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.”
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.
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.
Badass History of Vietnamese Coffee - via VietWorld Kitchen