Let’s talk about Vietnamese coffee. We’ll cover questions like how is it different from arabica beans, what exactly isVietnamese coffee— all questions that will give us a better understanding of why Vietnamese coffee is so strong and why it tastes the way it does.
What is Vietnamese Coffee?
Vietnamese coffee refers to coffee that is grown in Vietnam, the same as Colombian coffee refers to coffee grown in that country. The recent popularity of Vietnamese coffee culture might contribute to the confusion of calling certain beverages “Vietnamese coffee”—such as Vietnamese iced coffee being called simply “Vietnamese coffee” and other variations of this.
Vietnamese coffee is the most consumed in the world right after Brazilian coffee. The amount of coffee produced in both of these countries is massive, and within them are dozens of different beans.
Vietnam, in particular, has been experiencing a coffee revolution in the past few years. What was for many decades a quantity-driven market has shifted toward a quality-driven one as Vietnamese people have started appreciating specialty coffee more, and therefore valuing higher quality coffee. Many companies have moved away from mass-production farms and have started focusing on small farms that grow high quality coffee.
Something that’s very particular about the Vietnamese specialty coffee scene is that it does notmake a big distinction between arabica and robusta beans. Traditionally, arabica beans are considered higher quality and therefore most specialty coffees are of the arabica variant, yet a lot of Vietnamese specialty coffee is actually robusta (although you can find Vietnamese arabica, too). More on the special relationship between Vietnam and robusta coffee in this next section:
Robusta vs. Arabica Coffee
Vietnam may be the second largest exporter of coffee, but when it comes to robusta, it accounts for 70% of all robusta coffee produced and consumed worldwide. Most (around 90%) of all coffee grown in Vietnam is of the robusta variety.
There are two main varieties of coffee out there: robusta and arabica. It is the same genus, but each of these two is a completely different species. So even if robusta and arabica are of the same genus(coffea),they are still different in several respects. Here are some of their main differences:
Sugars and fats. Robusta has a lower concentration of natural sugars and a lower amount of lipids. Sugars are responsible for tastes like that of caramel in coffee; while lipids help carry the more complicated aromas and flavor notes. As a result, robusta tends to be bolder and more intense with chocolatey flavor whereas arabica tends to be brighter and fruitier.
Caffeine content. While arabica coffee beans have a content of 1.5% caffeine per bean, robusta almost doubles that at 2.7% caffeine per bean. This is also pertinent when talking about taste as caffeine is naturally bitter, meaning that robusta beans are, by nature, much more intense than arabica beans.
Plant height.Robusta plants are taller, reaching between 4 to 6 meters in height. In comparison, arabica plants are rather small at about 2 meters tall.
Crop yield.Although coffee is in such high demand, the amount of coffee we can drink is largely dictated by how much we can actually grow. Arabica is an incredibly fragile variety of coffee that is very sensitive to climates that are anything other than mild and temperate. Sunlight exposure can also damage it, and it’s more susceptible to disease, particularly coffee leaf rust, than robusta which is more pest and disease resistant as well as able to grow in various climates and altitudes.
- Chlorogenic acid content. Coffee is one of people’s most important antioxidant source. Antioxidants keep us young and healthy as well as ward off diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s—which is why it’s so important to drink your daily coffee, as research suggests. Robusta doubles the content of chlorogenic acid, making it a healthier choice in this respect.
But why does Vietnam produce so much more robusta than any other country?It all started with France. France had already acquired a taste for coffee that was rivaled only by Italy when it decided to annex Vietnam to its empire. In the middle of the 19th century, it colonized the country, and two decades later, it had a firm grip over all of Vietnam.
With the arrival of French people, French culture came along, and a big part of that was coffee which the French were not willing to sacrifice. Coffee was imported in droves, and plantations started appearing all over. But among all the French imports (bread, food, and so on), it was coffee that really captivated the hearts of Vietnamese people.
Coffee farming came naturally to the territory. There are only a handful of countries in the world with the right conditions to grow coffee (rightly called the Coffee Belt), and Vietnam is one of them. Robusta plants grow tall and luscious thanks to the climate and richness of the soil, particularly in the central highlands region, which is home to some of the most specialized farmers.
This region is known for its proficiency in farming, producing high-quality tea, rubber, and silk. It is also home to many of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, as well as most of its wildlife. In other words: it's an area that is teeming with plant life, animal life, and has an old tradition of farmers that have long coexisted with the ecosystem.
Robusta and Caffeine
To fully understand the importance of robusta coffee, it is key that we talk about caffeine. Over the years, coffee has evolved to become a beverage that we can enjoy solely because of its delicious taste. However, it might not have been like this all the time.
In fact, the early stories that tell of how coffee was discovered in Ethiopia centuries ago made it clear that if it wasn’t because of caffeine, we would have never discovered coffee. According to legends, a goat shepherd in Ethiopia had taken his goats out to pasture. He witnessed some of his goats munching on some nearby berries that he didn’t think were edible; after a few minutes, the goats were energetic, bouncing about, and playing with each other. It was then that he thought of trying some of the berries himself, and after feeling the effects of caffeine, decided to bring some back with him.
Many decades later, the first coffee drink made by roasting and grinding the seeds within those legendary beans would be born. And even though the aroma of coffee is powerful and sometimes even enough of a reward for brewing coffee, the truth of it is that coffee was mostly consumed because of caffeine.
Nowadays, we as a society value caffeine greatly and heavily depend upon it. There is an ever-growing movement of coffee lovers that want more bang for their buck and turn to coffee such as robusta for a more caffeinated coffee that they can rely on. And it makes a lot of sense: arabica has half the caffeine and usually costs twice as much; robusta is generally more affordable than arabica, and it has a bold, robust taste that’s great for making beverages involving milk, cream, and so on. Just because it’s cheaper does not mean it is not good!
Another interesting fact here is that caffeine is everywhere. It is in most sodas, energy drinks, and even snacks. Whenever you want pure caffeine for putting into these products, there’s a few options—you can use arabica, which is costlier and less efficient, or you can use robusta beans.
The sole existence of cheap robusta beans guarantees natural, safe caffeine as an additive. Because the alternative would be artificial caffeine, which is still being researched and could be potentially bad for your health.
How is Robusta Coffee Different?
Robusta is easier to grow and more sustainable!
We mentioned before that coffee only grows in a handful of countries around the globe. These are mainly in Central and South America, Northern and Eastern Africa, and Southeast Asia. And even then, it only grows in high altitude and relatively temperate places within those countries.
Farming is a process that can potentially ruin the land it uses—depending on how frequently it is harvested and how many chemicals are used (and other more complicated factors).
Robusta has all the advantages when it comes to growing and sustainability. Remember how it has twice the amount of caffeine? Well, caffeine acts as a natural defense against both pests and disease. Arabica, on the other hand, is famously fragile to both of these. Tons (literally) of arabica beans are lost every year due to a disease called coffee leaf rust, which almost never afflicts robusta plants.
Then, there is the issue of the plant's resistance to both heat and cold. The main reason why coffee is not grown everywhere is because it only flourishes in temperate climates. Arabica, for example, only does well in temperatures around 21°C (69°F) with very smallvariations. It won’t do well in temperatures upwards of 24°C, for example.
Robusta, unlike arabica, can withstand much harsher temperatures. It can take temperatures as low as 10°C, and it grows easily in tropical climates which hover around 30°C. Many farmers grow them under the shade of other plants (like plantains) in even hotter climates, and it works.
How it Looks Compared to Other Coffee Beans
Because they are different species, the robusta and arabica beans actually have quite a few differences when it comes to their appearance. With a little knowledge, you can tell them apart with a short inspection and know what kind of beans you’re really drinking.
For starters, robusta beans are smaller. They are about ¾ the size of typical arabica beans and also look more puffy, round almost in shape. By contrast, arabica beans have a more elliptical shape and look more elongated.
Then we have the slant in the middle: this is the most telling sign. Arabica beans will almost always have a snake-shaped slant, wavy. Robusta tends to have a straight line from start to finish.
How it Tastes
Robusta has a distinct taste. It has more caffeine than any other type of coffee bean, and caffeine is quite a bitter substance.
In general, robusta coffee is described as being stronger, bolder, and as having a much higher presence of nutty flavor profiles. It is roasty and warm in both flavor and aroma. Arabica, on the other hand, frequently features bright acidity and fruit-like flavor notes.
How Long Does Vietnamese Coffee Last?
A frequent question many people have is how long Vietnamese coffee lasts in their pantries. Well, the answer depends a lot on how you store your coffee.
See, coffee beans when whole already have quite a long shelf life. This is about six months after roasting by taking measures such as keeping them away from sunlight and storing them in a dry place in airtight conditions. There are coffee canisters in the market that do all the work for you and can help you keep your beans in top condition for almost a year.
Vietnamese coffee—robusta coffee specifically—still has a longer shelf life than arabica. This is because of the higher presence of antioxidants—which logically protect the beans against aging and deterioration. While there’s no agreement as to how much this affects the shelf life, we can assume it impacts it positively. Robusta beans, if stored properly, should last about one to two months longer than arabica beans. In fact, some people prefer older robusta beans as they find the flavors mature and develop even more deeply over time.
If stored in the fridge (inside a sealedcontainer, preferably a coffee canister with a CO2 valve), they’ll last even longer. You can also store coffee in the freezer. Frozen beans can be good to drink for up to three years! That is, of course, as long as you freeze them in small packets. If you freeze them in bulk and take that same bulk out every time you brew coffee, you’re defrosting them on a daily basis, undoing all of the good that freezing them does.
There is no doubt that robusta’s strength is, redundantly enough, in its strength and boldness of flavor. However, we must take into account what our personal tastes are as an all-robusta espresso might not be for everyone.
We recommend that, if switching to robusta, you first read up on some recipes. Black coffee might be a little too much, but there are a lot of ways to enjoy coffee with other ingredients that perfectly complement the strength and bitterness of it.
Recipes such as Vietnamese Iced Coffee and Vietnamese Egg Coffee are perfect examples of this, using condensed milk as a sweetener to tone down coffee’s natural bitterness and turn it into an impossibly delicious beverage.
Ultimately, when you consume Vietnamese coffee, you’ll be consuming something much stronger and much bolder than what you may find anywhere else!