Developing my simple Vietnamese and iced coffee recipes

My last post was about Vietnamese iced coffee and searching for that ideal restaurant-style recipe. I bought a phin, which is a metal drip brewer, and I found some Trung Nguyen coffee in Chinatown.

My first stop was the recipe on the coffee can, which suggested a 3:25:1 water to coffee ratio. I think in the end, I ended up with roughly 4:1 or 6:1. It took roughly 10-15 minutes to drain. Then you mix in a big spoonful of sweetened condensed milk before pouring it over ice in a pint glass. Upon trying it, it’s straight gasoline. It’s not bad, it’s just way too strong, even at lower strength and over ice. It could half done with maybe half a glass of milk to further dilute the flavor.

Getting it right

My second recipe was roughly 30g of Ethiopian coffee, ground medium. I had some sitting around and decided to see if the long drain time was from the coffee brand or my approach. Since the phin holds roughly 240g of water, that’s an 8:1 ratio. After 10 minutes it made a strong but less abrasive coffee that I then poured over ice and added half and half. Given the amount of coffee and the brew time, I expected more flavor, but it was a light roast, so it’s not surprising.

My third try was 24g of Trung Nguyen coffee. Other sites have suggested a 10:1 ratio. Hario, the Japanese brand, suggests 11:1 in its Japanese iced recipe, so there’s a precedent there. It made a strong coffee, ready for sweetened condensed milk and ice.

Recipes

From this experience, I’ve developed two recipes, a modified Vietnamese coffee recipe and a standard iced coffee recipe for use with any coffee.

The Vietnamese recipe is spot-on and mostly measurement-free and the iced coffee recipe is great for a lazy day that you don’t want to do precise pour-over or use a paper filter.

Modified Vietnamese coffee recipe

  1. Wet inside of phin
  2. Add 24-30g Trung Nguyen coffee, roughly 4 even tablespoons, and place top filter
  3. Add a splash of boiling water roughly equal to the amount of coffee
  4. Wait 30 seconds then fill water to top of phin, place cover on phin
  5. Once handle on top filter is not submerged, lift it to encourage quicker draining (if you’d like)
  6. Once dripping is complete, add one big spoonful of sweetened condensed milk and stir to dissolve
  7. Pour coffee and condensed milk into a pint glass full of ice and stir to chill coffee.

Iced coffee recipe

  • Follow steps 1-5 above, using 30g of freshly ground coffee of any type.
  • If grind is correct, coffee should drain in under 10 minutes. If it doesn’t, adjust grind slightly coarser, aiming for 6-8 minutes.
  • Once dripping is complete, pour coffee over ice in a pint glass (16 oz) and add half and half or milk, stirring to chill coffee quickly.

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.

DIY: Roast Your Own Coffee (RYOC): Technique

Perhaps you love coffee and would like to experiment, you may be looking to replicate the fresh coffee you tried in some cafe, or you may simply be starting to question why you spend so much to buy roasted coffee from someone else. Coffee is an industrial product like beer, and also like beer, you can create it yourself, giving up some quality control but gaining  a much fresher product.

Introduction

There is a lot of information on roasting your own coffee, starting with green coffee beans, none of it particularly definitive. If there was one book that touched all aspects of the process, it was Home Coffee Roasting: Romance and Revival by Kenneth Davids. Sweet Marias, a sourcer for green coffee, also has an excess of material (for free).

Generally, there are three characteristics to consider when roasting your own coffee:

  • color,
  • sound, and
  • temperature.

Experience with these variables will allow you to know when your coffee is done roasting. Keeping track of your results is key to recognizing a pattern of complete roasts.

To vastly oversimplify, coffee is done roasting when it has started “popping” and then concluded and has a uniform brown to dark-brown color. There is a simple technique to hand-roasting, which involves rotating the beans so they don’t scorch, either using a Whirley Pop, as I do, or another machine, such as an air popper or home roaster.

Color

Roasted coffee is grouped by color, which makes sense because it’s the most apparent feature for the consumer. Dark roasts tend to have more caramelized or burnt flavors, while lighter roasts tend to showcase brighter fruit flavors. Too light, however, and the coffee will look inconsistent and have a grainy, not pungent smell once roasted.

Home roasting is not particularly precise, though it is fairly simple to stop your roast somewhere between City+ and Full City+ on the color scale above.

Sound

After constant agitation and a low flame, my coffee starts to “pop” after around 4 minutes and 30 seconds. I’ve tried at lower temperatures and drawn out this phase for 6-8 minutes though have found I can repeat my results with a slightly faster roast. After usually 1 1/2 or 2 minutes more, the “first crack” is complete and there is a brief lull at 6 minutes. This is a signal that the lighter roast process is complete. Depending on your level of heat, this process may take as much as 10-12 minutes.

You may stop your coffee here and transfer to a strainer to cool if you prefer a typical East Coast roast. The diagram below shows the interaction between first and second crack:

Another minute or two, often around 8 minutes for me, the “second crack” begins. Following the roast process to this point begins to create a Vienna or French roast. At this level, burnt flavors start to overwhelm the coffee pungency. You’ll know you’ve reached this level by the dark brown color and spots of oil that appear on the coffee beans. After the second crack, the beans also appear both larger and lighter than previously. Vienna will be sligthly oily, while French roast beans will be larger, lighter, very dark, and very oily. Going past French roast risks a fire.

Temperature

While I am able to create consistent results controlling my stove heat, time, and color, I have also inserted a metal candy thermometer into the lid of my Whirley Pop. I heat the empty container to 400 degrees before dumping in 1/3 lb of green beans. After a few minutes the air temperature in the roaster tends to bottom out slightly over 200 degrees before it starts to rise again. When my roast is complete, around 5-6 minutes, the air temperature has risen to around 385 degrees.

Conclusion

After I’ve roasted my beans, which tends to take around 10 minutes from start to finish, I quickly dump the beans into a strainer. There is a lot of papery skin that flies everywhere at this point. I pour the beans back and forth between the strainer and a Pyrex container, constantly shaking and wiping to remove any of the papery chaff.

Once the coffee is cool enough to touch, I leave it in the Pyrex and cover lightly overnight. This is to allow the initial carbon dioxide released from roasting to off-gas. Before the roasting process, incidentally, coffee can be stored somewhat haphazardly at room temperature and doesn’t have to be vacuum sealed. While green, the beans are hard like kidney beans and take a year or more to go stale.

Following the roast and overnight rest, I place my coffee in Mason jars where it continues to off-gas. The coffee smells and tastes great after about 3 days, if not closer to a week. Some suggest 24-48 hours, but I leave mine a bit longer. Leave the beans unground and it will maintain its smell and flavor for weeks, if not months.

DIY: Roast Your Own Coffee (RYOC): Equipment

Roasting your own coffee is a fairly simple process that requires a minimum of finesse. Even better, time investment is only slightly more than making a batch of popcorn. Whether you’re looking to roast for your own daily consumption or to add flavor to a home-brewed stout or porter, here’s a primer on how to get started with a minimum of equipment.

Equipment

There are several approaches to equipment, from a simple to complex, and from garage sale to barista level budget. Here are some of your options, starting with the simplest:

Iron skillet and wooden spoon

According to various sources, a simple skillet over a flame was how coffee was once roasted and is still roasted traditionally in Ethiopia and elsewhere. When the beans heat, they tend to pop, so some kind of lid would be in order.

Manual popcorn popper and candy thermometer

Many 19th-century kitchens had a revolving iron drum that was held over the flame, rotisserie-style to more easily toast the beans without burning. The Whirley Pop works on a similar principle, rotating the beans with a metal arm at the bottom of the pot.

This method is simple, inexpensive, and allows roasting of half a pound or more at each sitting, though you’ll need a gas stove for maximum effect. This is the approach I’ve chosen to start.

Electric air popper (1980s-style)

Most vintage air poppers have over-engineered heating units that are up to the task of roasting green coffee, though the paper-like husk may pose a fire risk if it isn’t vented up and out of the beans by the popper. Many newer models have a thermostat to shut off the roaster should it get too hot which must be disabled to get the proper results. This is a fire hazard, though I haven’t verified it myself.

Home roaster

Various companies sell purpose-made home roasting devices that function by heating the beans inside a rotating metal or glass drum. These devices, which run from $150 to $1000 or more must be rested between batches and handle a maximum of half a pound of green coffee.

Since I was looking for a minimal initial investment, I didn’t choose this approach.

Sample roaster

Commercial sample roasters cost several thousand dollars and are the way the pros develop their recipes with small batches of green coffee beans.

In Japan, it’s always time for coffee

There is a well-founded stereotype of Japan as a place where people take their job seriously. One sip told me they take their coffee seriously here as well. For a country associated with green tea, this was a big surprise.

There is no watery diner coffee here. If even grandparents make this strong a drink, you know Japan must really love its coffee.

Beginnings

Our first morning in Tokyo, fresh off the plane and jet-lagged, we stopped for a simple breakfast. Next to the Senso-ji shrine in Asakusa, a mostly low-slung neighborhood of covered shopping arcades and quiet alleyways near the center of Tokyo, we found a small cafe run by an elderly couple. It main features appeared from the outside to be warmth and tiny cuteness, two ubiquitous attributes in Japan.

We were served a hard boiled egg, buttered toast sticks, and coffee. It was 400 yen or around $4, and was just what we needed to get the motor running at 9am. That is roughly 9pm New York time. This simple cafe meal served as our introduction to both the simple Japanese breakfast and Japanese coffee.

Note: Japan doesn’t seem to be big on breakfasts, many establishments, even those that serve coffee or pancakes, don’t open until lunchtime. Those that do serve simple plates like the one we had.

Coffee Everywhere

Brewed on what looked like an hourglass with water in the bottom and thick black liquid in the top, our first coffee was strong. Later I found that this scientific-looking device is called a siphon and is similar to the Italian Bialetti or moka pot.

Further exploration found little coffee shops around nearly every corner. Strong coffee would prove to be a trend. Some offered fresh-roasted beans and pour-over coffee. Most memorably, the elderly owner of a tiny nameless coffee roastery we stumbled upon on a corner in Osaka took time away from his equally aged machinery to fix us a fresh cup in the corner.

Others, such as Enseigne d’angle, offered jet-black French-press at a wood-paneled bar with white-suited waiters and a vibe straight out of the 1930s. Sitting down in a quiet corner with plastered walls and dim light-shaded illumination, we took a break from the hustle-and-bustle of Tokyo.

The most “mod”, such as Rokumei in Nara, offered airy seating, third-wave coffee cred, and a meal of fresh salad, yogurt, and a card with tasting notes and bean origin. Awards from coffee championships hung on the wall above brewed samples of the different origin beans for sale.

Still others, like the top-notch Vie de France offered fresh French pastries and the aforementioned siphon. The most humble offered toast, a machine espresso, and little pods of concentrated creamer.

When in Japan

Yet when you’re in the process of adjusting to jet lag, those rules about coffee in the mornings and none after dinner go out the window. Who remembers what time it is anyway? Any hour is potentially a good time to sit down with a warm cup, and any coffee shop has a great pour waiting for you.