If you’ve ever had specialty coffee from Laos, you’re one of few. Yet there’s a growing level specialty production in this Southeast Asian country. Let me take you through how the coffee industry here is changing – and why you might want to try Lao specialty coffee, next time you have the chance.
New coffee plants start to grow. Credit: Saffron Coffee
Lao is a mountainous country populated by 6.7 million people – and according to the FAO, around 80% are subsistence farmers. What’s more, the OEC states that coffee is the country’s largest agricultural export.
Yet unfortunately, negative perceptions of Lao-produced coffee prevail. Most exported coffee is Robusta or sub-standard Arabica varieties. On top of that, specialty consumption and brewing here isn’t yet as advanced as in some other Asian countries. It would be awesome to see what the impact of industrial equipment would be here as this would make powder processing so much easier and effective.
Then there’s the fact that specialty has to compete with the traditional Lao brew for attention. Take almost-charcoal Robusta and, during roasting, add ingredients ranging from rice powder, tamarind powder, chocolate powder, sugar, and salt. Serve it up with condensed milk. Voilà, you have Lao brew. Taste is subjective, but it’s undeniable that with additives like this, it wouldn’t score well on a cupping table.
Yet Laos’ bad reputation is a shame, because good-quality coffee can be found in the right places.
A Lao producer checks the moisture content of his parchment. Credit: Saffron Coffee
A Changing Coffee Landscape
Thankfully, like with many other agricultural industries in Laos, coffee production is developing at an exciting pace. And with coffee a feature of their culture and history, Lao people are increasingly receptive to outside expertise.
At Saffron Coffee in Luang Prabang, we serve local, organic, shade-grown, highland Arabica. We know that the country has unique flavour notes that can shine, either as espresso or pourover. And as specialty consumption grows, we know that the coffee coming from Laos will only improve in taste.
Consumer education leads to a growing awareness of specialty coffee. Credit: Saffron Coffee
Shade-Grown Lao Coffee
Shade trees provide a range of environmental advantages: fixing nitrogen in the soil, decreasing erosion during the wet season, conserving native flora and fauna… What’s more, their use typically produces better coffee. The cherries will ripen slower, giving them more time to mature and fully develop their flavours.
Whether the shade comes from existing forest or is regenerated on fallow soil, the coffee plants are protected from the sun which, in turn, helps keep the temperature low and stable. And in winter, the canopy overhead protects the coffee from frost.
We’ve been working with 784 farming families in 18 villages to provide long-term training in organic fertilisation, as well as shade trees. And as we see our farmers adopt these processes, we see the quality of their plants increase.
Shade-grown Lao Arabica. Credit: Saffron Coffee
Wet-Processing: The Best Option for Laos?
In many parts of the world, natural processed coffees are becoming more popular. Yet without great care and expertise, this method can still produce low-quality crops. The FAO recommend against this processing particular method in Laos.
In the wet or washed process, however, there’s a lower risk of defects in the final product. For that reason, we wet process the cherries from those 784 farming families.
Processing ripe coffee cherries. Credit: Saffron Coffee
Shade-grown, wet-processed, organic coffees – they’re here in Laos. And their resulting good-quality profiles is reflected in their popularity in the domestic consumer market. Our customers aren’t just consumers; they’re also hotels, high-end restaurants, and guesthouses.
Ongoing improvement of cultivation and processing methods, together with increased production through existing and new farmers, will hopefully see Laos becoming more known for its specialty coffee.
The traditional Lao brew is an important part of this country’s coffee culture – but there’s no reason specialty coffee shouldn’t be too.
Feature photo credit: Saffron Coffee.
Perfect Daily Grind is not affiliated with any of the individuals or bodies mentioned in this article, and cannot directly endorse them.
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