Vietnamese Iced Coffee Is the Drink of Summer—and Beyond
Three West Coast entrepreneurs are modernizing the rich, frosty favorite in surprising and delicious ways.
Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê sữa đá) is everything you’d want in a summer drink. Made with strong coffee and sweetened condensed milk served over ice, it’s roasty, fortifying, creamy, refreshing, and unforgettable. While it’s everywhere in its home country, in the United States it’s never quite gone mainstream. But a trio of California companies is looking to flip that on its head, with a focus on high-quality ingredients, modern brewing methods, and adaptations to American ways of coffee-drinking.
“I want a Vietnamese coffee that I could sell in Whole Foods” is how Debbie Wei Mullin recalls the beginnings of her company, Copper Cow Coffee. “It has to be organic, it has to be no chemicals or artificial ingredients. And people laughed at me—they were like, ‘That doesn’t exist.’” That spurred Mullin, a former World Bank consultant, into action: She found a co-op in Vietnam’s Dalat region growing organic Robusta beans and began producing condensed milk with dairy from California cows. Mullin bypassed the phín—Vietnam’s traditional mug-top metal filter—in favor of one-cup pour-over packets and put the condensed milk in single-serving tubes (way less messy than a can).
OmniBev founder Tammy Huynh is using single-origin, Fair Trade Arabica beans from her uncle’s farm in Dalat and is manufacturing a sleek, high-grade version of the phín that looks like it belongs in a SoMa loft, and producing bottled coffees made with the cold-brew method. “Everyone in the market basically has the same mission right now—to really rewrite the narrative of Vietnamese coffee,” says Huynh.
Paula Cruz-Cao and her husband, Hoang Cao, are taking that narrative directly to the people. Their company, Phin Bar, hosts pop-up events and workshops around the Bay Area. They approach coffee with mixological precision, down to the size of the ice cubes and the incorporation of flavors like mint and lavender. “When you go to a bar, you order a cocktail, right?” says Cao. “So why not do that with Phin Bar?” The result is a powerful drink that requires you to sip slowly, just as you would, say, a martini or a Negroni—or, perhaps now that it’s easy to make yourself, a cà phê sữa đá.