You don’t have to go looking for great coffee in Vietnam. Great coffee finds you. It’s everywhere. In cafes, on sidewalks, at corners, refurbished houses, and on bicycles ply by smiling vendors. Coffee is more than just a beverage, it’s a way of life in this country.
Indeed, Vietnamese culture is revolving around the coffee, and getting to know Vietnamese coffee is a compelling way to step into its welcoming culture. That being said, this post hopes to provide you the last guide to Vietnamese coffee you’ll ever need.
I. HISTORY OF VIETNAMESE COFFEE
The year 1857 was the milestone marking the appearance of coffee in Vietnam, when a number of missionary priests brought the coffee tree and planted experimentally at some Catholic Churches in Ha Nam and Ninh Binh, provinces in southern Hanoi.
In that early phase of Vietnamese coffee, Arabica was the only coffee grown in the country, mostly in the northern region. From the beginning of 1900s, the French brought Robusta and Excelsa coffee to grow in the Central Highlands in southern Vietnam.
Over the years, the Arabia didn’t give a good result as it was susceptible to rust fungus and stem borers, while Excelsa’s yielding was low. Robusta coffee was not suitable to the winter temperature in the North, but it developed and gave good yield in the Central Highlands, especially the Buon Ma Thuot area.
Following the first and second Indochina wars (1946 to 1954, 1954 to 1975), Vietnam’s coffee production experienced a huge drop until the political reform was conducted in 1986. From the 1990s, its production steadily increased 20% to 30% annually (of which the Robusta beans accounted for 93%).
According to Vietnam’s General Statistics Office, in the first 9 months of 2020, Vietnam’s coffee exports were estimated at 1.25 million tons, worth $ 2.16 billion (down 1.4% in volume and 1% in value over the same period in 2019), the numbers still keep Vietnam the world’s second largest coffee exporter.
II. VIETNAMESE COFFEE BEANS
Known as a coffee country, Vietnam produces 5 main types of coffee beans (Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, Peaberry, and Weasel Coffee) with different varieties. Here is a brief introduction to them.
1. Arabica Coffee
Arabia coffee is the most common type of coffee in the world, everyone’s talking about this type of coffee and virtually in all types of coffee blends. In Vietnam, Arabia is grown mostly in Lam Dong province.
It tastes rather sweet, fruity, sour, nutty and even chocolaty when comparing to the Robusta bean. There are 4 varieties of Arabia coffee in Vietnam: Typica, Moka (Bourbon), Catimor, and Catuai.
- Typica Coffee: This is the oldest coffee variety in the world, it tastes sweet and sour like apple. Typica is grown mostly in Cau Dat (Da Lat City), but it has low productivity so it’s being replaced with higher yielding varieties resulting a limited output.
- Moka (Bourbon) Coffee: This is a mutant variety of the Typica, which was brough from Yemen to Bourbon Island in 1700. In Vietnam, Bourbon is called Moka coffee, it’s considered the top delicious coffee variety due to its strong sour taste and very attractive aroma.
- Catimor Coffee: Catimor was introduced to Vietnam in 1984. This high yield variety was bred to be resistant to rust, a disease that causes coffee defoliation that leads to unstable yields. Catimor coffee has a strong taste, intense aroma. Currently, Catimor accounts for the majority of Arabica coffee production in Vietnam.
- Catuai Coffee: Catuai is a hybrid coffee variety, also introduced in Vietnam in the 1980s. This coffee variety has good yielding, but not capable of withstanding leaf rust. Catuai coffee has fruity aroma, light sweetness with very little sourness.
2. Robusta Coffee
More than 90% of Vietnamese coffee output is Robusta, and it’s grown throughout the country, but mostly in the Central Highlands. In each different soil substance, Vietnamese Robusta produces lightly different flavors.
Compared to the Arabica, Robusta has a harsh and strong bitter taste. Yet, almost all Vietnam’s Robusta beans are dry processed and dark roasted, so the bitterness becomes even more intense. This is the reason why local coffee drinkers use sweetened condensed milk to balance it out.
3. Liberica & Excelsa Coffee
Liberica coffee is called “cà phê mít” (as its leaves look like jackfruit’s leaves) in Vietnam, this coffee tree is drought tolerant, less water needed, so they are often grown in extensive farming. However, due to the poor yield and sour taste, it is not popular and the area is developed.
Excelsa coffee is classified as a sub-species of Liberica, it has a somewhat strong biter taste, especially the back-palate flavor – reminding of burnt wood. Hence, it’s usually used to mix with Arabica. However, Excelsa provides low yielding so it’s not as common as Arabica and Robusta.
4. Peaberry Coffee
Peaberry coffee are mutant cherries from both Arabica or Robusta, but it has only one spherical bean instead two due to the lack of fertilization, resulting a higher caffeine content than usual.
Known as “cà phê Culi” in Vietnam, Peaberry features strong aroma and burnt bitterness. Peaberry accounts for only about 5% of the total amount of coffee picked in each harvest, which are then manually sort out and roasted separately to ensure its best quality.
- Peaberry Robusta: Peaberry coffee from Robusta has more lipid and stronger bitter taste than conventional Robusta coffee, the aroma is mild. When it is brewed, the coffee has a light brown color.
- Peaberry Arabica: Arabica peaberry has an elegant sour taste, the aroma is more intense than the regular Arabica coffee.
5. Weasel Coffee
Though weasel coffee is a form of processing rather than a type of coffee, it has been considered one of the most flavorful coffee beans in Vietnam. The beans are the partially digested coffee cherries, eaten and defecated by weasel and collected by famers.
Wild weasel’s coffee is quite rare, but coffee beans collected from farmed weasel poop is an industry in Lam Dong Province. You can order a cup of this coffee in many coffee shops in the region, or buy the beans to bring home.
III. ROASTING VIETNAMESE COFFEE
Vietnamese coffee is known for having a slow and dark roast, Robusta beans are traditionally over roasted on purpose. Largely because of how local coffee drinkers appreciate thick and dark bitter coffee, also it makes the coffee tasty when it comes with sweetened condensed milk.
The slow roasting process often includes added flavors such as chicory, vanilla, sugar, salt, cocoa, butter, rice liquor or even whiskey. These additives actually help elevate the palatability of the notoriously harsh and bitter tasting Robusta beans.
Sometimes, not popular, fillers such as roasted corn, soybeans and red beans are common and some recipes call for filler content of up to 50%. Fillers are used to thicken, darken and somewhat sweetened the coffee and they also increase profits.
IV. HOW VIETNAMESE COFFEE IS BREWED
The traditional French press is the most common way to brew coffee in Vietnam, and the Vietnamese like their coffee to brew nicely and slowly.
Coarsely ground beans go into an aluminum drip filter, called a “Phin cà phê”, which then sits on top of the cup. Little amount of hot water is added to the filter (see how to brew Vietnamese coffee at this end of this post), coffee then slowly drips through the filter into the cup.
This traditional brewing of a cup of Vietnamese coffee, normally takes 8 minutes for the dripping process to complete, resulting in highly concentrated and intense brew which resembles a thicker and more caffeinated espresso.
V. VIETNAMESE COFFEE CULTURE
In Vietnam, “Đi uống cà phê” (go out for a coffee) is another way to say “let’s have a chat”. Vietnamese drinks coffee in the morning, at noon and night. It’s not a coincidence to see them on the street or coffee shops enjoying their coffee, no matter of the time.
Almost every street in big cities has several coffee shops, and the streets themselves are peppered with coffee bicycles supplying the whole city with coffee all day long.
Since Vietnamese coffee is mostly dark roasted Robusta, it’s popularly served with sweetened condensed milk or brown sugar, whether being served as hot coffee or with-ice coffee. That provides a perfect counterbalance to the bitterness of the coffee, making Vietnamese coffee incredibly sugary and milky.
Cafes in Vietnam don’t typically serve food, though some modern cafes do offer quick eats at lunch time. It’s therefore accepted to bring your own snacks and eat on the spot, but you’re better off following the local custom of eating first and then heading to a cafe to relax.
Oh, you can always nibble on “hạt hướng dương” (sunflower seeds) when chatting with your local friends.
VI. TYPES OF VIETNAMESE COFFEE
1. Cà phê đen đá (iced black coffee)
A traditional Vietnamese coffee and the most regular choice among locals. To prepare this, ground coffee is scooped into a Phin. After pouring the hot water, the Phin releases drops of coffee slowly into a cup. This cup of hot coffee is added with a teaspoon of sugar (optional), then poured into another glass of ice cubes, making the Vietnamese iced black coffee. Yum!
2. Cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk) in the South, or Nâu Đá (iced brown coffee) in the North.
A renowned mascot of Vietnamese coffee. This is done by putting two to three tablespoons (or more) of sweetened condensed milk into the cup prior to the drip filter process.
- Tip: If you prefer your coffee mild, do as the Vietnamese do and order “cà phê bạc xỉu” – coffee with lots of extra condensed milk. This will also taste like mostly milk coffee, and will be a delight for your (very) sweet tooth.
3. Cà phê đen nóng (hot black coffee)
In cold winter days, hot black coffee is more popular than iced coffee. The cup of coffee (with the drip filter on it) is placed in a bowl of hot water, it keeps the coffee warm when the dripping process is finished.
4. Cà phê sữa nóng (hot coffee with sweetened condensed milk)
Sweetened condensed milk is put into the cup before starting the dripping filter process, many coffee shops re-boil the coffee in a saucepan before pouring into a cup with some sweetened condensed milk in it.
- Tip: In most places, they put the condensed milk in the bottom, then pour the coffee on top. You may not see the milk, so just mix your coffee together and try.
In addition to those traditional versions, Vietnamese really knows how to make coffee an integral part of everyone’s daily life by creatively adding whisked egg yolk, cocoa, coconut, avocado, and yogurt to the blends, creating flavor utopias. Following are just some:
5. Cà phê dừa (coconut coffee)
It’s as good as it sounds. Black coffee with some sweetened condensed milk is mixed with coconut milk and blended with ice, the drink has become a favorite among the Vietnamese in the recent years. Other versions of it include some big dollops of coconut ice cream put into the coffee, creating a refreshing concoction for sweating warm days.
6. Cà phê sữa chua (yoghurt coffee)
Like coffee, yoghurt was originally brought to Vietnam by the French and has been adopted into local culinary tradition. Rich and creamy, it’s served with various toppings, from fresh mango to fermented rice, and of cause coffee. This might sound like an odd combination, but the rich yoghurt pairs amazingly well with a drizzle of black coffee – just stir and sip.
7. Cà phê trứng (egg coffee)
Egg yolk whipped with condensed milk into an airy froth before pouring on top of the black coffee, this concoction is an invention by Nguyen Van Giang when milk was scarce in the 1940s. Café Giang and Café Dinh in Hanoi’s Old Quarter still serves the original egg coffee, but many other coffee shops in Hanoi now offer their own recipes.
8. Sinh tố cà phê (coffee smoothie)
Coffee has even found its way into smoothies, many juice shops perk up creamy blends of fresh fruit with a touch of Vietnamese coffee, sometimes tossing in yoghurt or cashews. It’s delicious ways to get your caffeine fix and your vitamins at the same time. Yummy!
VII. FAQs ABOUT VIETNAMESE COFFEE
1. Why Vietnamese Coffee is so strong?
Two main reasons explain why Vietnamese coffee is stronger than the popular coffee. Number one is the Robusta bean, which has 2.7% caffeine content – almost double the 1.5% of Arabica, making it more bitter. Yet, Robusta contains almost 60% less lipids and almost half the concentration of sugar than Arabica.
The reason number two is how it’s brewed; Vietnamese coffee is traditionally drip through a filter with a small amount of water. Drip coffee is therefore very thick, and the coffee bean is usually intentionally over-roasted, making it even more harsh.
2. How Vietnamese blend their coffee?
Most Vietnamese coffee features a mixture of Arabica and Robusta, Excelsa with Arabica on a ratio of 70% and 30%, or so on. Arabica gives it a sour taste, while Robusta gives a strong kick of caffeine. Arabica may be added to a predominantly Robusta blend to introduce pleasant acidity and attractive aroma. Likewise, Robusta may be added to a predominantly Arabica blend to introduce body for Italian-style espresso.
3. Why sweetened condensed milk?
The French used to having their coffee with a dash of fresh milk, but fresh milk wasn’t always available in Vietnam in the late 19th century. So sweetened condensed milk was the solution for all.
Up to this day, fresh milk is not a common ingredient found in most coffee shops (you could ask but shouldn’t count on it). Sweetened condensed milk proved itself be a good alternative, its flavor comes out so good that it became a tradition.
4. Where to drink the best Vietnamese coffee?
Hanoi, Central Highlands and Ho Chi Minh City remain the undisputed centers of cafe culture in Vietnam, despite most of the beans were picked in the Central Highlands and you can find great coffee all over the country.
Modern-style coffee shops in these cities have grown in popularity, traditional sidewalk cafes still fill up from morning to night with drinkers of all ages, who linger for hours over a single glass.
Traditional coffee shops that roast and sell theirs brew for nearly 100 years are easy to find. Singling out only a few places does not do justice to the extensive Vietnamese cafe scene, but if you are visiting Hanoi then these coffee shops are landmarks in the city.
5. Which Vietnamese coffee brand to buy?
Following are some of the famous brands in Vietnam, which you can also buy online or at their coffee shops.
When buying ground coffee in the streets, it’s critical to check for the coffee roast date. Dark roasted coffees oxidize faster and light roasted coffees last longer if kept in airtight mason jars. As a rule of thumb, buy coffee that is as fresh as possible!
VIII. HOW TO MAKE VIETNAMESE COFFEE AT HOME
We’ve been receiving emails from our Hanoi food tours’ travelers asking how to make a traditional Vietnamese coffee at home, here we would like to show you how to brew one for yourself at home.
All you need is some Vietnamese coarsely ground coffee, a small size drip filter (quality aluminum coffee filter by Trung Nguyen is recommended), and Vietnamese sweetened condensed milk (or brown sugar if you prefer black coffee). Following is the process.
- 3 tablespoons of Vietnamese coarsely ground coffee
- 1-3 tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk depending on your preference (1 teaspoon of brown sugar if you prefer black coffee version).
- 60 to 80ml (2 to 2,5 ounces) of boiling water.
Tips: the amount of sweetened condensed milk you use is a very personal decision, here are our recommendations:
- 1 tablespoon for a regular coffee
- 2 tablespoons for a sweet coffee
- 3 tablespoons for a very sweet and milky coffee (a delight for your sweet tooth).
- Pour 1-3 tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk into your coffee glass (if you prefer the Vietnamese black coffee, add 1 teaspoon of sugar instead).
- Measure 3 tablespoons of ground coffee (the amount should reach the two markers on the filter), slightly shake the filter to distribute the coffee evenly and form a flat surface, then place the damper gently on top of the coffee. DO NOT compress the damper, otherwise the coffee takes forever to drip!
- Pour 30ml (1 ounce) of hot water into the filter (the first time), put the lid on, and wait for about 30 seconds to 1 minute for the coffee to dissolve well into the water. This step allows the water to release CO2 from the ground coffee, making it expand beneath the damper.
- Add another 60ml (2 ounces) of hot water into the filter (the second time), put the lid on, and wait for about 7 to 10 minutes for the dripping to complete (if you prefer a mild coffee, add more water after this step).
- Remove the filter, stir to mix the condensed milk (or sugar) and drink it that way (hot coffee with sweetened condensed milk/ sugar), or add some ice cubes if you want to dink it with ice.
So, we hope this article about Vietnamese coffee does some goodness to you. Contact us if you are looking for a private Hanoi food tour with a local foodie, we are looking forward to showing you around our city while sampling Hanoi street foods.