An Analysis of Coffee in Vietnam: Beans, Brews, and Roasts
Everything About Coffee in Vietnam
Coffee isn’t just a drink. People rearrange their lives to get that morning cup of wake-up juice. One time, I killed a lady who was slow at ordering in my local cafe. Or maybe that was a pre-coffee day dream.
At any rate, when I moved to Vietnam I was very excited about getting my taste-buds on some traditional Vietnamese coffee. Coffee in Vietnam is so chocolatey and rich. An iced coffee with milk, or ca phe sua da, is a dessert that you drink even before breakfast. Instead of milk, sweetened condensed milk is used. It’s amazing.
I raved about my coffee experiences to anyone that would listen.
Then, one day, I stepped into a school classroom that happened to be studying the sugar content in drinks. They had used bags of sugar to illustrate how many grams were in each beverage. I saw the title for ca phe sua da. There was an empty spot where the bag of sugar was suppose to be. I looked down and saw it on the floor. The weight of the bag was too much -- it had fallen off the poster. A gang of ants were skiing down the sugar mountain, laughing hysterically.
After that, I decided to cut back on the ca phe sua da. I cut out the condensed milk and started drinking the coffee with sugar only (ca phe den da). It was depressing. And I was still having to put in multiple teaspoons of sugar to cut down on the bitterness of the beans.
I had been living a coffee lie. Vietnamese coffee wasn’t amazing. I should have been praising the condensed milk. The coffee beans were rubbish.
I started doing research and found that 97% of Vietnamese coffee is Robusta, a below average bean that was popularized because of its resistance to many fungal diseases. It’s easier and cheaper to grow. The yields are greater. The taste: not-so-good.
Vietnam is the #1 producer of Robusta, and the #2 producer of coffee overall. It exports 1.3 million tons per year. Head to your supermarket and look for Vietnamese coffee. You probably won’t be able to find any. This is because the majority of the grind is going into instant coffee — the only coffee that deserves to be bullied.
As a person who sits around all day, and isn’t in a rush, and likes tasty things -- I don’t do instant coffee.
For coffee in Vietnam, quantity is more important than quality. Arabica beans are becoming more popular, but most farmers haven’t been educated on how to grow them. The climate and soil is there, but the support isn’t.
One day, in an under-caffeinated haze, I walked into L3 -- a small coffee shop in Thu Dau Mot, Binh Duong. The owner greeted me with a huge smile. He didn’t speak English, but I could clearly understand the passion he had for coffee. We ended up becoming friends, having lengthy talks (via Google translate) about coffee in Vietnam. He showed me how to roast. He showed me the various ways to brew. And I watched his business slowly grow. He bought a beautiful espresso machine. He renovated his cafe. He started to focus on selling beans, making blends that included Robusta, Arabica, Mocha, and more. I learned a lot, and with the help of an espresso machine and a weekly 100 gram bag of L3 beans I crafted my morning coffee ritual.
I still drink ca phe sua da, but only as a treat.
Recently, I had a chance to roast beans for traditional Vietnamese coffee. It was interesting to see that after then beans were roasted, they were coated in a mixture of butter, rice wine, sugar, salt, and fish sauce. I don’t know how much this affects the flavor. Maybe it’s the secret to the chocolatey taste. Or maybe it’s one of those Vietnamese traditions that have been passed down for years, but have no real rhyme or reason.
Change in Vietnam is always difficult. Without the support of the government things are unlikely to alter, but the world has started to see the potential in Vietnamese coffee. Starbucks began selling a single-origin Vietnamese coffee. Cafes in Vietnam are selling espresso more. A shift has started, but traditional Vietnamese coffee isn’t going away. Thankfully, it will be making appearances in my life for a long time… but only once a week.