Introduction: Vietnamese Iced Coffee

About: I'm an engineer in the renewable energy world, and help run a cooperative workshop makerspace in Boulder, CO called the Phoenix Asylum.

One of the most fabulous beverages known to man and woman-kinds alike is the sublime Vietnamese Iced Coffee, or Café Sua Da (or even, cà phê sữa đá, to further transliterate). This coffee, a rich french dark roast with chicory, made in a special version of the press pot, and served with copious quantities of sweetened condensed milk and refreshingly cooled with ice, is the perfect complement to any dish, and any occasion. Just don't drink it if you are hoping to sleep soon. It also makes a nice alternative to the Thai Iced Tea recipe I've got. They are both great on a hot day, or with spicy southeast asian foods (or anything at all, frankly). Read on for a picture-heavy, overly analyzed method of making the best coffee in town.

Vietnamese Iced Coffee is a simple thing to make, but there are some subtleties, and the equipment you need isn't of the sort usually found at your usual big-box grocer-mart. The techniques are also simple, but there are a few things to pay attention to if you want to whip the pants off of your local coffee joint.

Step 1: The Equipment

Lets start with the equipment:

  • Vientamese-style press pots
  • Tall glasses, preferably made of clear glass
  • Spoons with long handles
  • Something to boil water in (tea pot, sauce pot, old coffee can, whateva')

This is a Vietnamese-syle press pot. This little single serving device is meant to fit over a cup, hold about two tablespoons worth of coffee, and the required amount of water for brewing. There is a screen on the bottom, and a plunger with another screen on it that screws down on top of the coffee to smush it between the two filters. The tightness of this top filter controls the strength of the coffee. The tighter it is, the slower water flows, and the stronger the brew. These devices are available at your local asian market. If you have a choice, southeast asian markets are more likely to carry this variety of press pot, althought the more common 'Chinese grocery' sort of market will often carry such an implement as well. They can be had for a couple bucks each. Get at least two, preferably four.

The tall glasses could be of any size as long as the press pot fits over the top of the glass, and holds at least 12 oz.; a "highball" is usually a good size.

Long handled spoons just randomly appear in certain places. If you only have regular spoons, you can use your wire-feed, shielded MIG welder to weld a small extension onto your existing spoon, or you can just live with the fact that your fingertips might get a little wet. Don't be ashamed, just lick the sweet coffee off your fingers.

Step 2: The Ingredients

Next come the ingredients:

  • French Dark Roast Coffee with Chicory (Cafe Du Monde, for instance)
  • Sweetened Condensed Milk (Longevity brand?)
  • Ice (good old Frozen Water)
  • Boiling Water (good old, uh, Hot Water)

Next is the coffee and the sweetened condensed milk. I'm using Cafe Demonte, which, despite the French sounding name and French flag, actually hails from Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam. This coffee is in the same style as the more commonly found Cafe Du Monde, which comes from the French-quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana. Either of these coffees will work well. If you are going to a local roaster (which is a great idea, if you know a good one) then ask for dark french roast with around 10% roasted chicory added. They might call it their 'cajun' blend or something, as this is a New Orleans/French-quarter sort of thing. This should be ground fairly coarse, as for a press pot. If you get it ground at the roasters, they'll know what that means.

The sweetened condensed milk I have is called Longeivity Brand, and it features some Vietnamese writing, and an image of an old man. I just bought it because it was interesting looking. What you want however, is anything that lists as its ingredients "Whole Milk, Sugar" and that's it. Sometimes the cheaper brands have vegetable oil or weird stuff in them. Screw that, get the real stuff, your palate is worth it. If you are vegan, I recommend trying coconut milk with a regular sugar syrup, or the pre-sweetened "cream of coconut" you can get for making pina coladas (available in the alcohol aisle, popular brand being "Coco Lopez"). Even if you aren't vegan, give it a try with the coconut, its tasty too!

Ice and Boiling Water are actually made from the same basic ingredient, H2O. You can get a steady supply of this from your Municipal Water Authority, who has likely provided a tap directly into your home. Actuate the tap by turning a knob or moving a lever located near or above your sink. If you are uncertain of how to operate your tap, call your local water authority, or consult a professional plumber. Once you have dispensed some liquid water, simply place it in a suitable container, such as an ice tray, plastic bottle, or dixie cup, and put it in your freezer. In a few hours, you will have fresh, delicious ice. To make boiling water, simply place the water in a heat-proof container, such as a tea pot or empty coffee can, and heat on your gas or electric stove. After a few minutes, the water should turn into boiling water.

If your water tastes bad out of the tap, so will your coffee. If your water isn't very tasty, then run it through a filter, or use a bottled spring water to make your coffee. It makes a difference!

Step 3: Getting Started

Its time to load up your rig. Pour a little of the sweetened condensed milk into your glass. How much? I don't know. Look at the photo to get an idea of how much. You want to put in about 3/4 of an inch worth. You can experiment to find out how much you like.

Then put about two tablespoons of coffee into the press pot. Again, I don't measure, I just scoop in enough so that it almost covers the threaded part inside the pot. Put the little lid to the pot underneath it while you pour in the coffee, and then tap the pot lightly against the lid to shake out the dust onto the lid. This will limit the sediment you get in the coffee.

Step 4: Assemble the Pot

Screw the top filter element down into the pot. If you can't get the threads to engage, you may have put in a tiny bit too much coffee. This is where you choose how strong your coffee is. Tighter = slower but stronger brew, looser = faster but weaker brew. Personally, I like my coffee to come out so black that light itself cannot escape its surface. I crank it down fairly tight, not so hard that I have to use tools or get a blister, but a good squeeze. If in doubt, make it a little on the tight side. You can always loosen it (using the handle of your spoon as a screwdriver) during the brew if you want to speed things up a bit, but you'll get an unsatisfying brew if its not tight enough and it just drains right through. You want this coffee to be stronger than usual coming out of the pot because you are diluting it with the condensed milk and the ice that you'll be adding. Besides, this is no weak-ass office coffee we are making, this is the real deal.

Step 5: Moment of Truth - Add the Water

Now you simply place the pot on top of your glass, and add the boiling water. In case you were curious, 202 degrees F is the 'perfect' temperature for brewing coffee. However, in the real world all this really means is 'slightly less than boiling'. Most coffee makers brew too cool, not heating the water up enough before sending it through the grinds (making for a weak and unsatisfying brew) and some (like percolators) heat the water too much, boiling the coffee (making for a bitter and unsatisfying brew). Here is my thought. I boil the water, then pull the tea pot off of the stove, wait for it to stop whistling, then add the water. The water will be a tiny bit too warm to start with, but as the heat is drawn out through the metal pot and the glass, we should hit around 202F for the main part of the brew. I love it when a plan comes together.

Add water all the way up to the tippy-top of the pot, but be careful not to spill on yourself. After you've poured in the water, put the lid on top to seal in the heat, and let it go. If you are using fresh grounds, you might get some 'bloom' frothing over (this is due to the CO2 in freshly roasted beans). Don't worry about it, the worst thing that will happen is that you will need to wipe up some froth.

Step 6: Patience...

Now you wait. One thing about this coffee is that it brews incredibly slowly. You should start out getting two or three drips per second after the grounds are saturated. If you are much slower than this, you might consider loosening the press slightly, and if you are much faster, you might consider tightening the press a bit. But again, experimentation is your friend, and you'll find a good rate for your tastes.

The dripping is very nice, and is a pleasant visual as well as an amusing thing to watch. If you are serving this to people, make sure you serve the glasses with the milk already in them, and the pot on top, then pour the water in front of the person. They will enjoy seeing the process begin, and watch their cup slowly fill up with a few inches of black goodness.

Step 7: Coffee Time!

When the dripping slows to a stop, peek inside to see the water level, if there is no water left, your coffee is almost ready! Remove the lid, and set it upside down on the table, then set the press pot on the lid so any drips will go into the upturned lid. Make sure you grab by those little black pieces on the sides of the pot, as the main pot will be very hot!

Now is the time to mix the milk and the coffee, for best dissolving. I have made the mistake of adding ice before mixing the two; the cold coffee isn't able to properly dissolve the thick syrup, and you end up with uneven coffee.

Once the two are properly blended, give it a taste. If you want, you can add more condensed milk at this point if isn't sweet and creamy enough. It should taste like really good melted coffee ice cream. Think Haagen Daaz stuff. If it were cold outside, you might like to drink it warm like this. But since it is summer now, I like to ice it.

I usually just throw a few ice cubes in the glass and call it good, but if you are doing it with style, you'll pre-chill another glass of the same type, fill it with crushed ice, and pour the coffee over the crushed ice. This dilutes the coffee less, because the ice doesn't need to cool both coffee AND the glass, but only the coffee. Less melting = less dilution. But I don't have many glasses, so I just add the ice to the brewing glass, and it works nicely.

Now just sit back, and enjoy! It took some time, but really wasn't much harder than drip coffee, and you will enjoy it much more. Plus, no yucky paper filters to deal with.