Bosnian Coffee

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There is an interesting story whenever something forgets where it was from and becomes from somewhere else. This story is about a cup of coffee.

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The city of Sarajevo and the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina are each beautiful and complicated. Their histories are long, and storied, and often very bloody. Bosnian coffee comes from a time when the Ottoman Empire threatened and conquered the Balkan peninsula. Slavic through pre-history, converted to christianity in the middle ages, Bosnia faced yet another existential threat. The Ottoman Empire, when it finally conquered the region, wiped out the former ruling structure but allowed the country to keep its cultural identity and name. Because many Bosnians converted to Islam and the empire spread, enveloping Bosnia in even more outer provinces, it reached a point of great influence in culture, commerce, and architecture.  This period is when the cities of Sarajevo and Mostar were founded.

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Bosnians say that they in their province retained the true form of Turkish coffee. Because Bosnian coffee, regardless of what it is called today, was brought by the Ottomans. The turks favor a very thick, very strong brew – almost a sludge. Ordering a Turkish coffee anywhere in the world will get you a cup of thick sludge covered by the liquid coffee. Ordering a Turkish coffee in Bosnia will get you a quick correction – Bosnian coffee – and a tray complete with cups, a pot of coffee, a bowl of sugar, and a piece of lukum. The coffee is the same thick, sludgelike delight, but it comes in the pot that it was prepared in – a jezveh. Every Balkan country pronounces this differently, and the Bosnians spell it džezva.

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There is a ritual in serving coffee the Bosnian way. That’s really what differentiates it from the Turkish coffee, though locals might say otherwise. Bosnian coffee is served in its pot, on a tray. Turkish coffee comes in a cup. Both come with permission and opportunity for a long, luxurious, meandering chat. In Bosnia this holds even more strongly. Gaining its freedom from the Turks did not revert Bosnia’s newfound identity. It still stands out amongst its Balkan neighbors being a Muslim majority nation. It stands out even further for being the last major armed conflict (not counting Ukraine now) on the European continent.
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During the Bosnian war, the social ritual of Bosnian coffee became a touchstone, a point of grounding for the residents. With extremely limited supplies, the ritual remained as the coffee was washed away. Any boiled drink, preferably brownish, served in its place – a reason to get together, to talk, to try and experience normalcy in the face of siege and war. Now, the war past but not forgotten, coffee once again proliferates the country, though the full ritual of it is slowly dying out. Many places will serve espresso or nescafe, and the cafes where true Bosnian coffee are served a fewer than before. In busy tourist towns and central markets though, there will always be a place for the tray with its attendant pot, cups, and bowls. This is lucky, because it is some of the best coffee anywhere.

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Boss Coffee

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Remember Tommy Lee Jones from Men in Black and No Country? The man can act. In Japan, for whatever reason, Mr. Jones is the slightly cross looking face of Suntory Boss Coffee. Suntory, a major mega corporation in the brewing and beverage industry produces a line of ready-to-drink canned coffees that are sold in vending machines around Japan. Boss is one of many brands vying for the 100-200 yen that the cans typically sell for, and each company has their own flavors, designs, and occasionally, vending machines.

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Because of the aforementioned Tommy Lee Jones and the awesome name, I chose Boss Coffee to be my coffee of choice as we travelled the islands. Wherever we travelled I purchased a can (or two.. ) in each city, always going for the flavors I hadn’t yet tried. The Boss brand website seems to show a  20 types available today. It turns out I tried 15 of them, and remembered to take pictures of 11, so a pretty good sample. Here’s the rundown! None of this is scientific in any way, no conditions were controlled for – just my impressions of the various tastes.


Melting Ice Latte IMG_20170625_155605

This is one of my favorites – I know it as the red blue and green can thanks to its bright primary colors. It’s a latte, and high in sugar, so basically it tastes like a coffee-ish milk chocolate drink. Very drinkable, not a lot of the bitter coffee taste to it. Would definitely drink again!


Boss Premium – The Latte
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I found this one to be watery. My impression was that it was less sweet than the Melting Ice Latte, with slightly less milk in the mix. It went down ok but had a water and milk taste that threw me off a bit. Would drink again, but not as a first choice. Boss Melting


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Breaking with vending-machine only tradition, this one caught my eye as similar to my favorite milk and sugar concoction, only different. It was indeed. Even more milk and sugar in its profile. Almost too sweet for me, and definitely too sweet for a daily drink. Many of these coffees are fairly high in sugar so they count almost as a soda – this one definitely was. Would.. probably not drink again.


Boss Roast Factory
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This one was interesting. It had a really great start and a supremely bitter and soapy finish. I didn’t see it in Suntory’s catalog so maybe it’s discontinued? I found it Sendai up north. Would get it again except for the memory of that after-taste. At this point in time I wasn’t super into the dark, bitter, coffee flavor of coffee so maybe now I’d like it better. Great start, bad finish, not really for me.


Demitasse Grande IMG_20170622_110436

A big half-cup. One of my favorites and one that I sought out above others. Bitter, not particularly sweet or milky, not watery either. Very strong roasted coffee flavors without that harsh astringency that some of the other cans, like Roast Factory, had. High on caffeine too. I miss this one, would drink again.


Boss Master’s Coffee
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I really wanted to like this one. It was a master’s brew after all. It went down well enough, but it’s petrol-like flavor which some people definitely go for in coffee was not my cup of tea. Would pass, but I really like the can.


Five Star Blend IMG_20170620_153859

The can was an amazing color. This coffee is definitely a strong, almost burnt roast. The taste was watery, I think coffee fans call it low in body. Not a repeat customer here, but I can recognize a good cup, even if it’s for someone else.


Ice Boss Coffee
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The mid-sugar, low milk variant of ice coffee by Boss. It had a sweet, full start with a clear, slightly bitter finish. I didn’t look out for this one again, but I wouldn’t turn down a can.


Boss Special Nine Blend IMG_20170619_112813

I honestly forgot to take notes for this one and have forgotten the details of its flavor. I know that it was not particularly offensive in taste, nor too watery or sweet. I did not get a second can of it because it’s limited to Kyushu. Would try again.


Boss Ethiopia
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I had several of these while we were in Hiroshima. It was a great medium roast, fairly high in sugar though. Neither milky nor water, I really enjoyed it. Luckily it seems they’re available all around though I only found them in Hiroshima.


Boss Premium Limited IMG_20170616_085803

A fan favorite – no bitterness here. High on the sugar and milk tastes, this is a sweet coffee that I frequently looked for. It usually cost 130 yen, but was sometimes on discount in certain machines for 100. A great deal if you can find it for the standard price.


Premium Boss Limited
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A confusingly similar name to the previous entry, this variant is very similar, but with a stronger, more roasted coffee taste. A good can of coffee but I only saw it once. Boss


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The last of my regularly sought out cans. Bitter overtones, balanced milk and sugar, and a hint of burnt caramel flavor. Available everywhere and in a cheerfully colored can, what more can you ask for. Confusingly, this one also has monthly variants that are released in limited areas. I tried one and couldn’t really detect the difference, so maybe it’s just the can? Either way, would drink again in a heartbeat.

Of special mention, but without a picture : Boss Double Impact and its low sugar variant. They’re highly caffeinated and a great way to jumpstart a slow morning. I had two of these one morning and spent the rest of it bouncing around with mild tremors. Super fun, use with caution!

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The Vietnamese are serious about their drinks

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London Fog and Vietnamese coffee at a cafe in Hanoi.

Drinks are a cuisine unto themselves in Vietnamese culture, with dozens of drinkable delights that you can stir, sip, and chew. Yes, chew.

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Fresh fruit juice and sweetend milk with sticky purple rice.

Two of the defining features of Vietnamese drinks is that they’re 1) almost always decoratively presented and 2) texturally different. It’s not like in the U.S., where the waiter brings you a cold Coke in a can and if you’re lucky, a glass of ice and a straw. Here, you get a drinks with fruit garnishes or served in two beautiful layers that you stir together to make the drink. A diversity of textures is also common, with many containing infused fruits, jellies, or rice ingredients that are chewy, slimy, spongy, or squishy. It’s a feast for the senses.

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Vietnamese Egg Coffee, which mixes a raw egg into hot coffee and forms a thick, creamy foam with the flavor of tiramisu.
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Lemongrass citrus infusion tea at a local cafe.

The most evident example of these drinks are bubble tea/boba. Boba is originally Taiwanese, but the Vietnamese have adopted it with a passion and made it their own. There are boba cafes scattered throughout every city, ranging from simple street stalls to trendy cafes with brick, handmade wood furniture, and décor straight out of downtown Brooklyn. There’s also way more to choose from than just the brown tapioca pearls known as ‘boba’. There are the poppers containing fruit-flavored syrups that burst open when you chew them, which made it to the U.S. a couple of years ago and are often offered as a topping in Yogurtland.

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Plain boba in bubble tea (right) beside a mix of boba and jellies in bubble tea (left).

Then there’s a lot of stuff that also hasn’t gotten popular in the U.S. yet (although I may be poorly informed; it’s been years since I’ve been near a halfway-decent boba café): rainbow jelly cubes made from tapioca and fruit-flavored gelatin, basil seeds that are squidgy and crunchy when you chew on it, sweet black rice that oozes and sits at the bottom of your cup, puddings with a super-soft consistency that burst with the flavor of burnt sugar and flan when you bite down. All of these options and more are laid out before you at the café in neat little containers, a textural symphony waiting to brighten your drink. If you’re a boba lover, Vietnam is your kind of place.

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A full bubble tea DIY mix in, courtesy of Popping Tea in Da Nang.

Vietnamese coffee

It turns out Vietnamese coffee is famous the world over. I did not know this, and practically didn’t care, because I didn’t drink coffee. Vietnam made a compelling argument in its favor though, and that argument’s name is cafe sua nong – coffee milk hot.

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The V-60 standing tall.

The absolute classic way to drink a cup there is with a V-60, a slow, single cup drip strainer device. You order your coffee and shortly after comes a cup with the V-60 on top, packed with ground coffee and covered with its metal lid. The lid isn’t very tight fitting but is important for continued dripping. Taking it off reduces the flow rate to next to nothing. I’m sure there’s a good reason for this but I haven’t done the math yet. Along with the coffee comes a second cup of hot water. It’s kind of like the cup of water you’d get with a Turkish or an Italian coffee, but boiling. I was never able to ask what that water was for, but I used it to get a second pour through the filter, making the coffee considerably less bitter.

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Here the coffee has only begun to drip through.

The best part of all is the ‘sua’ portion, the milk. When the French colonized Vietnam they brought over a love of bread and coffee with milk. The bread is evident in the bahn mi. The coffee with milk is not as direct – there’s not a huge fresh milk supply in Vietnam, unlike cow-filled France with its butter and cheese and dairy obsession. So to get their coffee with milk fix, the French, and now the Vietnamese, use condensed milk. About a finger of condensed milk is poured into the bottom of the glass before the coffee starts dripping, and each drop ever so slowly permeates the thick sugary layer. To really get them to mix takes dedicated spoon work, they will not blend on their own in any reasonable amount of time.

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Tea latte and cafe sua nong at one of our favorite cafes in Hanoi.

The result of this whole process is a creamy and -most importantly – sugary coffee flavored concoction, more closely resembling a thin milkshake than anything else. It turns out this is a great way to introduce coffee to a person who doesn’t particularly drink it. There’s the natural buzz of coffee, the added rush from sugar, and any bitterness is masked by the candy-bar sweetness. It’s a lot of sugar and I’m not sure I would have it regularly anymore but it was my go-to drink in cafes across Vietnam.

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The egg coffee slowly flows back down to the cup. Very slowly.

An honorable mention goes to a drink unique to Vietnam – the egg coffee. A lot like Indonesia’s STMJ, this is a raw egg whisked and whisked and whisked, blended with coffee and sugar and turned into a thick, mildly-sweet, almost pastry-cream drink. A lot like the flavored cream that comes before ice cream. The egg and coffee mixture floats on top of a lake of coffee in the cup, and the flavors between the two are in high contrast. The cream is rich and sweet, the coffee is thin and bitter. Drinking all of the egg mixture without realizing that more coffee lies beneath leaves a now very bitter last taste. It’s better to mix the two a bit. We only tried it once, in a hard to find single-room cafe looking out over the lake in Hanoi. Daily drink this is not, but it was a terrific treat.

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An espresso shot poured hot over vanilla ice cream.

Lastly are the infinite variations on the espresso style, all of which are available almost anywhere visitors go in Vietnam. There the delicious taste and aroma of the Vietnamese coffee really gets to shine, unhindered by the almost candy-like levels of sugar found in the other drinks. In this setting the taste is mildly bitter but very deep, with several layers of earthy, sour, and chocolaty flavors that come out at different times. The great taste of the coffee alone doesn’t mean there isn’t room for more desert – we tried an affogato for the first time in a coffee bar in Dalat which cut a nice middle ground between condensed milk and plain coffee, neither too sweet nor too bitter.

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Thanks for the great introduction to coffee Vietnam!