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History of Vietnamese Coffee ● Tastes Better with Arabica

Coffee culture is a relatively recent phenomenon in Vietnam being brought here by the French only in the 1850s. But, today Vietnam is the world's second largest coffee bean exporter and have their own distinctive style of coffee.

The first coffee beans brought to Vietnam were Arabica by French missionaries in the 1850s. Climate and soil conditions in Vietnam's central highlands were most conducive to coffee planting. Robusta beans were introduced in the early 1900s leading quickly to a plantation boom. But, the good times were short lived as a series of savage wars wreaked Vietnam from 1940 till 1975.

Things only changed for the better in the 1980s. Thanks to economic reform and Vietnamese enterprise, the coffee industry quickly revived and Vietnam is today the world's second largest coffee bean exporter with 14% of world market share.

Vietnamese coffee production is over 90% Robusta and less than 10% Arabica (Robusta is a cheaper crop than Arabica but has its own appeal in flavour and aroma).

Though coffee is a recent import, coffee culture is deeply entrenched in Vietnam - more so than tea from my observation. The Vietnamese have their own distinctive ways of enjoying coffee (and there are increasing variations due to continuous innovation).

Vietnamese coffee culture is based on the Robusta which has a deep bitter taste and a sharp, jolting caffeine kick (at least twice that of Arabica).

Vietnamese coffee is traditionally brewed using an iconic contraption known as a phin. Hot water is poured into the phin which has a filter to strain the grounds, a perforated disk to compact the grounds, and a lid to keep the hot water warm while the grounds soak in the phin. The dripping brew is collected below in the drinking cup.

The phin is often said to be the Vietnamese (and more elegant 🤭 ) answer to the French press.


❌ But, it is not.

The phin is a single cup version of the French drip filter coffee pot (invented in 1795 by François Antoine Henri Descroizilles).

The phin works basically along the same principles as the clunky 
French drip filter coffee pot but is a much scaled down version.

The phin produces a strong brew without complicated equipment. 

Coffee with condensed milk cà phê sữa nóng. The French drink coffee with fresh milk but this was too expensive for most Vietnamese. 

So, the locals substituted fresh milk with condensed milk. Even today when more Vietnamese can afford fresh milk, most Vietnamese still drink their coffee with condensed milk, preferring the blend of robust sweet and bitter taste, and rich thick smooth body.

Vietnamese coffee is sometimes served with a tea as a palate cleanser and to moderate the intensity of the coffee's bitter and sweet taste.

Ice coffee with condensed milk Cà Phê Sữa Đá. The same coffee with condensed milk served poured in a tall glass of ice cubes. Serving cold intensifies the bitter and sweet flavours of the coffee. It has a refreshing, cooling effect on hot Vietnamese days.

A similar style of Robusta with condensed milk coffee is found in Malaysia and Singapore where it is known as kopi. In Malaysia and Singapore, there's a version with Robusta, evaporated milk and sugar known as kopi C (which is my pick-me-up every morning in Singapore now 😌 ). 

It's a different coffee culture in Malaysia / Singapore which I cover in detail here 👈 click

What's uniquely Vietnamese is Robusta with egg Cà Phê Trứng. Vietnamese egg coffee was invented in Hanoi. It's an emulation of cappuccino - the Vietnamese couldn't afford whipped cream made with fresh milk, so they replaced it with their version made with whipped condensed milk and egg yolk. It started as a poor man's cappuccino but today is a well loved Vietnamese icon.                  

Written by Tony Boey on 25 Jun 2023

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