Dec 162008

I’d like to dedicate this one to, um, to the draggy scene that’s going on…all the soldiers that are fighting in Chicago…and Milwaukee…and New York…oh yes, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam.


Chances are, if you’re neither a Vietnamese restaurant worker nor me, you’ve never given the Vietnamese coffee filter much thought. Hell, you may not ever have come across one. And you’ve almost certainly never wound up owning two different versions of the same basic device in order to compare their coffee-brewing ability.

You see, there apparently two varieties of Vietnamese coffee maker: Chinese (for some reason) and Vietnamese. The Chinese, pictured on the right, comes in three pieces, and works by screwing down the filter screen over the coffee grounds (a delicate, error-prone process). The Vietnamese, on the left, comes in four pieces, and instead of being screwed down, the filter screen merely sits directly on top of the grounds.

My mom sent me the Vietnamese variety – branded with the logo of Trung Nguyen, the main Vietnamese coffee manufacturer – the other day when she ordered one online. I was interested in comparing it to the Chinese variety, which is what I had been using at home and seen used in the phở trenches of Austin. Due to the imprecise nature of the screw-down filter, the Chinese model makes for an often inconsistent product: screwing it down too tightly, or using too much coffee, doesn’t allow water to pass through quickly enough, giving you weak, watery coffee after about twenty minutes of waiting; not screwing it down tightly enough, or using too little coffee, lets the water through too quickly, which results in (you guessed it) weak, watery coffee after about two minutes of waiting. It’s not just my lack of expertise. I’ve had highly variable brew speed and strength at Vietnamese restaurants too, where somebody else is manning the filter.

Trung Nguyen promised that the Vietnamese-style filter solved all the consistency problems of the Chinese make while being easier to use. I was skeptical. I figured if there was an indigenous Vietnamese product that was simpler to use than a complicated foreign knockoff, all those phở joints would have embraced them. The Vietnamese, after all, have never been accused of lacking national pride. But after due experimentation, I have concluded that the Vietnamese version indeed rams a punji stick through the foot of the Chinese version. It brews quickly (about six minutes) and most importantly consistently: just put the filter on top of the grinds, add your water and relax. No mucking about with the screw, scalding your finger trying to loosen it after already having added water. Just delicious Vietnamese coffee.

I also bought an unbranded version of the same variety of filter at the Asian supermarket – they were hidden on the bottom shelf in an odd corner of the store, far away from where they sold the Vietnamese coffee together with the Chinese filter. Other than the Trung Nguyen stamp and a weight difference of one gram between the filter screens, the two filters look and function identically.

And now, for your edification, my painstakingly researched Vietnamese coffee brewing tips:

Chinese-style coffee filter:

Ground coffee: Roughly 2.5 tbsp, or about 16-17 grams. Less is too little; more will prevent you from successfully screwing down the filter.

Procedure: Add the grounds to the filter cup. Tap the sides to level the grounds. Screw down the filter screen just until it begins to tamp down the grounds. Add hot (190°) water about a fourth of the way up the cup and wait 20 seconds for the grounds to fully absorb the water and begin to drip. Then add hot water all the way up to the lip of the cup, put on the lid, and wait. There should be several drips per second. The full process should not take more than ten minutes, and preferably somewhat less.

Vietnamese-style coffee filter:

Ground coffee: 3 tbsp or 20 grams. Not a small amount, but it works.

Procedure: Add the grounds to the filter cup. Tap the sides to level the grounds. Press the filter lightly down onto the grounds – don’t tamp down all the way, but don’t just lay it on top without pressing either. Add hot (190°) water about a fourth of the way up the cup and wait 20 seconds for the grounds to fully absorb the water and begin to drip. Then add hot water all the way up to the lip of the cup, put on the lid, and wait. The dripping should start off fairly fast and slow down to a rate of slightly faster than a drip per second. Expect to wait about six minutes.

Note that whichever method you use, Trung Nguyen’s recommendation of 65 ml total of water is wrong. That is far too little. The exact measurement of the water isn’t important, though: just add the initial bit, and then fill it up to the top. Couldn’t be easier.

Don’t forget your Longevity condensed milk, either: it is scientifically proven to make you live as long as the contemplative white-bearded man on the label, who may or may not be Pai Mei.

  4 Responses to “Battle of the Vietnamese coffee filters”

  1. I just finished my very first cup of Trung Nguyen’s coffee using the Vietnamese-style filter. Very easy and takes about 5-6 minutes. I had a problem figuring out what the instructions which came with the filter meant by “3 coffee spoons” and used 3 tbsp. The coffee came out very strong, but very good. Maybe a bit too strong. Another problem for me, at least, is that there is so little of it, while I’m used to a mug-size portion in the morning. So I just added more hot water, and it worked fine.

    The Longevity brand condensed milk is just too sweet for my taste, I’ll try half-and-half next time. It should probably work well with ice coffee, but with -5F it is unlikely to happen any time soon.

    Overall, good stuff and it warms my heart to have expanded your horizons yet again.

  2. I’ve been given a Vietnamese coffee filter (made of china, it’ very beautiful) and am about to use it for the first time.
    I’ve got some filter papers, and I assume that i put these at the bottom of the cup with the grounds so a not to have the coffee grounds filter through to the cup as well?
    I’d never heard of vietnamese coffee before and I’m looking forward to using it!!

    In response to packen, above. The usual ratio of coffee:water is 15g:250ml for one cup of 30g:500ml for two. This applies to almost all methods of brewing.
    Wish me luck!

  3. just tried it without the filter paper and it’s lovely! Somewhere in between a V-60 filter and a plunger (or french press)

    What an ingenious creation! Thanks for your help :)

  4. Thanks for this. It was exactly what I was looking for. I’ve been using the screw down version but the filter screen recently broke so I was trying to decide between the gravity and screw down models.

    Very helpful.

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