Coffee in Laos is cultivated almost exclusively on the Bolaven Plateau in Champasak Province in the southern part of the country. The plateau, with ample rainfall, cool temperatures and rich volcanic soil, reaches an elevation of over 1300 meters above sea level. The coffee growing community in Laos—the majority of whom work in this are—includes about 20,000 farming families in 250 villages. Many ethnic minority groups are members of this community and most farming families depend on the income from the coffee harvest for survival.
French colonists planted the first coffee trees here around 1915, but the experiment failed. Another attempt was made in 1917, when both Arabica and Robusta plants were selected from Saigon’s botanical gardens and planted in Thateng, a village in the northern part of the plateau. Again the experiment failed from lack of care.
The French finally established a successful coffee harvest in Laos in the 1930s with annual production peaking at 5000 tons. Twenty years later, most of the coffee trees on the plateau died in the Great Frost of 1949 and from resulting orange rust disease. Production fell to less than 1500 tons and the farmers began to replace most of their Arabica bushes with more disease-tolerant Robusta trees.
Currently, the Lao coffee harvest generates about 25-30,000 tons a year, 65 % of which is comprised of Robusta. Over the past 25 years, various development agencies and the Lao government have been working with the farmers to introduce hearty, high-yielding Arabica plants to the plateau. At about double the price of Robusta, this effort has gradually improved farmer incomes. Lao Mountain Coffee works directly with farmers and farmer groups to insure that the beans are processed according to specialty coffee standards—ripe, fresh cherries, disciplined processing and professional grading and sorting. They sample all of the coffees before they buy them to assure quality and consistency, and for the best beans, they pay the highest prices in Laos.
Welcome to my Table, here in the corner of this cafe. Today we’re sipping the Mekong Rising, from Lao Mountain Coffee in Vientiane, Laos. Feel free to pull up a chair.
origin: Bolaven Plateau, Champask, Laos
producer: smallholder farmers
elevation: 1000 – 1300 meters above sea level
cultivars: Typica, Robusta
process: fully washed, patio dried
As soon as I open this bag of Mekong Rising, a rush of pungent, over-roasted funkiness comes exploding out, assaulting the nostrils. Wa-wa-wee-wa. Scents of carbon, copper, burnt wood, and smoke permeate its aroma.
Taking my first few sips of the coffee, my palate is crushed by a big, full-bodied coffee with something of a slick, oily mouthfeel. Tastes of carbon, copper, smoke, and burnt wood prick at my tongue. It’s very apparent, too, that there is quite a bit of low-end robusta in this blend because it’s very funky, harsh, and pretty bitter. Skunky, acrid, musty, and laced with flavors of rubber, peanut shell, and grain.
Full body; oily mouthfeel; citric acidity; clean finish
I don’t want to come off as some sort of Arabica snob with this review. I really don’t. I know that robusta still has its place, even in the Third Wave of specialty coffee. Unfortunately, that place isn’t in drip coffee—it’s in espresso; and that place should be reserved for high-end robusta coffees. My bitter rival (no pun intended), Kenneth Davids, observes:
Robustas are like a black hole of taste in drip coffee. They suck energy out of the blend. But in espresso they just function in a different way. In espresso they seem to knit things together, and smooth, and create a kind of resonance. A really good one can contribute positive flavor notes, too. They have a kind of nutty, spicy taste.
Lao Mountain Coffee’s Mekong Rising just didn’t have that kind of presence in the cup. I don’t know if Laos’s robusta production is high-end or low-end, but judging the flavor profile on this coffee, I’m going to guess it’s pretty low-end. This coffee was bitter and pretty funky, and the dark roast profile (somewhere around a French or Italian roast) didn’t do it any favors either.
*content courtesy of Lao Mountain Coffee
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Andrew is a husband, father, dog lover, craft beverage enthusiast, content creator, and niche market Internet celebrity. Formerly of A Table in the Corner of the Cafe and The Pulitzer Project and contributor to Barista Magazine and Mental Floss, he’s been writing on the Internet for years.