Vietnamese Iced Coffee
Iced coffee is a staple in tropical Vietnam, as might well be expected. In fact, the way a coffee tastes iced is as important there as the way it tastes hot. Many of the flavors of the rich Robustas and chocolatey Arabicas grown there seem to be brought out even more in icing. In iced coffee, you will actually taste a different range of flavors. Because of the flavor shifts, your favorite hot brew might not be your favorite iced brew. We offer some help below in maximizing your enjoyment of Vietnamese iced coffee, a treat that many consider the best in the world.
Vietnamese Coffeehouse Tradition
When iced coffee is served to a customer in a Vietnamese coffeeshop, the coffee is presented brewing hot in a single-cup filter/brewer, as shown in our picture here. The coffee drains into a glass, not a cup or mug. The patron is also given a second tall glass filled with cracked ice (not crushed, not large cubes, somewhere in-between).
When the coffee has finished brewing, the patron pours the coffee over the ice. Usually the coffee does not come to the top of the glass. The coffee is then sipped through the ice for a very chilled effect. What about cream and sugar? Usually it is served with sweetened condensed milk, if desired. Generally, a tablespoon or two of the consensed milk is placed into the first glass and the coffee brews onto the thick milk below. Before pouring into the glass of ice, the milk is stirred up into the coffee.
Alternative brewing methods
We've just described the common coffehouse method. But that is a small-volume method, it is consumed right away, and it isn't going to be much help if you want to make a pitcher of iced coffee for a garden party, or if you want to have a pitcher in the fridge for sipping on later.
Dilution is the bane of hot-brewed iced coffee. When you hot brew coffee, unless you want to wait hours while it cools, you will have to have some way to predictably dilute the hot brew to the proper strength for drinking. It's easy to brew one cup, pour it over ice, then drink it reasonably soon, and enjoy it as it goes from being rather strong to rather weak. But in larger quantities you can really make a mistake and find out the mix is just not right.
Some people freeze coffee in an ice cube tray in order to have coffee ice cubes, which works well, but also takes time.
Here are some guidelines for making and/or strong larger quantities of iced coffee:
When you want to serve the coffee soon after brewing:
- Assuming you haven't created "coffee ice cubes", you need to figure how much coffee to use and how much ice to pour it over. Brew the coffee at 150% strength. This means if your pot holds 10 cups and you normally use 2.5 oz. of grounds, then add 50% more grounds, or about 3.75 oz.
- Have MORE ice on hand than you need. The more ice you have, the quicker the coffee cools, and the less dilution there is.
- Try to use ice that is not too small or too large. Large cubes do not contact the coffee fast enough, the coffee stays hot longer and melts more ice. If the ice is crushed or small pieces, the ice cubes will all melt and create weak coffee. Cracked ice or small cubes are best.
- Add cream and/or sugar after the coffee at the time of serving. But if you are using sweetened condensed milk or powdered creamer, add that to the HOT coffee before icing it. Most people want to sweeten the coffee themselves, so I usually add the cream but serve it with sugar and sugar substitutes on the side.
If you will cool the coffee before serving, the only difference is that if you have time to refrigerate the coffee before icing it. Use about 25% more grounds than normal, not 50% more grounds.
Ok, your first response to "cold-brewing" was probably "what the.... you can't cold-brew coffee!" Everything you hear about brewing coffee, and particularly espresso, talks about getting the temperature hot enough to do the job right.
But when we talk about applying heat to coffee, we are really talking about fast brewing, or brewing-on-demand. We are talking about extracting the flavor elements quickly. That is NOT always necessary, though. If you are willing to do your brewing in advance of when you want to drink your coffee, then cold-brewing is an option.
Cold versus Hot
Cold brewing takes time. However, it dissolves through the grounds only certain elements of the coffee. Surprisingly enough, about 90% of the flavor elements and the normal caffeine content come through this way, while only about 15% of the oils and acids will. It WILL change the taste of your coffee, but not the way you might think. It will strongly concentrate those most volatile flavor elements that most people like, making "super-flavor" coffee. The flavor elements you like about a given coffee will probably be up to 200% as strong, yet the overall brew will have far less bite and acidity.
Is this a good thing? For people who like the acid and bite, which is part of the attraction of strong coffee, they may not like cold brewing. Other people take one sip and say "Oh my God, that is fantastic." It's also a good choice for anyone who has stomach trouble with acidic foods. Our recommendation is simple: Try it once or twice and see if you like it. Also, different varieties will respond to cold brewing differently, so it's hard to predict.
Easy cold-brewing for small quantities
It takes no more prep time to prepare coffee this way than most hot brewing methods. It just takes more time for it to brew, so plan ahead.
Many people ask us about the Toddy Brewer (copyright Toddy Products). We know a lot of coffee shops that use the Toddy and like it. For us, there were too many steps and we didn't like having to use a filter and replace the filter. However, you may want to try the Toddy for yourself if you own a coffee shop. We prefer the simple bottle-and-strainer method.
Items needed: (To make enough for 2-3 glasses of iced coffee)
- A container for the final brew, which will be placed in the refrigerator when finished. This can be a pitcher or bottle or small carafe or even a tall jar with a lid.
- A tall glass for the brewing (or a mason jar with lid, etc.)
- A second glass for pouring the steeped coffee mixture into.
- A strainer. Use either a tea strainer from a kitchen shop (or look here for ours) or you may want to use a regular kitchen strainer and then run the coffee through a fine mesh strainer such as the ones they sell for drip machines, that use either fiberglass or metal mesh.
Measure a 1/4 to 1/3 cup (5-6 tablespoons) of coffee into the brewing glass. Add about a cup and a half of room-temperature water (bottled water or filtered water will taste best). You don't have to be really precise on these measurements. Just make sure you have about 4:1 water to coffee. Stir the mixture until it is even and there are no lumps. The coffee grinds will probably rise again in 10-15 minutes. Stir them back down again.
After the second stir, put some sort of lid on the container/container to keep the mixture clean, or use a canister-type container as we show here. Let it sit a minimum of 3 hours. It can sit overnight if you like (some people do this), but we find 3-6 hours is fine.
When ready, pour the mixture through the strainer into the second container. Clean the first glass to rinse out any grounds. Then pour the coffee back from the second glass into the first glass through the strainer again, or if you have one, a fine mesh coffee filter or the cup section of a Vietnamese Phin filter. This removes the fine grinds. It may be necessary to stop pouring once or twice to rinse the filter to clear the tiny holes at the bottom. Alternatively, you can just let the mixture settle for 15 minutes.
The jars shown below are actually the set I use for making a pitcher of coffee, but the principle is the same, only the quantity changes.
Pour the final mixture into your storage container and put it in the fridge. That's it!
This mixture is possibly 2-3 times as strong as you will want to drink it. Dilute with an equal amount of water to start. Serve over ice. If the mixture is too strong, add water water to dilute. Add cream and sugar at the time of serving. If you want to serve this coffee Vietnamese style, do the following:
Spoon a tablespoon of sweetened condensed milk into your glass. Fill the glass with cracked or small-cube ice, to the top. Pour the coffee (undiluted) over the ice but don't fill the cup. Stir the mixture around enough to mix the thick condensed milk up into the coffee. Then sip the coffee from the glass, don't use a straw. It's strong and sweet and cold.
Cold-brewing in quantity
The principles are exactly the same, use about 4:1 water to coffee grounds. A 250-gram bag of Trung Nguyen coffee should be mixed with 5-6 cups of water, as a general guideline.
Grind your own whole beans if you want, make it a medium coarse grind for better results. Use larger containers. It will take longer to strain it, and you should be prepared to do it over a mat or the sink so that you don't stain anything with any spilled coffee or grounds.
Do NOT add cream or creamer to coffee before storing it in the fridge. If you do, the life will be short, maybe 12-24 hours. If you store just the coffee without cream in it, it usually retains good flavor for 2 days or so, depending on the coffee.
If using stored coffee from the fridge, add the ice just before serving. It is best to add about 50% volume of ice to coffee, as about half of it will melt while being sipped, and thus the mixture will be about the right concentration.
Best iced coffees to try:
Our favorite iced coffees include Trung Nguyen Legendee, Indochine Dark, Highlands Heritage Blend, and Trung Nguyen Passiona. The Passiona is a particular favorite because often when we are drinking iced coffee, we want a nice tall, frosty glass... but we don't want all that caffeine, so Passiona is a perfect solution.