A company was caught taking dirt, rock dust, and black carbon powder from the innards of used batteries and adding it to rejected coffee and then selling (literally) tons of it on the open market. Definitely yucky but it might give the reader an unfair view of the rich Vietnamese coffee culture one can find there. For over a century-and-a-half, coffee has been grown in Vietnam and it is currently the world’s number two producer. They take their cà phê seriously and like to drink it in ways that are different and quite exotic to my tastes.
A Little History of Coffee in Vietnam
Coffee was first introduced to Vietnam by an obviously coffee-crazed French missionary priest. It is not clear whether seeds or plants were introduced, but Arabica made its way from Martinique and Guyana and was first planted to meet “personal needs.” By 1857, coffee was growing in the Catholic Church farms in the northern parts of the country and by the end of the 19th-century regular production was established, although not on a large scale.
In 1908, unhappy with the yields from coffea Arabica, the French colonists introduced both the Robusta and Liberica varieties. The Robusta variety was found to do especially well in the soil and climate of the central highlands and many coffee plantations were established, managed by the French and worked by forced local ethnic minorities.
Current Coffee Production
Coffee is still mostly cultivated in the Central Highlands and other Central and Northern mountainous lands. Most of the coffee is produced on small family farms averaging 2 – 5 hectares per family. According to government reports, 70% of Vietnam coffee trees and over 90% of its production are Robusta. Indeed, Vietnam is the number one producer of Robusta coffee, accounting for over 40% of the worlds total production. This is due to the aforementioned ideal growing conditions and the not insignificant opening of a major instant coffee manufacturing plant in 1968 providing a ready market for the beans. It is a real “chicken and egg” situation: They grow the robusta because there is a market for it and the market exists because the coffee is there.
While researching this article, I came across an advertisement for Vietnamese Weasel Puke coffee and being the kind of guy that I am, I felt I had to at least mention it here. What the Vietnamese call a weasel, we call a civet, so I suspect that this product is one of two things: either it is, as they say, coffee partially digested by some other variety of civet than the Palm Civet and then barfed up, or it is a mistranslation of “poop” to “puke” and is the same as Kopi Luwak. More on Kopi Luwak in another post.
How the Vietnamese Drink Coffee
While Vietnam is the world’s number two coffee producer and it is number 11 in total domestic consumption, it doesn’t even crack the top 50 in per capita consumption. Coffee culture in Vietnam is very developed and Vietnamese people love drinking coffee as an everyday activity but they are more into quality than quantity. Their traditional coffee, cà phê sua dá or “Vietnamese iced coffee” is a perennial favorite, and they have been exposed to other types of coffee drinks from around the world. Yogurt is a popular additive for coffee in Vietnam as is sweetened condensed milk, eggs, or even butter and cheese. Ca phe trung is a Vietnamese coffee specialty: a typical Vietnamese coffee topped with a meringue-like fluff made of whipped sweetened condensed milk and egg yolk. For some videos on how to prepare this and other traditional Vietnamese coffee drinks, check out https://knowyourgrinder.com/vietnamese-coffee-history-types-production/.
In Vietnam, coffee generally comes to you strong and sweet. By strong, I mean using three tablespoons of grounds for a single cup and by sweet, I mean using up to three tablespoons of condensed milk in the same cup. Talk about an eye-opener! It is prepared by putting the appropriate amount of condensed milk in the cup and loosely placing the grounds – note: it’s three times the amount that you ordinarily use in a cup of coffee – in a phin, a sort of a percolator / pour-over filter hybrid. Like in a pour-over, a small amount of the hot water is gently poured on the grounds to allow the coffee to bloom. After the bloom, the coffee is gently tamped down with the pressure plate and the rest of the water added so that it can slowly filter through the coffee and drip out of the bottom. It can take upwards of 5 minutes brewing time and it is served so that you can see the progress. Your coffee mixing with the condensed milk through the glass cup only adds to your anticipation. After it finishes with the brewing process, a quick stir with your spoon and you have cà phê sữa nón. Pour it over ice and it is cà phê sua dá.
Vietnam coffee production has come a long way in the last 150 years and especially, since the initiation of market reforms, in the last thirty. We should expect to see continued high production as it is a big country, although due to the maps we use, where countries closer to the equator are represented smaller, we tend to have a skewed view of Vietnam’s size. In actuality it is almost as large as California and is situated in a prime coffee growing location, covering about the same latitudes as Mexico. So give yourself a treat and try a coffee that is worth writing about!