My wife bought me a phin for Christmas a few years back. Two of them, actually. For a while, I kept one at home and one at work, the better to send my body and mind rocketing to a world of jittery euphoria anytime the mood struck. A phin is the traditional brewing apparatus for Vietnamese-style iced coffee. It's basically a stainless steel cylinder with a bunch of little holes in the bottom and an opening at the top. The cylinder sits on a small circular base, making the whole thing look a bit like a mechanical top hat.
Fill the filter with coffee, perch it on a cup or glass that has a few tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom, and add hot water. The coffee drips slowly through, almost seeping, and mingles slowly with the milk. Give it a quick stir, add ice and you've got cà phê sua dá.
For a while, I was in heaven. A small can of sweetened condensed milk would last me the better part of a week at work, allowing me to indulge daily in one of Houston's hallmark stimulants without ever leaving my office. After a few weeks, the novelty of being able to have a glass daily wore off, the effect of all that sugar and caffeine added up, and I cut back. Once a week. Once every other week. I found myself opening a can of milk, making a solitary glass of coffee, and wondering what the heck I was going to do with the rest of the can. More often than not, the answer wound up being "throw it away." I don't really make cà phê sua dá at work anymore.
Then, last week, I found Copper Cow Coffee and its (seemingly) ingenious Portable Pour-Over packs, designed to allow convenient indulgence when and wherever you have access to a cup and hot water. I was dubious. I was excited. I was definitely buying a pack.
My Copper Cow five-pack came with five sets each of coffee filters and sweetened condensed milk packets.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
For $10.99 (new item sale price), I got five portable pour-over sets, which includes a disposable filter filled with ground coffee, and a small tube of sweetened condensed milk. The instructions are simple: open the filter, spread the wings and perch on the edge of the cup; add hot water to brew; stir in milk packet to taste. The process was mostly as described, with a few slight hiccups.
For one, the paper phin was difficult to balance on the rim of my cup. The wings folded, sending the filter sliding into the cup. Interestingly, it works perfectly on a styrofoam office cup, but not so well on an actual mug (which I'd retrieved from all the way in the office kitchenette). It makes sense, though. It’s a convenience item meant to be portable and disposable. Finding a mug was a bit silly. Eventually, I had to commandeer some office supplies, employing a few pieces of Scotch tape to get it to work. Lacking a proper measuring device, I turned on my inner John McClain to measure six ounces of water from various non-six-ounce office cups, brewing the coffee as directed.
Brewing Copper Cow Coffee. Scotch tape not pictured.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
Per instructions, you pour one ounce of boiling water (coffeemaker hot water tap + microwave for speed) onto the grounds to saturate (coffee nerds call this a “bloom”), before slowly pouring the remaining five ounces over the grounds. Unlike with my phins (both now at home), there’s no adjustment mechanism to control the compactness of the grounds and the resulting flow rate. Water travels through the grounds exactly as it’s going to, based on the fineness of the grind and the porosity of the filter. For my taste, it’s too fast. A phin drips; this flows, and the coffee is weaker for the speed. The prescribed process is also backwards from what I’m used to, with condensed milk added after brewing instead of the coffee being allowed to drip onto a pearlescent bed of diabetes.
Brewed Copper Cow Coffee, janky filter with Scotch tape pictured at right.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
The resulting coffee is moderately dark, with a simple flavor profile and a slight metallic edge. It’s not bad, and better than the Keurig crap I typically drink at work (“maintenance coffee”). There was a slight bitterness to it. I’d drink it on its own, but wouldn’t seek it out, finding it a bit puny for this use.
The sweetened condensed milk was a bit thin, likely necessary to get it to flow from its little pouch. There's also perhaps a bit less than I’d typically add. I like my cà phê sua dá balanced nicely between fiercely strong and tooth-achingly sweet. This is neither. It’s a timid take on the form. That said, it’s not terrible; it's just not great.
Poured over ice, things shift. The ice melts quickly; the
coffee isn’t up to the task. It’s neither particularly strong nor particularly sweet, tasting weak and watery and insipid. It’s almost unpleasant. Not even a shadow of a moderately well-made cà phê sua dá, and not even that much simpler than making one yourself at the office. The main difference is the need to empty and wash a phin at the end, and the issue of opening an entire can of sweetened condensed milk. Copper Cow does offer the “milk/sugar portables” as a standalone item, so that may be a way to split the difference. You do, of course, pay for that moderate degree of convenience. Five 20-gram packets of the stuff set you back $5.
One dollar per glass of cà phê sua dá might not be a bad bet for office caffeination, though, even when added to the cost of the coffee and setup (a phin can be purchased very cheaply at pretty much any Asian grocer). Even if you call it $2, allowing for the fact that the stingy serving of sweetened condensed milk in each packet may really require you to use two for a decent glass of coffee. You will be left with cleanup duty, but all you're really doing is knocking some grounds out of the filter and giving it a quick rinse.
I think I'm gonna give my phin another go at the office, supplemented by a few packs of "Milk + Sugar Portables." The full Copper Cow setup really isn't worth the cost, especially when part of that cost includes quality, but those little packets just might be. Of course, I could always open a can of condensed milk at home and portion it out into smaller containers, stashing some in the freezer for later use. But that's really not very convenient at all.
Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.