Vietnam is a growing country; the fifteenth-most populous in the world. Much like other countries that have specialized in growing coffee Vietnam has seen its share of colonization, wars for independence, and rapid growth coming out of the 20th century. The beautiful country of Vietnam is no different.
Having fought two wars for independence from 1946 to 1975; the first being against the French and then the subsequent Vietnam War (also called the American War in the country), Vietnam was formally reunited between the North and South, and even after reunification the fledgling country warred with neighboring Cambodia and China.
In 1986 market reforms called Đổi Mới (Renovation) shifted the country’s economy from a pure planned economy to a more socialist-oriented market economy. Since then, the country has gone from one of the poorest in Asia to a growing lower-middle class country that has become a tourist hotspot, a regional power for telecommunications and the sciences, and developed infrastructure for its remotest regions in the span of more than 30 years.
Coffee was originally brought to Vietnam by the French in 1857 during their period of initial colonization. While Vietnam is mostly known for growing robusta coffee beans today, the French brought arabica beans first. These were grown in the more northern regions of the country in and around the French Catholic churches.
However, by 1908, robustas were brought into Vietnam and the French found that the more tropical and rainy areas of the south were more conducive to growing coffee than the drier, temperate northern regions of the country.
After reunification, the country began to focus on internal development after nearly 30 years of warfare, but such development of coffee production was slow going. When the economic reforms of Đổi Mới were implemented, Vietnam opened to foreign investment and by the early 2000s, the country became the second-largest producer and exporter of coffee in the world, only beaten by Brazil. Soon coffee production accounted for 10% of Vietnam’s total agricultural output and comprised 30% of the Central Highlands total GDP.
In more recent years, the effects of climate change have affected production due to the exacerbating spreads of pests and diseases, aging coffee trees, and general crop competition as smaller farmers find their profit margins shrinking. To combat this, the Vietnamese government developed the “Vietnam Sustainable Coffee Plan and Vision to 2030”.
The plan focuses on better developing technological processing infrastructure, implementing water-saving irrigation techniques, teaching farmers more environmentally sound practices, capping nationwide coffee cultivation at 600,000 hectares, and finally, expanding into high-quality arabica growing.
Currently, robusta beans account for 97% of the coffee grown in the country and while there are small growing regions in the North-West and South-East, the tropical Central Highlands region is the primary growing region. Within this area of the country, five provinces account for the centers of production. These five provinces are Đắk Lắk, Đắk Nông, Gia Lai, Kon Tum, Lâm Đồng.
Within Vietnam, coffee is grown both by small farm holders as well as larger farms too. Small farmers are now growing coffee among other crops and within shaded areas because of climate change and urgings by the government. The harvest for Vietnamese coffee begins in October. While small farms often dry-process their beans, the larger estates have begun to turn to wet-processing to meet both internal and external consumer demands.
Within Vietnam, coffee was traditionally roasted with rice wine, salt, and butter for additional flavor, and you can go that route. That being said, we’ve heard a variety of roasting suggestions from customers, all the way from light roasting to dark roasting and some have even written that it would work well within a coffee blend!
We should note that robusta beans are usually dark roasted. However, finding a particular roasting level is part of the fun of home-roasting coffee, so experiment and have fun!
You can find our offering of Vietnamese robusta beans here.
If you’ve never had a robusta bean before, there are a few slight flavor differences you may not be used if you’ve primarily had arabica or other varietals before.
Generally, robusta’s flavor is nuttier and bolder and unlike sweeter arabicas, you may be surprised at the bitterness, but don’t be alarmed. Think of this bitterness more like a bar of dark chocolate versus milk chocolate. Additionally, robustas also have more caffeine to them, so they are perfect for the early morning zing you need to get moving.
Like any type of coffee, there are multiple ways to brew it. Each brings out specific flavor notes, accentuating some and downplaying others. Brewing Vietnamese robusta beans aren’t any different.
Within Vietnam, there is a traditional drip method of brewing coffee called phin. This method is closest to a pour-over, yet similar to an Aeropress in that coffee brewed using a phin is brewed directly over the cup.
These types of filters are easy to get a hold of if you want to try them out for yourself. They come in multiple sizes ranging from 4oz, 12oz, and up to 24oz. We suggest purchasing the 12oz phin filter from Ngyuen Coffee Supply if you want to brew Vietnamese coffee in a traditional manner.
Another brew method we suggest is the French Press. Given robusta bean’s preference for dark roasts, Vietnam’s history with the French, and how the French Press excels at brewing dark roasts, it's a no-brainer!
Finally, the third brewing method we suggest is using Vietnamese beans for your espresso blend for an additional caffeine kick. Robusta beans are already used within Italian espressos (though American espressos tend to use arabicas) and are known to produce a better, more voluminous crema overall.
How to Make Vietnamese Iced Coffee (Cà Phê Sữa Đá)
Most westerner’s familiarity with Vietnamese coffee usually comes from having the traditional drink, Cà Phê Sữa Đá, which literally translates to iced milk coffee. The beverage is served cold given the tropical climate of Vietnam and made with phin. However, the drink can also be made “hot” by taking out the sweetened condensed milk and ice.
This coffee drink is very similar to the French café au lait and uses sweetened condensed milk rather than regular milk due to the long colonial shipping times from France to Vietnam. If you want to try making it home here’s what you’ll need…
- A phin coffee filter or a French press
- 1 oz of coarsely ground Vietnamese beans
- Half of an oz of sweetened condensed milk
- 3 oz boiled water
*Please note that our recipe assumes you are using a phin filter. If you are using a French Press, just make a traditional French press and combine it into a cup as described below*
- Pour in the sweetened condensed milk into the cup first as the coffee will drip into the cup.
- Add the ground coffee into the phin filter.
- Add less than an oz of hot water to the grounds and let bloom for 30-40 seconds.
- Add the rest of the water to steep the grounds.
- Let the coffee drip into the cup. This should be about 5 minutes or so.
- Stir coffee and sweetened condensed milk together, add ice, and enjoy!
Vietnamese coffee offers a mix of both Western and Eastern coffee traditions that makes use of the singular robusta species in unique and interesting ways that can’t be found elsewhere in the world. It will be intriguing as the country continues to develop its native arabica coffee and further develop its production capacity in the coming years. Hopefully one day, Coffee Bean Corral will have some Vietnamese arabicas too!