Vietnamese Coffee Recipe

Why It Works

  • Using a phin filter and Vietnamese Robusta beans to prepare traditional Vietnamese drip coffee produces a strong, aromatic brew.
  • Steeping the coffee grounds for five minutes before allowing the coffee to drip yields a richer, more balanced beverage.
  • The addition of sweetened condensed milk complements the bitterness of the dark coffee.

The fragrance of strong Robusta coffee was a constant during my childhood in Vietnam. Earthy with a hint of chocolate and caramel, it was the smell that permeated my home each morning, when my mom, who started drinking coffee in her teens during the 1960s, made her cup of Vietnamese drip coffee: black (cà phê đen) with a bit of sugar and ice. 

Though this is how most Vietnamese people prefer their coffee, many also enjoy cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk). With sweetened condensed milk to temper the harsh bitterness of Robust beans, the drink is incredibly refreshing when enjoyed with ice. Over the past few decades, the drink has become increasingly popular, especially outside Vietnam, where more and more dedicated coffee shops are bringing Vietnamese drip coffee to a wider audience. It’s a drink that leaves you buzzing for hours—my family and friends joke that the beverage is so strong it’d show up on a drug test.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

A Brief History of Vietnamese Coffee

Despite being the world’s second largest coffee producer, trailing only behind Brazil, Vietnam gets very little recognition for its coffee. Vietnam produces more than 90% of the world’s Robusta beans, which have a reputation for being cheap and low quality, and are often sold to make commodity-grade coffee. While most coffee drinkers prefer Arabica beans for its smooth mouthfeel and caramel notes, Robusta reigns supreme in Vietnam, where it is typically used to make traditional Vietnamese drip coffee.

The French introduced coffee plants to Vietnam in 1857, when the Southeast Asian country was one of its colonies. In her book Rice and Baguette, historian Vu Hong Lien notes that the French government offered “generous tax concessions” to incentivize companies and individuals to plant profitable crops, including coffee. The growth of coffee plantations and accompanying exploitation—both of land and people—caused great resentment among the Vietnamese. This led to mass protests and violent attacks against the French colonists, who responded with arrests, imprisonment, and even executions in order to keep the plantations running.

Today, Vietnamese coffee grows in southern Vietnam’s Central Highlands, where the moderate climate and altitude provide the ideal environment for Robusta plants to thrive. Though Robusta beans aren’t renowned for their flavor and quality, they can produce great coffee when picked at peak ripeness—a task that’s more difficult than it sounds.

On a recent visit to several coffee plantations in Lâm Đồng province, I learned that it can take up to nine months for the cherries to mature properly. Like most fruit, they don’t always ripen at the same rate, and because harvesting coffee cherries by hand is such an arduous task, many plantations rely on machines to do the work. It’s a process that results in a mix of ripe and unripe coffee cherries, and the result is lower-quality coffee—the kind that has given Robusta beans its poor reputation.  

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

A new generation of Vietnamese coffee producers and entrepreneurs, however, are striving to change the perception of Robusta coffee by experimenting with innovative farming practices and roasting techniques. Today, curious coffee drinkers will find an increasingly wide range of Vietnamese coffee brands online and at Asian grocery stores.

Trung Nguyen Coffee, from Dak Lak, Vietnam, is one of the largest brands. Their Premium Blend, an affordable and widely available option, combines roasted Arabica and Robusta beans, and has rich chocolate notes. My favorite offering from the brand, though, is the Creative 1, which features Culi Robusta beans and is full-bodied and rich with a hint of vanilla.

Another popular brand is Nguyen Coffee Supply, founded by Sahra Nguyen, who sources coffee beans from Vietnamese farmers and roasts them in Brooklyn, New York. Nguyen, a champion of Robusta beans, has converted many coffee drinkers into lovers of this less popular bean with her various roasts. The Hanoi, a dark roast of Robusta beans with notes of prunes and graham crackers, and the Loyalty, a medium roast of Arabica and Robusta beans with hints of cacao and pomelo, are both excellent for brewing with a phin filter (more on how to do that below).

Among the Vietnamese community, Café Du Monde, the popular coffee from New Orleans, has a loyal following. While Café Du Monde doesn’t share how they source or blend their coffee, their dark roast with chicory is reminiscent of the coffee that the French brought to Vietnam. Many Vietnamese immigrants, reminded of the familiar taste from their youth, gravitate toward Café Du Monde.

Within the last decade, there’s been an increasing demand both within and outside Vietnam for specialty coffee with single origin Robusta beans sourced directly from Vietnamese farmers. With more and more consumers seeking out Vietnamese coffee for themselves, the product may finally be getting its long overdue recognition.

How to Select Vietnamese Coffee

With so many brands, blends, and roasts available, which you choose ultimately boils down to personal preference. For traditional Vietnamese drip coffee, it’s best to pick a good-quality single origin Vietnamese Robusta for its bold, nutty flavor, like Trung Nguyen Coffee, Nguyen Coffee Supply, Omni Bev, Cafely, or Copper Cow Coffee.

If you cannot find Robusta beans, many Vietnamese brands offer a blend of Robusta and Arabica. Pick a blend with at least 70% Robusta, otherwise the light flavor of Arabica won’t stand up to the sweetness of condensed milk. Another alternative is using dark roast beans similar to Café Du Monde. Dark roast coffee beans undergo an extended roasting period, resulting in a richer, bolder flavor similar to Robusta beans. You may have to undergo a series of coffee bean taste tests before finding something that you like.

How to Brew Vietnamese Coffee

Use a Phin Filter

While numerous coffee makers and brewing techniques exist, traditional Vietnamese drip coffee is brewed using the phin filter. There is no official record of when and where the phin filter originated, but it’s likely the Vietnamese created it as a simpler, more affordable version of the French press, which the French brought but was too expensive for the working class. Made with stainless steel or aluminum, the phin filter consists of 4 parts: a lid to lock in the heat, a screw-on screen or a gravity press to push down the coffee, a brewing chamber to hold the coffee grounds and water, and a drip plate to filter the coffee.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Take Your Time to Steep

Most people, when making Vietnamese coffee, pour all the hot water into the brewing chamber and let it drip immediately. Some may bloom the coffee in about a tablespoon of water for 30 seconds, which releases carbon dioxide from the roasting process and enhances the overall flavor. (As culinary director Daniel found in his testing, bloomed coffee tastes “richer, rounder, and fuller-flavored.”) 

To find out how to make great Vietnamese coffee at home, I spent a morning learning about phin filter brewing with Vinh Duong of Saigon Coffee in San Diego. Duong, who is determined to brew the best possible cup of coffee, has spent years honing his techniques. As he busied himself with preparing different beverages for his customers, he explained the best way to extract the most flavor from coffee using a phin filter. 

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

The key, Duong says, is to pour in half of the water and let the coffee steep for five minutes with the lid off and placed beneath the drip plate to prevent it from dripping.  The steep produces a more well-rounded, uniform extract, while the slow drip afterwards yields a concentrated flavor. Duong actually steeps his coffee anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes depending on the volume required, but this long steeping time, while admirable, is simply not realistic for most people when they’re in a hurry.

Unfortunately, the lids of many phin filters in the U.S. aren’t deep enough and may result in some slight coffee spillage during the steeping process. To mitigate this problem, Duong recommends placing both the lid and filter on a plate just large enough to catch any spilled coffee. After steeping, Duong removes the lid, and pours any spilled coffee—along with the remaining water—into the chamber. This time, he removes the drip plate and allows the coffee to finish dripping into the glass below. Depending on the size of the coffee grounds and how tightly fitted the screen is, it can take anywhere from seven to 10 minutes to finish dripping. 

I tested Duong’s method of steeping the coffee for five minutes, and the coffee it produced was much richer and more balanced than the coffee that had only been bloomed for 30 seconds, which had a strong acerbic note. This difference is even more pronounced when condensed milk and ice are added.  

Sweetened Condensed Milk and Ice Are a Must

Cà phê sữa đá means coffee served with sweetened condensed milk (sữa) and ice (đá), and these two ingredients are non-negotiables for Vietnamese coffee. Longevity Brand, or Sữa Ông Thọ, is the go-to sweetened condensed milk for most people in the Vietnamese diaspora. I recommend starting with one tablespoon of condensed milk and adding more as needed to get your desired sweetness. To avoid diluting your coffee too much, wait until the coffee feels cool or lukewarm before adding the ice.

With creamy, sweetened condensed milk and ice to mellow out the bitterness of Robusta beans, Vietnamese coffee is the refreshing drink I reach for when I need a caffeine boost. I drink so much of it that it really wouldn’t surprise me if it did, indeed, show up on a drug test.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

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