By Mark Prince
At its core, Vietnamese iced coffee is a combination of concentrated coffee brew, condensed (very sweet) milk (nb: do not use evaporated milk; always condensed milk), and ice. Super-sweet condensed milk is used for a few reasons, not the least of which is the bitter nature of most authentic Vietnamese coffee brews, which I’ll go into detail on below.
I say “bastardized” because of the common misconception these days that Vietnamese iced coffee must be made with coffee and chicory. In many of the how tos and videos online showing you this style of brewing, you’ll note Cafe Du Monde coffee from a famous New Orleans coffee shop and roaster is mentioned as the defacto standard coffee to use. People say this because it is a coffee and chicory mix, and according to these how tos, chicory is a required ingredient.
That’s just not true. Vietnamese iced coffee, as done in Vietnam (and other parts of south east Asia) does not use chicory. What they do use is whole, 100% coffee. The problem those in the specialty industry may have with this iced coffee style is the type of coffee used, and the roast levels: most of Vietnam coffee is robusta, and it is roasted very, very dark. This combination of roast style and coffee type, along with the amount of coffee used all lead to a fairly bitter beverage, and hence the need to sweeten things up. Since condensed milk is commonly available in Vietnam, this was a natural choice.
The parts of Vietnamese iced coffee
To brew Vietnamese iced coffee as authentically as possible (though with a specialty coffee twist, which I’ll detail below), you need something called a phin. A phin is the name for the little coffee brewer used for this brewing style. Fortunately, these phins, in various sizes, are almost always available at any town’s dollar store for only a few bucks. I’ve seen them as low as $2, and as high as $7. This makes it a very inexpensive brewing device.
You’ll also need condensed milk (Eagle Brand is one of the more common ones in the US), fresh ground coffee, hot water, and ice. Let’s get into more detail, but with an eye towards specialty coffee.
The Phin: Typically, these are found in 4oz (120ml) to 10oz (300ml) brewing sizes. The one pictured in our how-to is a 4oz (120ml) brewing phin. As well as coming in a variety of sizes, the construction can vary a bit too, but the core parts are usually all the same: main brewing chamber with a filter built in the bottom, press down spreader for putting on top of the coffee, and a lid which doubles as a drip catcher stand for the brewer when done.
Some phins have a gravity-held top spreader, which sits right on the top of your bed of coffee. Others have a screw down spreader that gives you more control and perhaps even a better brew. The idea with the screw down spreader is you screw it down on top of the bed of coffee, keep tightening until you feel the coffee’s resistance, then unscrew it about a full turn to create some headspace between the coffee and top spreader. This allows the coffee to expand when you first pour hot water onto it.
The Coffee: In Vietnam, robusta coffee is the primary coffee available. It doesn’t taste very good. One way to make robusta more palatable (and remove the burnt rubber flavours) is to roast it very dark. Another is to roast it dark but also mix in some arabica. But this is CoffeeGeek and we don’t deal with dark roasts or robusta very much. We’ll be using a quality single origin (in the case of this demonstration, we’re using the Ethiopian Ardi from Madcap Coffee roasters), and adjusting our use of the condensed milk to compensate for the sweeter, much less bitter coffee used.
It is important to note however that if you use a 100% arabica “third wavey” style coffee, you are not making 100% authentic Vietnamese Iced coffee. Some argue the balance of the super bitter (dark roasted robusta) vs the super sweets (the condensed milk) play off each other better.
The grind is a standard drip grind, though you should experiment depending on the phin you use – some can handle a more fine grind, some require a coarser grind.
The Dose of Coffee: We’re making a concentrated coffee beverage, so the dose is more than the standard 7/8g per 100ml (g) of water. For Vietnamese iced coffee in a phin brewer, we’re starting with a ratio of 12g per 100ml (g) of water. In our 120ml brewer, we’re using 14 grams of coffee. Of course, you should adjust based on taste for your purposes.
The Condensed Milk: Condensed milk is super sweet, super thick, and can store on your cupboard shelf for eons. We tried doing a specialty coffee with the often-recommended amounts of condensed milk (about 1cm in the bottom of your cup) and it was just way-overboard sweet. There’s also something else to consider: do you want your Vietnamese iced coffee to be a dessert (like it is regarded in Vietnam)? Or do you want a nice, balanced beverage for enjoying cold?
In our how-to, we’re aiming for the latter. We want something balanced, but perhaps with a slight nod to a sweet summer drink. Definitely adjust your amount of condensed milk for your own style of enjoyment, but it must have condensed milk to be a “Vietnamese iced coffee”
The Water and Ice: as always, used the best quality water you can, and the same goes for the ice – make it from filtered water, and only use fresh ice. It can influence the cup taste. Some have suggested using crushed ice instead of cubes to increase ice surface area and cool down the drink even faster as it brews.
Vietnamese iced coffee is brewed with hot water; most online recipes say 190-195F, but these instructions are for super dark roasted robusta. If you’re using specialty coffee, you want a starting water temperature of 200-205F.
Steep and Brewing Times
The target brew time for Vietnamese Iced coffee is similar to a press pot brew: around 4 minutes. This counts from the time you first add water to the phin brewer, to when the last drops fall out of the bottom. If your brewing time is much longer than that, consider either reducing your amount of coffee used, or adjusting the grind coarser, or a combination of the two. If your brewing time is shorter than four minutes, do the opposite adjustments: grind finer, use more coffee, or a combination of the two.
How to Brew Vietnamese Iced Coffee
All You Need
All you need for Vietnamese Iced Coffee – a phin (which is made up of the brew chamber, a press down or screw down spreader, and a lid/drip tray), ground coffee, condensed milk, glass and ice.
Adding Condensed Milk
This is one of those “eyeball it” measurements – but since we’re using great quality specialty coffee, we’re adding maybe 5mm of condensed milk to the cup.
Adding the Coffee
This is a 120ml brewer and can hold a max of 15g of coffee. We’re adding around 14g for our brew.
Adding the Spreader
This is a screw down spreader, and its purpose is to evenly distribute the water over the ground coffee, as well as keep the ground coffee in check inside the brewer.
Spreader in Place
With a screw down spreader, you screw it on tight until it compressed the coffee a bit, then unscrew one full turn to create some headspace
Preinfuse the coffee by adding about 20ml of 200F+ water, then letting that steep a bit, allowing the coffee to expand.
Adding all Brew Water
Add another 100ml of brewing water (for this 120ml brewer) after letting the preinfusion take place for 20+ seconds.
Adding the Lid
Add the lid to keep the heat in. Then let the brew take place.
The brew may start off slowly at the start. Notice the condensed milk stays on its own layer.
Brewing Near Completion
The brew is about 2/3 of the way through at this point and is speeding up a bit.
The brew is completed, and we have our cup with rich, concentrated coffee and the layer of condensed milk.
Stir the coffee vigourously to mix the condensed milk layer with the coffee brew.
Mixed, Ready for Ice
At this point, most of the condensed milk is mixed in with the brewed coffee, but it is still hot, so time to add ice.
Add ice, stir till chilled, and enjoy a great Vietnamese iced coffee!
Variants on this brewing method
The Vietnamese use the phin brewer for both hot and cold drinks. To brew a cup of traditional hot Vietnamese coffee, you can follow the method above but with the following changes
- Coffee Dose: go back to the more traditional 8g/100ml (g) ratio of coffee to water. You can up this dose a bit, but considering that you’re grinding for drip, the extraction will be greater than a press pot. In Vietnam, the typical coffee dose is 12-14g per 150ml of water used.
- Condensed Milk: The hot beverage uses less condensed milk than the cold one, but it still uses this sweetened milk product.
- Brewing Times: because of the lower volume of ground coffee used, brewing times for hot Vietnamese style coffee are shorter – about 2-3 minutes max, depending on the size of the phin used.
- Keeping Things Hot: Traditionally in Vietnam, they brew hot or cold into a glass, but for hot coffee, they put the glass (stacked with the brewer) in a flat-bottomed bowl of steaming hot water to keep the brewed beverage hot while the brewing takes place.
Another variant on the Vietnamese Iced coffee method is what is commonly known as Thai Iced Coffee. It is made in a similar way, but also uses a healthy amount of spices and a small amount of sugar to offset some of the spices’ bitterness.
To make Thai iced coffee, brew the Vietnamese way, but also place in the brewing chamber a healthy amount of cardamom, cinnamon and almond extract – aim for about 2 tsp of spices total with ground cardamom making up the bulk. Also for serving, some prefer to add the condensed milk after the brew, to create a top down layer effect that your guests can stir.