Things have taken a weird turn at KCcoffeegeek World Domination Headquarters of late, and I like it. Some mornings find me reaching past two dozen bags of truly world class coffee from any one of a handful of award-winning roasters to grab a brick of Cuban coffee, or in today’s case, a bag of 100% robusta with a bit of rum and butter added! How has this happened? What does this mean? Have I lost my mind?
When people contact me about trying their coffee, I almost never say no. Recently, that means receiving a bunch of Cuban coffee from Abuela Mami and learning to make cafecito. A couple weeks ago it meant saying, “Sure, why not?” to a German man named Dietmar who wanted to send me his company’s version of Vietnamese coffee. And of course that means learning a new skill, buying some new coffee stuff, etc, so what coffee geek could possibly say “no” to that?!
Before I dive down the rabbit hole of Vietnamese coffee, let me thank Dietmar from Farmers Blend Coffee who sent me his whole bean coffee, available conveniently for us in the USA (and maybe in other countries?) from Amazon. I really appreciated the fact that this is whole bean, not pre-ground, coffee, and an 8.8oz bag is only $8 while a 17.6oz bag is only $13, and that’s with Amazon Prime. Also before we dive deep into Vietnamese coffee, let me tell you that the butter and rum addition was extremely subtle for this coffee and I found Dietmar’s coffee to be a good way to make the traditional Vietnamese ca phe sua, especially considering it’s whole bean and priced competitively to the pre-ground giants of the VN market. Let’s do the coffee review first, and then explore Vietnamese coffee culture. Also, there’s a great video below on making Vietnamese coffee as well as my own recipe and tips and tricks toward the end of this story.
Farmers Blend Coffee Review
Farmers Blend Coffee seems to be a company owned by some German folks. I don’t know if they grow their own beans, if the operation is based in Vietnam or someplace else, or what. I was really, really skeptical about the coffee because they sell on Amazon for the US market (not necessarily a problem, but still) and they also add butter and rum to it. Their descriptions on Amazon talk about the health benefits of these additions ala “bulletproof coffee” and I’m just going to go on record as saying I would be highly skeptical that what is labeled on the package as “less than 1%” of butter and rum to the coffee has any health benefits whatsoever. If I were advising Dietmar’s company, I would tell them to drop the butter and rum addition altogether and to forget about the supposed health benefits of bulletproof coffee in exchange for emphasizing quality of the beans, quality of the roast, the fact that it’s whole bean instead of pre-ground (which is a unique selling point, as far as I can tell), etc. But whatevs. Again, this is a 100% Vietnamese robusta blend and I do not know where in the country it’s grown or anything else about the coffee itself.
The price is reasonable, with the smaller 8.8oz bag (250g) at only $8 and that’s with Prime. 250g of coffee gets you 16 cups prepared according to my instructions at the end of the article, so not bad at all! A can of sweetened condensed milk will run you $2-$3 at the grocery store and will last forever and the phin you need to brew the coffee can be bought for $5-7 on Amazon Prime or at some Asian specialty food stores for the same price.
OK, so I brewed this coffee the traditional way both with and without the milk to get a good sense of the coffee itself. The smell of the beans is weird. All I could think of is that it smells like popcorn. In the cup, the straight, black coffee was pretty intense. It has an aroma of popcorn still, but also with a strangely maple syrup sweetness. I can only imagine the maple syrup component was coming from whatever they add to the coffee to give it the butter and rum content. As for that, I was surprised about the subtlety of the butter and rum. It was not an in-your-face flavoring or aroma that I was thinking it would be. In fact, if I didn’t know they added it already I wouldn’t have guessed because I couldn’t really taste it. And that’s another reason I would tell Dietmar to just drop the whole butter and rum thing and do unadulterated robusta.
So, as black coffee it is very bitter and the bitterness actually builds in the aftertaste. The body is relatively thin, even for the dark, concentrated brew method and that’s because robusta just doesn’t have the sugars and fats in it that arabica does, both of which lend a lot to mouthfeel and body. There is some sweetness in the cup, nonetheless. There is also some burnt rubber character and a chalky, dry, astringent finish and aftertaste (more of an “afterfeel” really). But, let’s keep in mind that this coffee is not meant to be drunk this way, either.
As I drank this coffee black, I kept wondering if this is what coffee were to become, would I be able to have this every morning? Probabl, but uckily I don’t have to! I personally like bitter flavors, foods and beverages, so I could get used to it, but it would turn off most coffee drinkers and most American palates, for sure. It definitely was more drinkable than I thought it would be, but worse than any arabica I’ve had, except for the occasional underroasted coffee that makes it my way.
Here’s the thing… add the sweetened condensed milk and a total transformation happens! It’s coffee alchemy, turning coal into gold! Going with the recipe I give at the bottom of the article (15g of coffee to 105g of water with about 1/4″ of sweetened condensed milk in the bottom of a Gibraltar glass) this coffee goes from zero to hero! I made this same recipe with some of the dark roast Carta Coffee from Kona and this actually works better. Indeed, I think one could make an argument that the extreme bitterness of the Vietnamese robusta is necessary to balance the extreme sweetness of the sweetened condensed milk. Prepared this way, the coffee becomes sweet, but less than cloying, retains a bit of bitterness for complexity but it’s immensely drinkable and very palatable. No, there is no fruitiness or acidity or anything that specialty cuppers would be looking for. This drink becomes a balance… a yin and yang using two components that, by themselves, are nearly intolerable but when mixed together are delicious!
This is what I love about coffee and the inventiveness of the people who drink it. Let’s take two relatively gross things by themselves and put them together and see what happens. And what happens is really tasty! All that being said, even this tasty combo does leave a bit of bitterness behind long term on the palate, and the finish is a bit chalky and still a bit astringent, but again, I don’t mind that. I could see this being quite habit-forming if I lived in Vietnam and I’ll happily polish off the rest of my bag of coffee from Dietmar.
Just as with Cuban coffee, though, I see this as an occasional treat, for me. With world-class arabica from craft roasters hitting my doorstep every day, I don’t need the utility of this coffee because I have really nice coffee that tastes great black, the way I like it. But I know I’m getting one of these the next time I go to a Vietnamese restaurant, and I’d be all over this if I ever visit Vietnam.
I think trying these different cultural approaches to coffee is super fun and the methods are usually really inexpensive to get into and play around with. For under $15 you can get a bag of Farmers Blend coffee, the milk and the phin you need to bring the taste of Vietnam into your kitchen, so why not try it? It’s fun and it’s definitely a fix for coffee boredom if you’re suffering from that. A whole country of coffee drinkers cannot be wrong!
Vietnamese Coffee Overview
The Vietnamese have a unique way of preparing coffee (several, actually) that is somewhat a utilitarian necessity, but let’s look at coffee in Vietnam, first. The country is actually the second largest producer of coffee in the world! Most of their production is robusta. Without getting too geeky, let’s review that real quick… If you drink mass-produced coffees from the shelf, there’s a good chance some robusta may’ve been snuck in, or if you’ve been to Italy and had espresso at any one of a gazillion cafes there, you’ve probably had a little bit of robusta, too, but it’s not something the specialty coffee market gets near. Our specialty coffee market uses arabica, the species of coffee that has more sugars, more fats (please, DO NOT worry about the “amount of fat” in your coffee… it’s negligible) and yet is tough to grow and is super fragile, relatively speaking. Robusta, on the other hand is… well… robust! It grows easily and at lower altitudes, it’s really hardy and disease/insect resistant, has a better root system, etc. In fact, some enterprising specialty coffee growers are even taking robusta root systems and grafting them onto the above-ground parts of arabica to make hybrid mutants that will probably take over the world!
Anyway, the downside to robusta is that it tastes terrible. It’s super bitter and can have a burnt rubber flavor, it tends to dry out the mouth with a lot of astringency, etc etc. Robusta also has way more caffeine (almost double) than arabica. But because it is massive in the coffee commodity market, it’s also big business. There are even R Graders who cup robusta all day long, like the arabica Q Grader you may’ve heard of before. To get around the grossness of robusta, roasters tend to take it to nuclear French-and-beyond roast levels, masking some of the burnt rubber flavor with metal drum and intense roast and smoke flavors. Sounds delightful, doesn’t it? But, what I have learned about world coffee culture, whether it’s India, Vietnam, Cuba, or anyplace else is that sugar and/or dairy play a huge role in drinking coffee there!
A little bit of history… coffee was brought to Vietnam mainly in the mid-1800’s by the French. After the Vietnam War the government massively subsidized coffee production there, too, with most of the big brands still being government-owned. The traditional method of coffee preparation also seems to have resulted from the French influence, so let’s have a look why. 1 ref]http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-25811724[/ref]
Coffee Preparation in Vietnam
Robusta is not pleasant to drink black, I can assure you. The French colonists in Vietnam recognized this, too, but to their dismay Vietnamese culture is traditionally not a milk-drinking one. Enter sweetened, condensed milk. This is another product I didn’t think would ever enter World Headquarters, and yet I bought two cans, a veritable lifetime supply! Sweetened condensed milk is essentially milk processed into a dense, white fudge-like syrup. It has a shelf life of infinity and it’s both milky and eye-poppingly sweet. In a steamy environment like Vietnam, it became the French expat’s best friend for dealing with the extreme bitterness of Vietnamese coffee, and the tradition lasts today. And, on a side note, many Americans seem to think that coffee with chicory added, like Cafe du Monde which can be bought almost anywhere, is the traditional Vietnamese coffee. It isn’t. When Vietnamese people were immigrating to the USA and they discovered Cafe du Monde they recognized it as a decent alternative to Vietnamese robusta, so in the USA it’s apparently common to find Cafe du Monde or other coffee with chicory used in the preparation of Vietnamese coffee.
So, this sweetened condensed milk plus robusta coffee combo is what most people think of when they think of “Vietnamese coffee.” In the north, it’s called ca phe nau (brown coffee) and in the south it’s ca phe sua (milk coffee). If you order coffee in Vietnam, that’s what you’re going to get. If you order coffee with no milk, they’ll bring you ca phe den (black coffee) but they’ll load about a half a bag of sugar into it for you, too. Getting a truly unsweetened cup of black Vietnamese coffee will probably require a lot of explanation, signing a waiver, the help of several local guides and maybe even a bribe, it sounds like! Other types of Vietnamese coffee sound super insane, but I’ll bet they’re awesome… sua cha ca phe is coffee with yogurt in it that gets served with toppings like mango or fermented rice. Ca phe trung is egg yolk whipped with condensed milk in a thick-ass layer over the coffee, popularized in the 1940’s when even sweetened condensed milk was tough to find! And there are others. Lonely Planet has an awesome Vietnamese coffee guide with great photos, so check it out.
Making Vietnamese Coffee At Home
So, as far as brewing Vietnamese coffee you only need one inexpensive piece of equipment, called a “phin.” I bought a 100g size one and it’s perfect. Because robusta is freaking off-the-chain when it comes to caffeine, and the sweetened condensed milk + robusta combination is so potent, you aren’t going to be making big pots of this stuff. Small is good.
You’ll also need a way to heat up your water, a grinder if you go the whole bean route from our German pals at Farmers Blend Coffee, and a can/tube/squeeze bottle of sweetened condensed milk (NOT evaporated milk).
With some experimentation, I came up with some parameters which seem to work. Use 15g of coffee or so for every 100g of water. In a 100g small size phin, aim for around a 4:00 brew time. If it goes long, don’t fret, but if it goes way too long (like 6+ minutes) then either loosen your grind or use a bit less coffee if you are going with pre-ground.
I used a small “Gibraltar glass” for my coffees and that was a nice size. You can pour this over ice, too, but this is the basic recipe and method:
- Get some water boiling. You don’t need a lot, and you don’t need a fancy gooseneck kettle or anything.
- Grind 15g of Farmers Blend Coffee, a little finer than you may use for filter, but coarser than espresso, definitely. You may have to play with your grind a bit. Aim for around 4-5 minutes for total brew time.
- I don’t preheat everything, but if you want to, pour some boiling water into the phin and glass to preheat, then dump the water.
- Put your ground coffee into the phin. DO NOT TAMP. That little cover thing is not a tamp. Don’t be tempted to tamp with it. It WILL screw the water flow, big time. Trust me on this, NO TAMPING! Got it?! Give the phin a couple taps on the side or whacks on the countertop to get the coffee bed relatively even, then place the metal cover on top. Don’t press, no matter how tempter you are. It’s just there to keep the grounds under control when you add water.
- For a small Gibraltar glass and a 100g coffee, I added about 1/4″ of sweetened condensed milk to the glass and that’s a good sweetness level. Adjust accordingly, but a good spoonful is a good starting point.
- Put the glass on a scale if you have one, then add the “brim” of the phin, the grounds holder, the little cover (which you didn’t press on, right?!) and zero out your scale. Now add about 15-20g of water, just off boil. This is basically your “bloom” and you just want to saturate the grounds. If you’re seeing coffee drip down onto your milk, your grind is almost definitely too coarse, just FYI. Start your timer now.
- After about a 20 second “bloom”, start adding the rest of your water, gently. You don’t want to agitate or add too fast. I add the rest of the 100g of water, and a little extra just because I hate following recipes, even my own. LOL I add about 105g of water and then put the little cover on the phin to keep some heat retention.
Around 4-5 minutes later you’ll have some really black coffee sitting on top of your milk layer. Give it a good stir and enjoy at a leisurely pace or dump it over ice for a cool drink. Simple!
You can try this with specialty coffee, too. I actually preferred it with the Farmers Blend coffee, though, for some reason. Specialty arabica is pretty sweet, itself, relatively speaking, so it gets a little too-sweet, but be adventurous. I can’t imagine doing with a real light roast, but who knows? I used some of the dark Carta Coffee Merchants Kona coffee for this and it was fine, but the Farmers Blend was actually better for this application.