What makes Vietnamese coffee taste so distinctive and delicious?

What makes Vietnamese coffee taste so distinctive and delicious?

Vietnamese coffee is distinctively strong because of two reasons:

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1) A different type of coffee bean

Vietnamese coffee is almost always Robusta. The usual coffee bean is Arabica, since it is the main type of coffee exported by Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of coffee. Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of coffee, but the main bean is Robusta instead. In Vietnam, Robusta is the traditional bean and also one of the cheaper ones (for obvious reasons) as well.

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Robusta is almost twice as strong caffeine wise (2.7% wt instead of Arabica’s 1.5%), making it a bit more bitter, as caffeine itself is bitter. Furthermore, it has 60% less lipid (fat) and sugar than Arabica, so the taste is sharp and less casual than your usual cup of coffee. Unlike Arabica, which is mellow and easy-drinking, Robusta is often compared to burnt tires and rubbery in taste with a thick lingering taste and higher acidity. While this might turn away the head of a serial Starbucks fan, for many Vietnamese, only the strength of Robusta is the way to go.

2) An different combination of brewing and roasting

Vietnamese coffee is almost always drip coffee. Go out to any Vietnamese street coffee stall and you’ll find rudimentary aluminium drip filters and cups of exquisitely aromatic black coffee underneath. The Vietnamese like their coffee nice and slow, and setting up the filter and choosing right time to drink is an art in itself. Drip coffee is very thick, and the coffee bean is usually intentionally over-roasted, making it quite bitter. A frequent way to enjoy this is with condensed milk and ice (cà phê sữa đá), and it naturally maintains a strong taste – everything is condensed in this cup, even the water! Drip coffee is the way Vietnamese people create and enjoy conversation.

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A strong taste, a thicker brew and a few over-roasted beans makes for a different, distinctive taste. Whether it is delicious or not is subjective – a lot of my American friends who grew up with Arabica and cream dislike the heavily strong taste of Vietnamese-style coffee, but I’ve known people who swear by it. The massive strength of the coffee style here (both in popularity and in taste) forced the Vietnamese Starbucks to adapt, not the other way round! To us, it is simply too bland, too sour (despite Arabica’s “lower acidity”), too unimpressive.

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But there’s more to Vietnamese coffee than just a hefty taste and a cheap pricetag. “Đi uống cà phê”, which means “go drink coffee”, is another way to say “let’s have a chat.” We’re always welcoming new additions to our traditional style – and trust me, drip over-roasted Robusta works well with cream, sugar and even whipped cream toppings and hazelnut syrup too! Really. Some Italian blends claim it improves the Crema or something, but I’m no connoisseur. I buy my cà phê sữa đá for less than a dollar at my usual place across the street.

But pumpkin spice might be a bit overboard.

SIDE NOTE: Do you know why Robusta is half the price of Arabica? Robusta is literally robust – it is highly resistant to insects and have a better yield-per-area, so it can be made for a lower cost, with little to no chemical use. The caffeine percentage in Robusta is toxic to many bugs. Furthermore, this type of coffee is packed with anti-oxidants (7-10% chlorogenic acid compared to Arabica’s 5.5-8%), so let’s get healthy and Robusta!

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