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How to Grade Coffee and Make Cà Phê Đá: A Coffee Class in Saigon

We woke up early on the morning of our sixth day in Saigon for our 9.00 a.m. coffee class at The Yellow Chair. No pick-up was included in the package, we’d have to take a ride in the morning rush hour, so, if traffic was bad or in case we got lost going to the venue, we gave ourselves enough leeway.

Alex went down to buy banh mi for breakfast while I made coffee. We had a leisurely morning meal, showered, booked a Grab ride and off we went.

Why a coffee class in Vietnam?

Most people would “get” why Alex and I went to a cooking class in Vietnam but why a coffee class? Two reasons.

First, we love cà phê đá (the famous Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk) and we wanted to learn how to make it properly.

Second, Vietnam is one of the largest producers of coffee and Vietnamese coffee beans are famous. Why not acquaint ourselves with Vietnamese coffee?

A short story about coffee and how it came to Vietnam

Has coffee been grown in Vietnam for a long time?

Not that long.

A priest introduced coffee to Vietnam in 1857 in the form of a single arabica tree planted in the garden of a small church in the Vietnamese highlands. Ironic, really, considering that there was a time when the Catholic Church referred to coffee as “Satan’s drink.”

It’s true. Drinking wine was associated with Jesus while coffee was a drink popular in the Arab world.

The first documentation of coffee appeared in the 11th century. At the time, the plant was called bunn and the drink made from its beans was buncham. Even then, it was already known as a stimulant.

While most authors agree that coffee was first drank in Ethiopia, it was in Yemen where it began to be cultivated — for religious purposes. Coffee was drank in Sufi monasteries for stimulation during prayer.

From Yemen, coffee spread to the Arab countries where drinking wine was banned. By the mid-1500’s, the Arab world was completely enamored of the stimulating effects of coffee that coffee houses opened in Cairo, Syria, Aleppo and Istanbul.

So, you have Christians drinking wine while the Muslims were drinking coffee for the same reason — to experience altered states. In the Arab world, not everyone was happy with the coffee craze as some likened the effects on consuming alcohol. During the rule of Sultan Murad IV in the Ottoman Empire, drinking coffee was a capital offense.

As coffee drinking spread across Europe, Catholic priests were up in arms. Citing Coffee: The Revolutionary Drink for Pleasure and HealthGrandmotherafrica.com observes:

“The logic was convoluted. As the book explains, these Christian priests in Europe believed that ‘Muslims worshiped the devil and that the devil forbade his followers from drinking wine, as that drink was reserved for those who followed Jesus. So the devil provided coffee, instead.'”

The docuseries, Metropolis (on Netflix), claims:

“Drinking Satan’s drink became such a controversy Pope Clement VIII had to intervene. His infallible palate would decide coffee’s fate once and for all. According to legend, he declared, ‘This devil’s drink is delicious. We should cheat the devil by baptizing it.’ With his blessing, coffee quickly spread throughout Europe and eventually the world.”

So, I just found it both amusing and ironic that it was a priest that brought coffee to Vietnam where its cultivation thrived to become one of the country’s most significant agricultural products and exports.

The Yellow Chair

We arrived at The Yellow Chair much too early. The staff was cleaning the place at a little after 8.00 so we were ushered to comfortable seats and there was coffee to enjoy while waiting.

It was a lovely wait, truth be told, because the place is beautiful. The paintings, the furniture, the high ceiling… The total ambience was luxurious but not intimidating. In fact, I felt totally relaxed. Unhurried. Calm.

The Yellow Chair Specialty Coffee is housed in a villa
The Yellow Chair is housed in a villa.

I walked around taking photos. I was curious if the set-up included the upper floors, so, I asked. Yes, we could go up, we were told.

The Yellow Chair Specialty Coffee: staircase leading to the upper floors
The staircase to the upper floors

It was just as beautiful upstairs as it was downstairs.

The Yellow Chair Specialty Coffee: second floor living room
On the second floor were two rooms. One with long dining tables and, the other, a living room (salon?) that opened to a balcony that overlooked the garden below.

It felt like stepping into the past. Everything felt so serene. Almost bucolic. It was easy to forget that just a few steps out into the street were the crowds and never-ending flow of motorbikes that were everywhere in Saigon.

The coffee class

Finally, it was time for class. There were just Alex and myself to learn about coffee that morning. We felt pampered.

The Yellow Chair Coffee Class in Saigon

We were handed “cupping forms” to document our description of five varieties of beans.

First, we smelled the beans in their dry state.

Alex Veneracion smelling coffee, The Yellow Chair coffee class, Saigon
Identifying coffee grade by smell

Next, hot water was poured over the beans, we smelled them again and documented our observations.

As it turned out, Alex could identify the superior beans just by smelling. I failed.

The bottom line? High grade coffee smells more herby than nutty. If the beans smell chocolate-y, they’re more likely to be soybeans to which flavorings have been added.

Making cà phê đá, Vietnamese iced coffee

Making a good cup of coffee is not a lot different from making a good cup of tea. The proportion between water and coffee should be correct. The temperature of the water must be lower than its boiling point (after the water boils, count 40 seconds before using and the temperature should be just about right). The filter and the cup must be warmed before the ground coffee is added. The coffee must be allowed to “bloom” before the actual brewing begins.

When Alex tried her hands at making coffee, I took photos of every step of the procedure.

How to make Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê đá), step 1: warm the glass (or cup) and the filter (phin)
Warm the filter and cup. Place the coffee filter (phin) over a glass or cup. Pour hot water into the filter and let the water drip into the glass or cup. Throw out the water.
How to make Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê đá), step 2: Pour ground coffee into the filter and add just enough water to cover. Leave to bloom.
Re-position the filter on top of a cup or glass, pour the pre-weighed ground coffee into the filter and add just enough water to cover. Leave for a minute or so to “bloom”. If the coffee is fresh, bubbles (like froth) will form on the surface.
How to make Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê đá), step 3: Fill the filter with water
Fill the filter with water.
How to make Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê đá), step 4: Let the water drip
Cover the filter and let the coffee drip into the glass (or cup) underneath.
How to make Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê đá), step 5: Add sweetened condensed milk
When the coffee has finished dripping into the cup or glass, remove the filter. Add sweetened condensed milk to the coffee.
How to make Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê đá), step 6: taste the coffee
Taste the coffee. Add more sweetened condensed milk if you like.
How to make Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê đá), step 7: Add ice then filter into frothing cup
Cool the coffee by adding ice. Then, filter into the frothing cup. Discard the ice.
How to make Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê đá), step 8: Froth the cooled coffee
Lighten the texture of the cooled coffee by aerating. At The Yellow Chair, this is done with a tool that looks like a vegetable chopper except that, instead of blades, the underside of the cover is a like a screen. By pushing and pulling the handle, the coffee passes through the screen continuously and, in the process, acquires a lighter texture.
How to make Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê đá), step 9: Pour into a carafe
Pour the coffee into a carafe.
How to make Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê đá), step 10: Serve with frozen coffee
Serve the Vietnamese iced coffee.
Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê đá)
Instead of plain ice, frozen coffee was dropped into the drinking glass. This prevents the coffee from getting diluted and turning bland as it gets cold.
How to make Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê đá): Use frozen coffee instead of plain ice
Cà phê đá, Vietnamese iced coffee

The Yellow Chair is at 48C Võ Văn TầnHo Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The Yellow Chair Special Coffee website

Written By

I travel to eat, drink and learn new cuisines. Between trips, I write travel stories and share travel-inspired recipes. That is my idea of retirement with purpose.

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