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 Peaberry, from Lao Mountain Coffee in Vientiane, Laos. Feel free to pull up a chair.
origin: Bolaven Plateau, Champask, Laos
producer: smallholder farmers
elevation: 12000 – 1300 meters above sea level
process: fully washed, patio dried
The aroma of this coffee is certainly unique. There’s a lot going on and it’s all really weird and complex. It’s difficult to unpack it and pinpoint exactly what I’m smelling, but I’m picking out scents of dark chocolate, musty cedar, earth, apple, cooking spices, herbs, and florals.
Taking my first few sips from the cup immediately post-brew, much like its aroma suggested this coffee is pretty wild and complex. It’s on the lighter side of a medium-bodied coffee and features something of a silky mouthfeel. It’s bright, but it’s also a pretty dry coffee with a fair amount of astringency in every sip. I’m tasting some caramel and toffee sweetness, and the juiciness of red delicious apple, strawberry, kiwi, white grape, and golden currant; those flavors are all fantastic. But there’s also a lot of funk in the cup—a fair amount of savoriness and flavors that just seem kind of “off.” Again, that musty cedar makes an appearance and there are plenty of herbal and floral nuances (thyme, basil, juniper); but I’m also tasting salty peanut shell, asparagus, tobacco, peat, earth, some medicinal qualities, and even some very faint tastes of rubber.
Medium body; silky mouthfeel; citric acidity; dry finish
I had no idea what to expect going into this coffee—I’ve never had coffee from Laos before. After trying coffee from Thailand last month, however, I at least had a premonition that Lao Mountain Coffee’s Peaberry would be nothing short of unique; and “unique” it certainly was.
This coffee was nothing short of—in scientific terms—bonkers. So many different flavors happening at the same time, so many different nuances in its profile; each sip threw something new and interesting at my taste buds and not all of it was very good. While this coffee did have some sweetness and bright, lively, juicy fruit notes, it was also packed with all manner of bizarre flavors that just weren’t palateable.
It was three-fourths tasty and one-fourth funky, but all in all, it added up to one wacky coffee.
*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.