of it – had no idea Viet Nam exported coffee although always assumed their coffee would be similar to the French. Lovely post to wake up with and drink coffee!
    Claudia recently posted..Venetian soup for a Venetian virus

  9. February 1, 2011 at 1:11 PM

    Interesting about the stability of a slow roast. I didn’t know about butter oil used in roasting either. Now, I’ll know all the things to appreciate about a cup of Vietnamese coffee!
    lisaiscooking recently posted..Peanut Butter Clouds

  10. February 1, 2011 at 7:08 PM

    The traditional coffee sold in coffee shops in Singapore taste like Viet Style coffee, except no long wait. I heard they roast those coffee beans with corn syrup – that is why they smell different from those arabica coffee we can get here.

  11. February 2, 2011 at 6:01 PM

    I have only had Vietnamese style coffee once and have been struggling to remember the process 🙂 Great post, I love coffee and always enjoy the different styles…
    Magic of Spice recently posted..Whats for Dessert – Creamy Oreo Cheesecake

  12. February 2, 2011 at 9:17 PM

    Unfortunately I can’t have condensed milk, so I can’t enjoy this fantastic sounding beverage. But I can imagine how good it is and it’s still interesting to learn about it.
    Kitchen M recently posted..Mint Flan

  13. OysterCulture
    February 4, 2011 at 5:28 PM

    Claudia – Learning opportunity for me too.

    Lisa – I thought the butter part was intriguing and the blending sounded like they could have been talking about wine.

    Tigerfish – Hm, good to know. I had not thought of cornsyup either, I heard a description that it gives it a candy coating.

    MoS – I bet you could make yourself a pretty good cup.

    Kitchen M – Oh, that is problematic – no good substitutes out there?

  14. February 4, 2011 at 7:18 PM

    Love this stuff. Addictive!
    Lynn recently posted..An emergency vet visit- general exhaustion- and a coddled egg

  15. February 5, 2011 at 11:35 AM

    Never had Viatnamese coffee before, but its method gets my attention now. If something requres patience, I believe it is tasty.

  16. February 6, 2011 at 3:55 AM

    There are Vietnamese restaurants here but I think they use the instant mix because they arrive at the table pretty quickly.

    A few years ago, I asked the waiter what the difference was between regular coffee and Vietnamese coffee, as I never knew Vietnam even had a coffee culture and I just stupidly assumed that it was all tea over there. Well, the waiter replied with the most intelligent and helpful answer:

    “Well Ma’am, Vietnamese coffee comes from Vietnam.”
    The Kitchen Masochist recently posted..Meringue-Making On A Manic Monday- Silvanas

  17. February 6, 2011 at 9:46 PM

    I try and try, but I am so impatient. This is my favorite type of coffee but it’s one that I have a hard time making at home because I find myself manically trying to stare the filter into dripping the coffee faster. So instead I use an Italian percolator. I’ve used both Major Dickison’s from Peet’s Coffee and Cafe du Monde chicory roasted beans, and I have a strong preference towards the Cafe du Monde – I know it’s heresy to say that prefer canned coffee beans, but it’s just for Vietnamese coffee.

    I wish I could have Vietnamese coffee everyday, but I save it for a treat. The sweetened condensed milk is just too rich for an everyday beverage, and it’s also one more thing to wait for. I remember one time walking away while I allowed the viscous condensed milk to make it’s way into my mug, and I returned too late only to find that half of the can emptied out. It was not a good day. I still love this coffee style, and when I do have it, I know that it is quite special.
    Christine @ Fresh Local and Best recently posted..Els Ultimate Dark Chocolate Cupcakes with Chocolate Ganache Frosting

  18. February 7, 2011 at 5:11 AM

    I am not a coffee drinker…but I am totally enticed with your introduction and description of Vietnamese coffee. I would love to try if I am given an opportunity!
    Angie’s Recipes recently posted..Zürcher Geschnetzeltes – Chicken Zurich Style

  19. February 7, 2011 at 10:08 PM

    One of the great pleasures in life is Vietnamese coffee. I just love to watch it slowly drip into the glass, too. It revs up the anticipation for the wonderful flavor to come.
    Carolyn Jung recently posted..For a Heartfelt Time

  20. February 8, 2011 at 7:04 PM

    Loved learning more about Vietnamese coffee. We didn’t make it to Vietnam on our last trip to SEAsia, but I had heard so much about the coffee I had to try it. Fortunately we found a shop in Singapore. I, of course, love a dark, jet-fuel, coffee, but it is the sweetened condensed milk that sets it over the top for me. Well, that, and the process of making it.
    Lori recently posted..Hummus with Almond Butter

  21. February 8, 2011 at 9:38 PM

    my uncle ravs about vietnamese coffee, thanks you for posting this, hubby and I love to linger at the breakfast table on sundays with a great cup of coffee, on my wish list..thanks


  22. Thanh Nguyen
    March 7, 2011 at 11:53 PM

    The Vietnamese word “phin” comes from French language “filtre” as in filter in English. It writes PH because in Vietnamese language we do not use the “f”. I have no idea why you wrote “phin” comes from Cambodia. A lot of French words are used in Vietnamese language like savon “xà bông”, banque “nhà băng”, gar “ga” etc.

  23. Scott
    March 19, 2011 at 3:36 PM

    Vietnamese coffee, in my opinion, is so me of the best that I’ve tried. I think blending your beans is the best way to go about getting your best cup. I’ve been drinking vietnamese coffee for many years now and have tried many more “special” and “exotic” types including Jamacan blue mountain, kopi luwak, to Kona, etc. The best, (considering price), regardless if you make it like the vietnamese do, is some of the tastiest smoothest coffee I’ve ever had. When I whent to vietnam, I bought extra luggage to fill will coffee to bring back. Its that good. Second favorite is 100% Kona from Koa Coffee in Hawaii. I live in california and have recieved my coffee order from them the day after! I don’t know how they get it to me so fast. Haven’t had great luck in the past with Jamacan Blue as customs like to poke a hole in the coffee for some odd reason ;-p.
    Long story short… Vietnamese coffee is well worth your effort getting your hands on despite if you add condensed milk and make it like they do, or if you just put it threw you coffee machine in the kitchen. Happy sipping.

  24. OysterCulture
    April 5, 2011 at 5:37 PM

    Lynn – Very tardy response, but agree entirely, it is heavenly.

    Zerrin – It is tasty and I think you would approve.

    KM – It doesn’t get much easier than that =)

    Christine – You are a woman after my own heart, I’d have it everyday too, but I don’t think it would be as special.

    Angie – I’ve known other coffee haters to cross to the dark side for this one.

    Carolyn – If I wasn’t so impatient I’d agree completely.

    Lori – I agree, its also much better in its natural envrinoments, I think a return trip to Vietnam is in order.

    Sweetlife – Sweet – its definitely something to be consumed in company.

    Andrea – Sorry, for the confusion. I agree that phin is Vietnamese. What I was trying to say in my crude way was that the filter itself is thought to come from Cambodia.

    Scott – Great tips. I now feel compelled to have a taste test to compare all the combinations you mentioned. =) Thanks for sharing, and happy sipping to you.

  25. Anna
    September 30, 2012 at 6:24 AM

    I love classic vietnamese coffee but I have another tip! Mix 50% ground vietnamese coffee with 50% arabica in a regular coffee machine and you get yourself the the most delicious cup of coffee that can be enjoyed black or regular milk!

  26. November 25, 2017 at 3:48 PM

    I tried Vietnamese coffee and it is a wait while it drips. However, its all part of the experience and the coffee taste distinctly different to the espresso/coffee we drink in the West. Well worth waiting for.

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