In Search of Vietnamese Coffee in Seattle
Our fair city is known for a number of ‘iconic’ foods including salmon, teriyaki, oysters and the like – but coffee trumps them all as a daily ritual we share. Several years ago I had my first proper rendition Vietnamese coffee in Singapore – a delectable concoction of thick coffee slowly brewed and then stirred into a pool of sweet, thick condensed milk. The result was nothing short of a hyper-caffeinated revelation. And while I can get some pretty decent renditions of Vietnamese food in this town like banh mi and pho – I simply cannot find a decent Vietnamese coffee without going on a mission.
To narrow my search I had to call in an expert on the subject – Eric Banh of Monsoon and Café Ba Bar fame was just the man. We met at the latter to talk about the art of brewing a proper Vietnamese coffee.
When did coffee cultivation begin in Vietnam?
The French brought coffee to Vietnam in the 1800’s when the country was colonized. It became a profit generator for them. At the time, India was growing opium to sell to Hong Kong. Vietnam was selling rubber to manufacture tires. It was also nice for the local agrarian culture as it was sweet, it wired you kept you alert.
What are the main characteristics of Vietnamese coffee?
Everywhere I go people are using Robusta beans – not Arabica which is more refined and commonly used in espresso and filter coffee. Vietnam is the largest Robusta producer in the world and this is why the coffee is so strong. The only way to get away with using these over-roasted, bitter, earthy coffees is to add sweetened condensed milk to them.
The best way to put it is in comparison to wine. Arabica is like a fine Burgundy. Robusta is like a burly Australian Shiraz. I love the beautiful smell of the premium Arabica beans and the bouquet is key for me.
How do you prefer to make Vietnamese coffee?
When I was trying out coffees to make here I tested Sumatra beans and found that they were substantially more acidic. They turned sour once you added in ice. Then I tested a blend of beans from Caffé Vita which is what we use here. They worked perfectly for what I wanted to achieve – a more finessed version of Vietnamese coffee.
That said, using condensed milk with the Arabica beans just does not work as well as Robusta. The nature of the roast is very delicate and so we froth it up to create our own version that works. Also remember that in Vietnam ice is very much used for craft cocktails. Large blocks of it are cut and melting is substantially slower in this form. They put it in a glass and stir it rapidly with a spoon to create a foam in the coffee. That’s how we make it here – it’s the proper way to do it. We put ice in the glass stir it quickly to create a foamy, airy texture.
I cannot use Robusta beans living in this town. There’s nothing wrong with the traditional version – it just doesn’t satisfy my palate. By combining the original concepts with the quality of beans we have here we create something that tastes pretty damned delicious.
What does Vietnamese coffee culture mean to you?
It’s a huge part of the Vietnamese culture. Bars aren’t social places there and going to them carries a stigma – you are considered either an alcoholic or low class. So instead, you go to the café. You can sit, watch the slow drip of the coffee and have a conversation – it replaces alcohol as a budget fitting social tool.
Now, Saigon has 11 million people living in it. Having a coffee is such a nice way to slow things down. You sit, beautiful women serve you coffee and you watch the drop, have a conversation and relax. And it takes a minimum of an hour. It slows you down and acts as therapy to calm you down taking you away from the sounds of mopeds and honking of cars.
I also love the romance and the slowness of it. I remember growing up in Saigon as a kid – people give you coffee at an early age. At 9am my dad would bring me to this place where we’d have this strong coffee, with a scoop of coconut ice cream, peanuts and some coconut meat – it was awesome.
What makes a good version of Vietnamese coffee?
There’s three things in this order: a talented barista, the grinder, and the quality of the beans.
You have to be passionate about what you are making. The person making it needs to love what they are doing and has to want to make a great cup of coffee. A simple way to ruin Vietnamese coffee is to not tamp it down properly. If it’s too loose – it just drips through. The longer the coffee is in contact with the water the more caffeine will be extracted. For it to be right there must be one drop every 2 seconds.
I also remember a variation on the traditional method of making Vietnamese coffee from when I was a kid in Saigon. We’d go to school and then skip class to go to one of the coffee shops nearby. There was this lady at one of the shops that would put a pat of butter in and it tasted great. It’s not on our menu here yet but it may be something we do in the future.
Where can I go in Seattle to get the best rendition?
Well, we do an espresso version here at Ba Bar and we may bring back a traditional version in the future. Also, Saigon Deli in Little Saigon – they tamp the coffee down correctly and know how to do the job well. Hoang Lan in Beacon Hill does a nice job too.
* Portions of this story originally appeared in Seattle Weekly