Vietnamese Coffee

When we walked around the Old Quarter area in Hanoi, Vietnam, we passed quite a few stores that sell coffee in bulk as well as many coffee houses where the locals go. It’s pretty clear that coffee is a big part of Vietnamese culture.

I was introduced to Vietnamese (style) coffee back in the United States many years ago by a Vietnamese friend whom I often hung out with. Whenever we went to a Vietnamese restaurant, he would suggest cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk) as a drink to accompany our meal. The coffee was usually quite strong; in the United States, however, the Vietnamese often get coffee from Louisiana as it had similar flavor profile to the Vietnamese coffee and it’s easier to get in the US. Not until this trip to Vietnam that I finally tried the real thing.

As I read up about Vietnamese coffee, I learned a couple of interesting facts about coffee production in Vietnam. Coffee was introduced in Vietnam by the French in mid-19th century when Vietnam was a French colony. Today, coffee is one of the major agricultural products being exported from Vietnam, second only to rice. Vietnamese coffee also account for around 14% of world’s production, making it the second largest coffee producing countries in the world after Brazil. You don’t hear it as much even when you drink a lot of coffee, however, because 97% of the Vietnamese coffee production is of the Robusta kind, which is generally considered as lower grade compared to the Arabica kind that dominates the gourmet coffee market. The Robusta coffee is typically used as fillers for lower grade coffee mix or as main ingredients for instant coffee.

One interesting kind of coffee that my Vietnamese friend mentioned as ‘highly priced’ is what’s called the ‘weasel coffee’ in Vietnam. This is similar to what’s known as ‘kopi luwak’ or civet coffee in Indonesia. It’s highly-priced coffee that was the result of ‘special processing’ — the weasel or civet knows how to select the ripe coffee berries. They would eat the berries for their fleshy pulp; the beans would go through the civet’s digestive tract, and somehow the enzymes help change the characteristics of the coffee bean so when it came out as a whole, cleaned, and roasted, the resulting coffee is more aromatic and less bitter. This coffee (the real one) is noted as the most expensive coffee in the world — it could fetch as high as USD $160 per pound.

Given the high price that the civet coffee can fetch, there is a lot of folks who claim they have these even though it might be counterfeit. When we walked around Hanoi, in many of the coffee stores we saw tubs of coffee with ‘weasel coffee’ written on them like on the photo below. The price was more expensive than ‘regular coffee’, but nowhere close to the priced civet coffee price in Indonesia. And seeing the abundance of those (every coffee store claimed to have some), you wonder if they are real or not.

Coffee store

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