Friday, February 13, 2009

How to Make Vietnamese Coffee

Reading a review for a Vietnamese restaurant one morning, then eating in a different one later that day got me thinking about cuisine, culture, and coffee. Long ago I thought I'd figured out the art of making a pretty darn good Vietnamese coffee. Well over a year ago the photos were taken, a process written up, but the brewing attempt to be published was a failure. Back to the drawing board, into the scrap heap, and maybe even into the category of unsolved mysteries. To tell you the truth, I don't get it. Luckily, neither does anyone else. Anyone who says they do is full of it. Stay away from these people or you will soon find yourself selling snake oil out of the back of a truck or selling herbal supplements for sexual enhancement.

For those of you who have never had Vietnamese coffee, I mean real Vietnamese coffee in Vietnam, not Vietnamese style coffee in some other country know what I'm talking about. The coffee in Vietnam is rich, chocolatey, strong, and seemingly impossible to recreate with any predictability. While living in Bangkok, I found a coffee that seemed to be the right roast, the right grind, and acidity. Alas, it was still wrong and my self confidence crumbled. I tried to investigate. This is where it got complicated and frustrating.

Followers of this blog are either thrilled or bored with my recent coffee roasting adventures. Recently I have taken it upon myself to try my damndest to make a respectable Vietnamese coffee. I think I'm making headway.

The first step was trying to figure out just what kind of coffee to use. Some of the local import shops actually sell a ground coffee from Vietnam that smells very much like what you might hope for. Maybe that's the first and easiest step, but I took the long way around.

I've been roasting coffee a lot lately. Roasting and tasting coffee is kind of like drinking and talking about wine. It attracts some really intolerable personalities. Wine attracts rich boring people who get tipsy and tell you too much about their golf swing or their timeshares in Aspen. A ruling class beverage for the ruling classes now for the poorer, yet still ruling classes of the world. Oh: coffee. Same thing really, except caffeine fills this drinker with similar self aggrandizing tendencies, but one that doesn't make me crash my car, or wake up in strange places. I do talk too much under the influence though. some people might find me too intense, or even scary. They are certainly entitled to their opinions.

Sheesh. Anyhow, with all the coffee I've been roasting, it's become obvious that certain beans are more appropriately suited for certain drinking styles. Certain beans hold up well to being almost burnt, while others do well with a lighter roast. This is incredibly dorky, but very important. Certain coffee have certain outstanding flavors only if roasted to their potential. Under roast a Sumatran, and you've got something bland indeed. Roast it more, and you've got something dark that I still don't really like. Some people really do. All beans have an ideal roast, and brewing method, or at least that's what I've decided. Anyhow, instead of boring you with a list of different beans and their flavor, I'll cut to the chase: I recently roasted a bag from El Salvador a little darker than what one might call "medium." Arbitrary yes, but important. It provided me with just the right flavor for making a very good Vietnamese coffee.

Reading online or even in books, many people say that a very dark roast is ideal. I disagree. I find most coffees, when roasted until very dark, become good for espresso, but not for an interesting or complex flavor. Espresso roast demands a slightly burnt bean. I actually like espresso quite a lot, but you lose a lot of flavor with an espresso roast.

Many sources say that Vietnamese coffee includes chicory. This is ludicrous. Vietnamese immigrants to the American South, without access to Vietnamese coffee, found a replacement with coffee and chicory. This is the Vietnamese American hybrid, no offensive, but not the "real" thing.

A lot of recipes out there erroneously give the wrong kind of coffee, but at least most sources agree that you need a Vietnamese press. Simple, but how to use it? I have been unfortunate enough, as have many of you I'm sure, to order a Vietnamese coffee only to receive a sweet but flavorless cup of something. You see, just having some coffee, a press, and the all important sweetened condensed milk is just not a recipe for success.

Lest you think I'm going to give you the secret, I'll admit I'm still toying with the whole process. I've had trouble getting the right proportions, getting the coffee to really stay packed down, and make the brewing process take the time it needs to make the black gold.

First, you need a relatively coarse grind. Most sources agree on this. Too fine and it goes through the filter and you end up with a sediment filled cup, or maybe it clogs the damn thing altogether. But how to keep the coffee from rising to the top? Some makers have screw tops. Some sources recommend screwing it down, but not too hard. Whatever that means... I've experimented with moistening the grounds after putting them into place. I push them further until they simply cannot escape.

I pour the water in slowly over the screw device, but not to the top of the press. From my experience, you are not going to get a large beverage. You want small, sweet, and strong. A lot of establishments outside of 'nam carelessly pack the maker and fill it too full. You get a normal tasting coffee with some sweetened condensed milk in it. That'll be two-fifty please!

You must use sweetened condensed milk. There is no escaping this. Try and skimp, and you will be sorry.


A week or so after writing this (caffeine fueled) description, I ran out of coffee. A friend provided me with some of her coffee from a large can. Ok, it was from Trader Joe's. I made a few cups of the stuff in a french press and I considered taking a razor blade to my wrists, or simply switching to amphetamines. On a whim I tried making a Vietnamese coffee and the results were very good, not once, but several times. I managed to get a very strong and bitter brew, that when mixed with the sweetened condensed milk was really something else. Sheesh, what's the point of using decent coffee? Am I on to something?


Months later, same thing again. I've tried fine home roasted Colombian, Sumatran, Ethiopian, Guatemalan, and so on. A Friend arrives with a very questionable bag of Yuban, and it became sweet gold in my press.

The moral of my story? Still thinking about it. Maybe it says something about the quality of Vietnamese coffee, or maybe it doesn't. Maybe it says something about the re-creation of another country's beverage and the difficulties therein. Or maybe I just have too much time on my hands and I have also wasted yours. Good day.

Your thoughts are most certainly appreciated.


Robyn said...

I think this qualifies as an obsession. That's not an insult, BTW.

a said...

Obsession it most certainly is. This is how I feel about a lot of things. Maybe it shows.

Unknown said...

Great post. I too have been plagued by a borderline obsession to recreating the cafe sua da just like I had it in Saigon. Or perhaps even harder is replicating cafe sua nong like in Saigon with a side of weak/warm jasmine tea. Like you described well there is intense chocolate flavor that coats the back of the throat from a proper cafe sua da/nong.

After experimenting with Trung Nguyen and all the other brands available here in the states I've had better luck with using freshly roasted "French Roast" style coffee and adding roasted chicory. With this combo I've noticed that the drip is alot more consistent and slow...not allowing for the rush of weak coffee like pre-made brands. I know - like you mentioned - chicory is a post '75 addition. But the chicory, for some odd reason, brings the taste much closer to that found in street side Saigon.

But alas - the search continues!

a said...

Hey Nguyen
thanks for stopping by. The search does continue... I always enjoy hearing from folks on this particular topic as it is one of the great wonders of the world. Comparing notes is always fun!

peter said...

wow! i went through a similar fixation and came to a similar conclusion.. cheap canned espresso-ground stuff seems to makes for the best filter coffee! of course, my research was just with different brands (rather than the specialist experimentation you describe)... my favorite became the puerto rican yaucono, but all the places around me have recently stopped carrying it.. interestingly enough, i visited a fairly remote cambodian grocery shop since, and the two brands they stocked were trung nguyên and my beloved yaucono! if you see it around you ought to give it a try, i'd be eager to see if you agree!

a said...

hey peter

I totally agree with you on the trung nguyên and I've meant to blog about it for some time. As simple as this is, it's quite hilarious to see what people online consider vietnamese or thai coffee. I'm still blown away by all the misinformation. I suggest looking at some of the videos online for some truly appalling versions!

peter said...

i can imagine! there are cafés in my area that serve "vietnamese coffee" which is literally just drip-brew with condensed milk.. and "thai iced tea" that is pale brown. it really is a bit crazy, the level of misinformation.. i've seen people online insisting that the base for thai tea is lapsang souchong, heh. i always wonder if the people really even try the recipes they post, and how they feel about their results.

pixen said...

I got a surprise Christmas gift from my sister... 2 packs of Highlands Coffee + 2 percolateurs-imported from Vietnam by a local importer. I'm now trying it out as I'm typing this message. Waiting for it to drip. First time I tried it as well. Will see how it turns out :-)

Anonymous said...

I've had the best luck with making it with some boxes of coffee I bring back from Vn (can't remember what they are called, but I think it's "Moka"). I've also used Highlands and Vn-purchased Trung Nguyen to good result. My Vn m-i-l can use just about anything, though, and make it just right. Trader Joe's coffee does seem to work well for US brands, but I never grind it course (more like drip-filter fine).

Nguyen, I wonder if that tea you're getting in HCMC isn't weak jasmine, but rather lotus tea (the most popular tra da in HCMC in my experience). God, that's something I need to learn to make well. It's so refreshing.

Rachat de credit said...

Thanks a lot it was a great support, now to make vietnamese coffee is simple by using your advice. Thanks

Belle said...

Actually, coffee with chicory is a American-Vietnamese substitution. The real thing doesn't have chicory in it; the flavour of the Vietnamese coffee alone is good enough. :)