How to make real Vietnamese coffee

To top off a refreshing plate of Vietnamese food on a hot day, we often go for a Vietnamese iced coffee. It’s the perfect sweet and cool complement for a bowl of pho, vermicelli, or a banh mi sandwich. With the temperatures hitting the 80s and 90s this week in New York City, I’ve been wondering how to replicate that particular deep, sweet, and viscous restaurant taste at home during the work week.

It’s not exactly a secret, but it requires a few inexpensive items. The three things you’ll need are:

  • A phin, which is a metal Vietnamese coffee dripper
  • The right coffee
  • Sweetened condensed milk

Here’s a short explanation of each item:

Phin (Vietnamese filter brewer)
This classic Vietnamese filter dripper includes a lid, a cup, and a kind of perforated metal tamper. I bought a Long Cam brand phin, which is made in Vietnam, at KK Discount in Chinatown (78 Mulberry Street, 9am-6pm).

The smallest, single-serving size is around 4 oz at $5, while the 9Q, which was the only larger option in stock, brews ~10 oz and was $11.

When you’re making Vietnamese coffee, go for “Made in Vietnam”

Coffee
This whole Vietnamese coffee thing started off for me when I purchased some Nguyen Coffee at Essex Market on the Lower East Side. They have great graphic design, a cool website, and are roasted in Brooklyn. Finding their product inspired me to try making my own coffee. The problem is their True Grit peaberry robusta that I bought is rough. It’s strong, vegetal-smelling, and hard on the stomach, plus it doesn’t taste like the right blend for a true Vietnamese coffee. If I had to pick again, I’d go with their Loyalty robusta/arabica blend, which promises to be smoother and more balanced.

Next I tried Trung Nguyen Premium Blend, which was recommended by many as the prototypical Vietnamese coffee. It comes pre-ground for the phin and even prints its recipe on the label. I assume that some of its distinctiveness comes from the addition of chocolate flavors to its roast. I bought it at Tan Ting Hung Supermarket (121 Bowery, 9am-6pm), $8.75 for 15 oz. They were incredibly helpful, letting me sneak in right at closing time and helping me find everything I needed.

Trung Nguyen Premium Blend

In its distinctive orange cans, Cafe Du Monde from New Orleans is also popular, though interestingly it is an American Southern-style roast with chicory and not a Vietnamese brand. It owes its popularity in this recipe to the Vietnamese community that settled in New Orleans following the Vietnam War. I’ll have to do a taste test between the two soon since these are the two most popular brands for Vietnamese coffee here in the US.

Recipe
Here is the recipe for preparing Vietnamese filter coffee, courtesy of the Trung Nguyen brand:

  1. Put 3 tbsp of coffee (about 20g) into the filter. Gently shake and lock the coffee press.
  2. Pour 20 ml boiling water (205-212 F / 90-100 C) into the filter. Wait until the coffee has fully absorbed water. Add 45 ml of boiling water into the filter.
  3. Place the cap. Wait 5-7 minutes for the coffee to drip through the grinds. Note that the coffee must drip slowly to capture the pure coffee essence. Add sugar or condensed milk to taste.
Credit for the recipe goes to this coffee can

Tip: It’s been recommended elsewhere to wet the inside bottom of the phin before adding the coffee so that the first grounds don’t fall through the perforations.

Final Thoughts
For the coffee nerds like me, the Trung Nguyen recipe above is a 1:1 bloom, total water to coffee ratio of 3.25:1, which is crazy, particularly when considering that a strong cup of specialty pour-over is a 16:1 ratio. I have seen other recipes recommend up to a 10:1 ratio for the same cup and elsewhere I’ve seen a bloom of up to 5 minutes recommended to really draw out the flavor of the cup.

I assume that the high dose of coffee is useful to compensate for putting the coffee on ice, as well as getting that true, ultra-condensed flavor. Looking forward to experimenting more to get closest to that true taste.

Brewing coffee in a vintage steel vacuum pot

Maybe two or three years ago after returning from Japan, I decided I wanted to try replicating the siphon coffee that we were served for our first breakfast. I some research and found out that they used to be very common in the US before auto-percolators took off in the 1960s and were known as vacuum pots because the brewing process created a vacuum, in the bottom chamber, drawing the brewed coffee down into it. I then bought a Nicro Model 500 off Craigslist with the metal filter, figuring it would be less prone to breakage than glass and easier to clean than a cloth filter, which is the style that is used today in Japan.

The problem is, I could never make good coffee. The water wouldn’t heat up to the suggested 205 degrees and it would clog instead of draining.

Then, this past month, I tried it again and it made excellent coffee. It was complex, deep, clean, and even warmer at first sip than a pour-over. I used:

  • a light generic breakfast roast
  • a 17.5:1 ratio
  • a grind size similar to pre-ground drip coffee
  • 900g of water, enough for three mugs of coffee
  • no temperature measurement, only turning down stove and waiting for water to stop bubbling in the upper chamber
  • coffee steeping for around a minute, then turned off gas and let coffee drain

Full brew time was somewhere from 5-7 minutes.

I started thinking how I might have lucked into such a good cup and I realized that a big batch, high ratio, drip grind generic coffee, and no temp control is probably how the device was meant to be used in a 1950s kitchen or diner, where there wouldn’t have been fancy grinders, temp probes, or even time to fuss over the coffee like I would with a manual pour-over.

Fresh off a few great cups, I tried brewing an Ethiopian light roast and it went right back to clogging from all the fines. I guess to use this siphon, I have to keep my coffee styles from the 1950s as well.

For those of you interested in more historical detail, I was able to find old manuals to research my process, and old advertisements to roughly date my coffee pot at this site.

A perfect cup of coffee requires a perfect grind

Whenever I find a particular beer that I love, I take note and try to replicate it myself. Lately I’ve been trying the same with coffee — I love Blue Bottle, and I’ve been trying to replicate the taste of their pour-over coffee for the last few months. It’s been quite the journey, which actually started out over a year ago when I began roasting my own coffee.

Isolating the variables: Technique and water ratio

First, I bought an East African blend that would have the subtle flavors of the coffee used by Blue Bottle. These coffees often have a sweetness and fruit flavor that is distinct from more balanced Latin American coffees. This blend smelled great when freshly ground, but in the end the coffee didn’t quite turn out how I expected. It was somehow both sour and bitter, and didn’t have the flavor I expected.

There are plenty of guides out there (here’s a good one), and Reddit has plenty of discussion of the best water ratios, pour-over techniques, and brewers. So much discussion, in fact, that I figured that technique must explain why I wasn’t getting the right results.

I had a nice new Hario V60 brewer, a gooseneck kettle, and a scale, so I started trying nearly every approach suggested, starting with water-to-coffee ratio: 12.5:1, 15:1, 16:1, 17:1. Then I tried water addition and blooming (pre-wetting the coffee to release CO2): 2x coffee weight for the bloom, then adding remaining water, then I tried 3 equal water additions. I tried swirling the water, then I tried swirling the entire brewer.

No disrespect meant to the coffee nerds that developed these processes that surpass even the arcane technique needed for a “perfect pour of Guinness”, but none of them gave me the results I had tasted previously.

Unfortunately, the instructions to grind finer or raise water temperature if your coffee is under-extracted and sour, or to do the opposite if your coffee is bitter, don’t apply when your coffee happens to be both sour and bitter simultaneously!

It turns out the fine coffee dust produced by my Hario Skerton hand grinder was a big problem. In fact, I wasn’t getting a much more consistent grind than the cheap blade grinder it was meant to replace. Those coffee “fines” tend to over-extract, producing burnt or bitter notes. Then the larger coffee particles were under-extracting, producing that odd mix of sour and bitter.

That was my issue to solve, so I tried one last-ditch idea.

Isolating the variables: Grinding the coffee

Nearly ready to give up, I went to the professionals. Variety Coffee, one of the dozens of local third-wave coffee shops in the area that roast and sell their own beans, ground me a bag of coffee to suit a pour-over brewer. I’m pretty sure they used the industry standard EK43. The next morning, I could smell the coffee from its hiding place in Paola’s backpack, it was so strong.

I pulled out the pungent roast and followed the pour-over instructions printed on the back of the box: 24g coffee, 50g bloom, 250g remaining water, a 12.5:1 ratio.

The coffee was excellent, rivaling anything I’d had at a coffeeshop.

The employee at Variety had insisted that this excellent coffee would keep for the next two weeks. Color me skeptical, but I took him at his word. The coffee remained pungent and wonderful through the end of the weekend, roughly 3-5 days.

Two weeks later, it’s still good, though it’s lost the overwhelming sweetness and fruit notes. Incidentally, Prima Coffee talks of a similar drop-off around days 4-5 that matches my observations.

Conclusion

Freshness and a consistent grind solved my coffee issues, though to get that consistent grind I had to go to a coffeeshop with a machine that cost a few thousand dollars. Plus I had to grind all my coffee at once, which left me using stale coffee after a few days.

My next challenge is going to be finding a grinder for home that has the same results without the price tag so I can have consistently fresh beans when needed. Stay tuned for that discussion.