Making Coffee with a Vietnamese Coffee Phin

After reading a few articles about Asian methods of brewing coffee, I decided to buy a little Vietnamese Coffee Phin and have a go. The quick read is that the coffee is great and experimenting with the phin is pretty fun; sort of like doing pour-overs but without the added requirements of maintaining a handlebar mustache and serving in a mason jar. 🙂

The Process (or at least the way I did it)

1. Grab a mug or clear, vacuum insulated cup.

I prefer the latter because you can watch the process.

2. Add two tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk.

Remember: use sweetened, condensed milk, not evaporated milk.

3. Flip over the lid of your brewer, set the brewer on the lid.

4. Add one scoop of coffee to the brewer.

Many brewers have a small, recessed area at the bottom. Your goal is to fill this and maybe just a tiny bit extra. Use the coarsest grind you can get.

5. Place the filter into the brewer and secure it.

The strength of the coffee is determined by the filter pressure on the grounds. If you have a screw-type filter, you have complete control of the process. If you have a gravity filter, you pop it in and hope for the best.

Naturally, I chose the screw-type filter, but it took a few attempts to get the pressure just right. My recommendation is to tighten the filter until you feel like you’re forcing it then back off half a turn or so. This will give the grounds room to expand during the bloom phase of the brew.

6. Pour a little water into the brewer. Wait.

Coffee should flow into the cup right away. However, let it sit for about 20-30 seconds. During this time, the grounds will expand (aka bloom). This will help maximize extraction.

Does the waiting really matter? Yes. Well, at least it did for me.

7. Fill the brewer and put the lid on top.

Brew time is dependent on how tightly the filter is secured. Generally though, it should be a couple minutes. Keep the lid on so the water stays hot.

8. Remove the lid, flip it over and set it on the counter.

9. Place the brewer on the lid

Is this required? No, but it is a nifty way to keep things nice and neat!

10. Stir the coffee and the milk until it is caramel in color.

Then, stir it again because sweetened condensed milk is thicker than you think.

11. Serve hot or over ice.


Gallery Notes:

  1. Filled the brewer while seated on the mug. Maybe not the best idea.
  2. Test 2: Sweetened, condensed milk ready to go!
  3. Test 2: First bit of water. Letting grounds bloom.
  4. Test 2: Now we’re brewing. Filter could be tighter.
  5. Test 2: All done!
  6. Test 2: Much cleaner after filling the brewer prior to seating.
  7. Test 3: No milk. This is what coffee looks like with a loose filter.
  8. Test 4: No milk. Tighter filter. About a 3 minute brew time.

Fun facts about Vietnamese Coffee

Did you know Vietnam is the #2 coffee producer in the world? Yep!

The Vietnamese crop is about 97% Robusta, the coffee bean we usually associate with instant coffees. It is generally thought of as more bitter than Arabica. Not surprising really since it has roughly twice the caffeine. That said, the Robusta shrub is a pretty hearty beast. It needs fewer resources to grow and produces a larger fruit yield per plant than it’s milder cousin. What’s interesting is that this “lower quality” coffee is often used in Italian espresso blends because it has such a strong flavor.

Wrapping Up

In my experiment, I did not use Robusta coffee. I used an Italian roast coarse ground for French Press. I tried several cups with different pressure settings on the filter. I also tried making the coffee with and without sweetened condensed milk.

Generally, I found the coffee made using the Vietnamese method to be quite clear and smooth. Maybe 75% less particulate than in a typical French Press. This also means the coffee tasted much brighter (even if my beans were not really the sort one calls “bright”). I could see using a phin as a means to quickly cup different coffees. I could also see buying half a dozen to keep on hand for dinner parties because making coffee with a phin is super fun.

Oh, and as for the sweetened condensed milk? It totally tastes like Caramel Cafe au Lait. Delicious!

Why Make Things? Because.

We make things. It’s what we do. All of us.

Some people may scoff at the idea of making things, but I guarantee that if you look into the past of the most curmudgeonly misanthrope you’ll find a kid who made things. It’s the most natural thing in the world for a human being to do.

And yet, so many people contrive ways to stop making things. They worry about money. They worry about time. They worry about the perception and acceptance of others. Most of all, they spend their time wondering Why they want to make a thing in the first place.

In my experience, nothing kills the urge to make a thing faster than wondering why you want to do it in the first place. All those worries I mentioned (and a good deal more) tend to line up on the side of Why and form a very plausible argument that the whole thing is best avoided in the first place.

But there is a simple answer to this question. Chances are, your parents used it on you when you were a little kid.


This is the perfect answer to every Why. It leaves no room for further discussion or debate. It is what it is and that’s the way it’s going to be.

Some people have asked why I decided to “give up not writing”, which is sort of a strange thing to say, but How Not to Write was sort of a strange place to write about the Art of Not Writing.

Someone trying to answer Why might say something along the lines of:

“What I was really giving up is wondering why I did a thing that is just plain natural for me to do. After all, I make stuff. It’s what I do. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you that no only do I make stuff, I’m sort of prolific in the making of stuff. Furthermore, when I’m not making stuff, I tend to get depressed. I sort of think that’s what’s wrong with the world.”

The real answer is that there is no answer. The real answer is Because. Anything else is really quite pointless. We make things. All of us. It’s what we do… Why? Because.

Isn’t that so much easier? Wouldn’t you rather just say Because whenever someone asks you Why? Of course you would. It’s so much faster and convenient. it eliminates all need for debtate. It lets you get on with the getting on, which is what everyone really needs.

And you thought I stopped writing? Not a chance. I make things. It’s what I do.

Sometimes I make code. Sometimes I make stories. Sometimes I make pictures, just like this:

Lady in Pose

Sometimes I make people happy. I hope I did that today.

Saying Goodbye to How Not to Write

Note: All posts from How Not to Write are available on this site. I’ll be adding more of course. This really isn’t the end, but rather the beginning of something new.

It seems strange to say goodbye to something that was never supposed to stay around. Yet nearly seven years later it is now time to say goodbye to How Not to Write.


I created How Not to Write to record my journey from wannabe writer to actual writer. Along the way, HNTW not only became my online persona but also my writing persona as well. I became known as the guy who wrote about not writing which in turn became the guy who didn’t write at all.

Of course, I never really stopped writing. No writer does. Still, I stopped writing with a purpose because I’d said just about all I could say about the process of “not writing” (such as it is).

As an aside, I also had this crazy job that sucked up all of my free time and energy. It was awesome, but each day the job left me with a cabbage for a head. From this experience, I learned that it’s really, really hard to write with a cabbage for a head.


While I might write more about that some day, today won’t be that day (sorry). What I will say is that the hundreds of posts and many tens of thousands of words contained in How Not to Write are not gone for good. They right here and all the links should work just fine.

I thought it was fitting to incorporate it into the whole because in truth it was a huge part of my life and always will be. I’ve also archived all the comments here too because you the readers of How Not to Write were also a huge part of my life and always will be.

Before I move on to what’s new (which may include some actual writing), I’d like to take one last look at what was and highlight some of my favorite posts from How Not to Write. They’re not in any particular order, so take them as they are. That’s what How Not to Write has always been about anyway…

A Writer’s Love
Best Mornings
The Bother of Writing is Totally Worth It
The Poverty of Distance
You Must Write
A Writer Must Believe

Oh yeah, and King Moonracer will always be my hero, but I ought to point out that I blogged about him here first.


NB: I’ve also changed my Twitter handle over to @jamiegrove. If you were following @hownottowrite, you are now following @jamiegrove.

NewsBee 1.2 is Available for Download!

Yay! Apple approved the build for NewsBee and 1.2 is now in the App Store! Below is a reprisal of my 1.2 announcement post plus a little extra.
NewsBee in the Mac App Store

I’ve been using version 1.2 for the last few months now, making tweaks and changes to the way the application handles extended characters (i.e. “international”) and parses RSS and HTML data. Oh, and I completely rewrote the event handling code to rely on GCD instead of performSelector. Yeah, that was a biggie. I really had no idea how big of a job it would be until I made the changes and then began the process of stripping out all the old code. Woof!

I’m glad I did it though. Under GCD, NewsBee is running very smoothly even with a large number of active sites. No more momentary delays when you pop open a menu or perform a manual refresh. Sure it was just a few milliseconds, but it seemed a little sloppy to me. Well, delays no more!

It’ll take Apple a little while to get back to me, but I want to thank all of the testers who helped me with this version. I especially want to thank those of you from around the world who sent me feeds to test and helped me deal with the thorny issues of character sets. NewsBee 1.2 is way better because of your help!

About the About…

As it sometimes the case, a developer forgets something when updating their app. In this case, I forgot to update the “About” splash screen with the 1.2 label. Doh! No worries though, it’s still version 1.2. 🙂

P.S. Yes, I know it’s 2013.

“Who is She?” Gender in Specialty Retail

In the world of specialty retail, gender-specific data can really throw marketers and merchandisers for a loop. Marketing campaigns, stores, product lines, entire brands may be constructed around a single gender ideal. But when you discover the truth is something different you may find yourself in a bit of a bind.

As an example, let’s take a set of brands that cater primarily to women: yoga products. Major brands include Lululemon, Lucy, Gaiam, and Athelta.

Many of these brands offer products for men, but generally speaking they are focused on women. What do you think would happen if they found out that say 40% of their buyers are actually men? Yeah, I think they’d flip out too.

I could turn this argument around and take a look at weightlifting equipment. More often than not, these brands are geared towards men but I know for a fact that women buy from these companies. My wife is one of them.

How to Tell

On the one hand, you can spend a fair amount of money to have an outside service bounce your customer file against large consumer databases. They can match household data and credit histories. They can mingle your data with others (these are called co-ops) and give you generalized (or specific) buying history profiles.

You can also save a little dough and do some high level stuff on your own…

The US Census Bureau is our first stop in digging out the gender of our customers. Back in 1990, they produced a statistical analysis of first names and surnames and published the raw data. You can download the files here: Census Genealogy Name Files.

When bouncing this data against your own customer file, I recommend putting customers into one of four buckets: male, female, both, neither. The male/female buckets are those customers who have a first name match against the names in ONE file but not the other. “Both” is a designation for a name that is found in both files. “Neither” is self-evident.

What About “Both” and “Neither”?

Dealing with the names that fall under both genders can be a little troubling. The simple answer is to trend the purchases by month and compare the curve against the gender-specific data. If you find a match, you can include the “both” with either the male or female datasets. Depending on the number, this may influence macro gender trends pretty significantly.

For example, let’s say you find that 25% of buyers are male, 55% are female, 15% are “both”, and 5% are “neither”. If it turns out that the “both” curves look a lot like the male buyers, 40% of your customers may be men. A big difference, right? Sure it is, but be careful about drawing conclusions here.

As for the “Neither” customers, I suspect that this will be a fairly small percentage of your file. I’d set this group aside. There are a lot of reasons why a name may not match (bad data, international names, odd spellings), but the purpose of this exercise is to look for larger trends where you can make an immediate impact in marketing and a long term impact in merchandising. That said, I would do a little aggregation to find out why they didn’t match. Bad data might suggest system problems, and you’ll want to alert someone to that possibility.

Digging In

Once you have this basic gender assignment, you can do additional queries to match trends across time and categories.

Understanding the purchase behavior within a particular season will help you tailor your message and your product offerings. Understanding the macro trend across several years, may help you identify new opportunities. Taking a look at product category usage by gender will often show you some gaping holes in your offerings.

I’d start with the following:

1. Gender Purchase by Year – Assuming you’ve been in business for awhile, try looking at the number of purchases, total revenue, and average order size by gender over a period of years. Are there any macro trends?

2. Gender Purchase by Month/Season – This is one of my favorites. More often than not you have a peak buying season. If you’re lucky, you have several. So, who is buying during these times? Men or Women? Who is buying during the “off-season”? Who spends more?

3. Product Categories by Gender – Are there certain products purchased (or not purchased) by certain genders? Is it because you do not have an offering or is it because the offering you do have is not appealing or hidden? This might be a great opportunity to try an email test. Try offering the right products to the right people and see how they convert.

4. Product Categories by Gender by Month/Season – Some of the things you learn here will be pretty obvious (e.g. people buy cold weather gear during cold weather). But you may discover that your preconceived notions about purchasing habits are not panning out the way you thought. Maybe guys aren’t buying candy at Valentines Day. Maybe women aren’t buying gifts for Mother’s Day. If you built your whole business plan for those months around these assumptions, you might want to rethink the plan.

Sharing the Insights

This can be tricky. Some brands are built on the concept of an ideal buyer. Any deviation from this ideal may be ignored or even violently discouraged. Hopefully, you’re not living in a world like that but even if you aren’t you should introduce this information carefully so that it sinks in.

Also, if you’ve discovered something completely out of line with the expectations of others, I would refrain from announcing it in a massive news flash or treating it as the gospel. This is good advice in general when dealing with the sharing of data, but particularly important when discussing matters of gender and brand.

Here are some recommendations:

1. Make sure you know the expectations – If the brand is constructed around an ideal (and it probably is), try to get a measurement from others before sharing your insights.

2. See if there’s a match for the expectations – You may find that the gender expectation matches the way a brand used to function. This is where your macro view of gender by year (or even month and year) will be a big help.

3. Pinpoint the change – Assuming you can locate the switch mentioned above, see if you can nail it down to a specific event. Was there a product launch that changed the business? A major marketing campaign that tapped a whole new segment? Or maybe it’s just a general trend in the overall market. Try to get specific because the information will help open minds.

4. Share the data in broad strokes – Start simple with male and female trends over time. Dig into product lines later. I recommend starting with contrasting pie charts (Year X vs Year Y) instead of a trend line. From there, you can add more specific data.

5. Step back – Don’t try to pound your assertions in. Give people some room to absorb the data and the implications. Let them draw their own conclusions. You may feel like you need some tests here to back up your assertions. If you culture supports that, I say go for it. Again, this is something to be careful with because some people may feel like you’re trying to hard to be right.

Ideally, the insights you pull from this sort of analysis will be welcomed by your peers. It’s an opportunity to understand the way your brand is evolving in the marketplace and an opportunity for growth. It’s also a chance to serve your customers (all of your customers) the way they want to be served, which is what retail is all about.