This is unfortunately not only true, it’s considered de rigueur within the Vietnamese coffee industry, and it has been for some time.
Back in the old days when locally-based Chinese traders started to realize that this new ‘coffee’ thing that the French were growing on their plantations was something not unlike tea and could potentially catch on, they felt that it needed a bit of refinement to give it a more ‘East-Asian kick’. This involved pan-roasting the beans with a whole range of ingredients, amongst which fish sauce was thought to add a certain boldness. Chinese ingenuity – or at least, whatever it is that causes the inscrutable Asian mind to think that fish and coffee are a pretty neat combination – also introduced chicken fat (for glossier beans and because coffee that tastes like chicken has to be awesome), alcohol (for fortification – actually, maybe this is okay), and burned-to-a-crisp corn
in order to enhance the color, perhaps hoping that the fish and chicken would mask the “bitter charcoal” element that it inevitably introduced. Maybe it does.
It’s probably the latter amongst these ingredients that’s mostly to blame for that subtle, weird intensity you get from a Vietnamese roast. Just this March, Tuoi Tre carried an outrageous statement by the Deputy General Director of Vinacafe Bien Hoa, Nguyen Thanh Tung, claiming that 90 percents of all coffee products sold in Vietnam aren’t made of coffee at all, but rather chemical agents mixed in with soy and charred corn to produce a jet-black, coffee-flavored water that many producers claim is actually preferred by Vietnamese drinkers.
As bold as such a statement may be, he may well be right. Although Vietnam exports more coffee than anywhere else on the planet, what’s left for the domestic market is actually not cheap. Enthusiastic local coffee producers, already well-accustomed to adding a little bit of this and that into the roaster, seem to have realized that there’s virtually no limit to the quantity of cheap, burned corn that can be added to the bushel – so much so that there’s little need for the humble coffee bean to show up at all.
Last year, Thanh Nien news exposed Thong Phat coffee company forproducing little more than a “black mixture of unknown chemicals” in which not a single granule of coffee was involved. Many other local coffee producers quite candidly acknowledged this rarity of the genuine article in their product, justifying their manufacturing process by claiming that Vietnamese people are unused to the caffeine content, and would prefer to pay less cash for a sticky, black corn drink than shell out top dollar for a true arabica roast.
For those less inclined towards a wash of chemistry and soot for their morning cuppa, it’s good practice to visually verify the product at the point of purchase. Buy actual coffee beans, and grind them yourself. Of course, this won’t take away the eau de la fish sauce – the only foolproof way to avoid that is to purchase an imported blend.