If you’ve ever tried good traditional Vietnamese coffee, you’ll probably have noticed it’s pretty strong. Why is that the case? What makes it strong? Here’s what you need to know.
Vietnamese coffee is strong in taste and high in caffeine content. The most important reason for this is the use of Robusta beans and a dark roast. The traditional Vietnamese brewing method with a Phin also uses a lot of coffee grounds for the amount of water which makes the coffee stronger.
There are a few more reasons like roast and brewing method that have their impact on the taste and caffeine content. Keep reading to find out more.
Want to brew your own Vietnamese coffee? Try the Nguyen supply coffee on Amazon. It’s organic and fairtrade coffee from Vietnam and is roasted and ground to be exactly right to brew in a Phin.
What does strong mean?
Strong coffee is a very general term. It can still mean different things. Strong coffee can refer to two things that aren’t the same and aren’t even really related;
- Caffeine content
Those two things are not the same. You can have a mild tasting coffee with a high caffeine content and vice versa. When talking about Vietnamese coffee, people usually say both the taste is strong and the caffeine content is high.
However, since they aren’t necessarily related, let’s take a look at both those factors separately.
Vietnamese coffee always has a strong taste. The taste isn’t always the same and sometimes it’s better than other times but strong is an adjective you can almost always use to describe it.
There are several reasons for this:
Starting from the beginning, the location in the world where the coffee is grown, has an impact on the taste.
The soil, elevation, temperature and climate all have their effect on how the coffee tastes. A coffee tree that grows in one place on earth might not produce coffee with the same taste as that exact same tree in another place.
That means that part of the reason for Vietnamese coffee tasting strong or at least different than other coffees is just the fact that it’s grown in another place.
The most important factor in the strong taste of Vietnamese coffee is the type of beans that is used. Most of Vietnamese coffees are largely the Robusta type beans.
Vietnam is one of the biggest coffee growers and exporters in the world. The vast majority of the coffee grown in Vietnam is the Robusta variety. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any Arabica or some of the smaller types but, they’re much rarer.
This means that the cheapest and widest available bean is Robusta and that’s what the majority of Vietnamese coffee is made of. Robusta has a very strong and bold flavor profile although the taste is not as deep and fruity as Arabica tends to be. Robusta is more of a punch in the tongue to put it simply.
Most coffee shops and bags of coffee you buy in the shop are blends. They combine a percentage of Robusta beans with Arabica beans. This smooths out the flavor profile. However, in Vietnam the majority of coffee blends will usually still be largely Robusta since it’s cheaper and people are used to the taste.
In most other countries it’s the other way around. The coffee blends are largely Arabica with a smaller percentage of Robusta.
This is the biggest factor in the stronger taste of Vietnamese coffee.
Of course what you do with the beans also has an impact. The roasting is one of the most important factors in taste after choosing the beans.
No, the myth isn’t true; Vietnamese coffee isn’t roasted with fish sauce. (although that’s an experiment I’d like to try one day…) But, there are some things in the roasting of Vietnamese coffee that do have an impact.
Robusta beans are generally not considered to produce the best tasting coffee. “Dirt”, “bitter” and “burnt rubber” are descriptions often used. Those aren’t very positive descriptors but, if you treat the beans the right way, you can actually transform them into a pretty well rounded coffee.
So, to balance out the usually bitter and slightly rough taste of the Robusta beans, Vietnamese coffee roasters use clarified butter in the roasting process. This creates a smoother and much more rounded taste.
Other common additives are cocoa and sometimes a tiny bit of vanilla. In most coffees you won’t actually be able to recognize those tastes but they do help to round out the taste, create more depth and take of the unpleasant edges. Some roasts even utilize some sugar so you get caramel notes.
Finally, the roast tends to be on the dark side. This produces a full bodied taste and lowers the acidity. This also makes the beans drier and therefore creates a thicker coffee after brewing.
The roast is dark because the majority of people drink their coffee with condensed milk. The fuller body and smoky notes of a dark roast are perfect to combine with dairy.
Traditional Vietnamese coffee is brewed with a little metal filter called a Phin. This is a little (usually metal) filter that you put on top of your cup. In the bottom of the filter there are tiny holes the coffee can go through. But since the grind is relatively course, the grounds don’t go through. Although usually there will be a little residue in your cup if the grind is inconsistent.
The grind used for a Phin is medium coarse. If it’s too small the coffee will end up in your cup or clogging the holes in the filter. If you’re grinding your own, it’s better to err on the side of course although that could make the coffee run through the filter too quickly.
As a result of the traditional brewing method with a Phin, the brew time is quite long. Usually it takes 3-5 minutes for a small cup. This means the water has more time to extract all the flavor compounds and oils from the coffee grounds than with a paper filter or coffee machine.
There are many steps in the process from the tree to the cup that all influence the taste. All of the factors have their impact but the biggest factors are the Robusta beans that are locally grown and the way the coffee is roasted and brewed.
While taste and caffeine content aren’t necessarily related, Vietnamese coffee has a pretty high caffeine content per milliliter as well as a strong taste.
The biggest reasons for this are similar to the reasons why the taste is strong;
- Brewing method
Again, the Robusta beans are the culprit here. Besides having a different flavor profile, the Robusta beans have a much higher caffeine content than Arabica beans.
An average Robusta bean has around 2.2- 2.7% caffeine content, while the average Arabica bean has around 1.2 – 1.5%. That means Robusta has almost double the caffeine content of Arabica. Of course there are differences between different farms and locations but those are the averages.
If you want to experience this difference first hand, you can get a combo of different types of Vietnamese coffee from Nguyen Coffee Supply. They are an award winning coffee roaster that roast in the US. So you get Vietnamese beans but they’re still freshly roasted. This combo has 3 different bags; 100% Arabica, 100% Robusta and 50/50 Arabica/Robusta. This way you can find out for yourself what the difference in taste and caffeine feels like.
Of course it doesn’t really matter how much caffeine is in a bean if you don’t get it out of there. That’s why once again, the brewing method is of importance.
A longer brew time has the chance of extracting more compounds out of the coffee including caffeine.
However, on the flip side, a finer grind gives more surface area on the coffee, which means more extraction. But, with a Vietnamese Phin, the grind is pretty coarse. That means the brew time is offset by the grind size.
So, in the end in my opinion the brewing method does influence the taste but not the caffeine content to a large degree. The Robusta beans take most of the credit for that.
If you’re used to ordering Vietnamese iced coffee with milk (Ca Phe Sua Da), you get a cup with roughly 50/50 condensed milk and coffee mixed with ice. Condensed milk has a lot of sugar. Don’t mistake the sugar rush for caffeine. The combination of sugar and caffeine can make it seem like there is more caffeine since you get the kick of both the sugar and caffeine.
It’s a sad reality but Vietnamese coffee in Vietnam isn’t always 100% coffee. This most commonly happens at the cheap roadside coffee shops where you can get a cup for very little money. It ranges from some innocent additives like chicory to concoctions that have never even been near a real coffee bean in their lives. Usually made from soy beans, corn and chemicals.
Since most people order their coffee with ice and condensed milk, the taste is covered up and the complete package tastes like people expect. However, when you order it black, you’ll start noticing the difference. It’s unnaturally sweet and looks like coffee but it isn’t. The taste will still be strong but it’s an artificially created one. Mind you, there is probably plenty of caffeine in there since that’s pretty easy and cheap to add.
Fake coffee is more prevalent in the cheaper coffee shops since most coffee is exported and what’s left for the domestic market isn’t actually super cheap. Most fancier coffee shops will serve you real coffee but there you’re paying significantly more than $0.10.
This is only really a problem in coffee shops. If you buy coffee in bags from a known brand, you can be pretty sure there is real coffee in there. Although many supermarket coffees will have a small percentage of additives as well, the additives there are usually the result of the roasting process.
Favorite Vietnamese Coffee Products
To make Vietnamese coffee you don’t need many things so makes sure the things you use are correct!
Vietnamese Coffee: Get your traditional coffee from Nguyen coffee supply. It’s freshly roasted in the USA so it’s much fresher than imported bags. The used beans are 100% Vietnamese. Here’s a combo pack (Amazon) to see what you like best.
Phin: The only way to brew Vietnamese coffee is with a Phin. This one (amazon link) works well is cheap and reusable.
Scale: Even though a Phin isn’t super picky with weights, to brew and adjust your cups to be consistently delicious, a simple scale helps tremendously. I’ve been using this one (Amazon link) for over a year and while it’s not the most aesthetic, it works well.
Condensed milk: To make the delicious ca phe sua da, you need condensed milk. This one (Amazon link) is organic and works perfectly.