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As a coffee lover who has tried beans from across the globe, I was pleasantly surprised by my first taste of Lao coffee. This tiny Southeast Asian country has quietly become a rising star among specialty coffee connoisseurs.
The volcanic soils and cool highland climate of southern Laos’ Bolaven Plateau produce a smooth, floral Arabica coffee that punches above its weight.
In this article, I’ll share everything I’ve discovered about Laos coffee during my trip – from its rich history to tasting notes, and processing methods to the faces behind these unique coffee beans.
By the end, you’ll see why Laos deserves a spot on any serious coffee drinker’s map!
Let’s crack on!
A Brief History of Laos Coffee
I was fortunate enough to get the chance the visit a coffee plantation in Laos back in 2022. Here’s what I discovered about the history whilst there.
As I drove along windy mountain roads during my coffee-origin tour of Laos, I found it hard to believe that coffee has only been grown here for around a century.
Coffee first reached Lao shores in the early 1900s when French colonists brought Arabica varietals from East Africa and Indonesia. The French initially focused their coffee cultivation efforts in southern Laos near Pakse and the Bolaven Plateau region.
This lush, hilly area turned out to have the perfect volcanic soil, cool climate, and plentiful rainfall. These are the conditions that thriving Arabica coffee trees need.
The first Lao coffee plants quickly flourished in these optimal conditions. And by the 1950s, there were over 40,000 hectares of coffee farms dotting southern Laos!
For decades, coffee remained a smallholder operation, with beans processed and consumed locally. However, this changed in the 1990s when the Lao government began actively supporting the expansion of the coffee industry. They offered land, resources and training to farmers willing to grow coffee.
Today, over 76,000 family-run farms produce coffee across Laos.
While yields are still small, steady improvements in farming techniques and processing methods have bolstered both quality and quantity. Coffee is now Laos’ fifth most valuable export, bringing much-needed income to rural communities.
As I spoke with proud coffee farmers, I was struck by how far they’ve come in just a few generations.
Timeline of Coffee Production in Laos:
|Coffee Production (metric tons)
|Area Harvested (hectares)
The Bolaven Plateau – Laos’ Coffee Sweet Spot
As I stared out across the lush green Bolaven Plateau, the secret behind Lao coffee’s sweet, smooth flavor was suddenly clear. This highland region has the perfect storm of conditions to coax incredible coffee from the land.
Let me walk you through why this area stationed in southern Laos is so vital for exceptional bean production.
Sitting at around 1,200-1,350 meters above sea level, the Bolaven Plateau offers an ideal climate for Arabica cultivation. Its relatively cool temperatures, plentiful rainfall, and nutrient-rich volcanic soil provide a nurturing environment for coffee trees to thrive.
The plateau’s numerous waterfalls and rivers also help regulate humidity creating consistent moisture levels – another key for peak coffee cherry development.
Beyond the perfect growing environment for coffee, the Bolaven region also benefits from a dedicated coffee farming culture cared for by generations of families.
Their accumulated wisdom and passion for the craft shows through in the extra attention they devote to each stage of cultivation and processing. Many independent farms are members of the Bolaven Plateau Coffee Producers Cooperative. Formed in 2007, it helps coordinate resources and training to help farmers implement best practices.
I was lucky enough to grab a cup of coffee from a local grower’s stash; it tasted out of this world. There was a syrupy body with hints of dark chocolate and brown spices enveloped in zesty citrus brightness.
Now I understand why approximately 40% of all Lao coffee hails from the tiny Bolaven Plateau area. This growing region simply can’t be replicated anywhere else!
Seeking Out Mekong Risings Organic Coffee
During my adventures, an artisanal coffee roasting company based in the capital city of Vientiane kept popping up on my radar – Mekong Rising. I learned that their featured coffee collection shines a spotlight on smallholder farms in the Bolaven Plateau.
Sourced via direct trade from the area’s volcanic slopes, this USDA-certified organic coffee also carries Fair Trade credentials – meaning strict standards ensuring fair working conditions and wages for growers. I knew this was a collection I needed to try!
Stopping by Mekong Rising’s rustic café, I sampled several selections like Bolaven Gold and Paksong Honey. True to their terroir, these micro-lot coffees oozed with syrupy body beautifully balanced by a smooth, creamy mouthfeel. I detected notes ranging from milk chocolate fudge to red apple sweetness with hints of mango and lemongrass.
Roasting clearly plays a starring role too in teasing out the coffee beans’ more delicate fruit and floral nuances.
I felt like sipping these cups really connected me to the farmers who dedicate their lives to nurturing these extraordinary coffee trees in lush Bolaven plantations.
And it was great to hear that one dollar from each bag sold even supports educational programs empowering youth in coffee farming communities.
The Distinct Taste of Lao Coffee
One sip was all it took for me to become fascinated with the beguiling flavor experience unique to Lao coffee. Smooth as silk with no bitter bite or harsh acidity, these beans brew into a cup brimming with sweetness intricately layered with earthy depth and floral highlights.
The prevalent Arabica varietals grown in Laos’ mineral-rich volcanic soil impart a syrupy, full body that coats the palate in rich chocolate and nutty tones.
Yet somehow, the finish remains light and bright with a faint fruitiness akin to baked apples or bright citrus. These coffees also exude an enticing aroma blending grassy herbal notes with a comforting roasted dimensionality.
Another signature in the Lao flavor profile is subtle hints of spices like cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves – an intriguing reminder of the French colonial influence. But make no mistake, these coffee beans let the region speak loud and clear rather than obscuring it with heavy handed processing or roasting.
These flavor profiles make it equally enjoyable as a milk-enhanced café drink or straightforward black cup. The moderate acidity also makes it quite espresso friendly.
I’d urge any coffee lover to give these gems a taste!
How Lao Coffee is Grown and Processed?
Wandering through rows of lush coffee trees dotting hillsides around Pakse and the Bolaven Plateau, I gained firsthand insight into Laos’ predominantly small-scale coffee cultivation.
Although yields are still developing, meticulous harvesting and processing methods focused on quality set the stage for truly exceptional beans.
The vast majority of coffee from this region comes from tiny family-run farms averaging around just a single hectare. Dedicated farmers manually tend to their crops year-round – pruning, fertilizing, and monitoring for pests.
Due to the plateau’s ideal Arabica growing climate, most trees grown are higher quality Arabica varietals like Typica, Catimor and Bourbon. During harvesting season from November to February, cherries at their peak ripeness are handpicked individually by family members before being wet processed at village mills.
I was able to follow the path Lao beans take from sweet cherry to export-ready green beans.
First, flesh is removed from the seeds, which are then soaked and partially dried. This allows a thin parchment-like husk coating to emerge, separating the inner bean.
Beans are then dried in the sun on large covered patios for up to 30 days – this slow, consistent desiccation helps them develop distinct flavor complexity.
Finally, hulling machines remove the now crunchy husk completing the journey to expertly handled specialty-grade green coffee.
Seeing such care devoted to growing and processing across many rural farming communities underlined an overarching focus on origin character and steady improvement.
In a nation still discovering its immense coffee potential, this emphasis on quality-driven practices points to a bright future for Lao beans.
I, for one, will be eagerly following along on their upward journey!
Taking Center Stage – Laos Coffee in the Spotlight
Given the nuanced flavors and smooth finish of the Lao beans I’d sampled, I wasn’t surprised to learn of the origin’s rising esteem on the global specialty coffee stage.
Despite production still being small, Laos coffees have created quite a stir over recent years by netting top awards at international competitions like the prestigious World Coffee Championships. This recognition underscores their immense potential.
In particular, the World Coffee Expo held annually in Seattle has become a showcase celebrating Lao coffee’s emergence.
Growers and roasters take home honors year after year, turning heads with their unique coffee profiles. A stellar example is Mekong Rising – the specialty roaster from Vientiane who won several 2022 competition medals for their expertly crafted Lao-grown coffee.
Beyond accolades, Laos coffee bean exports have steadily increased over the past decade. Amounting to 13,000 tonnes exported in 2021, coffee now stands as Laos’ fifth most valuable export product overall.
Top importers of Lao beans include Germany, France, and the United States, where a niche market exists for discerning specialty coffee drinkers.
Seeing how intently global coffee connoisseurs are sitting up and taking note of little known Laos, I’m reminded of neighboring Vietnam’s coffee journey several decades ago. They too, were overlooked at first until eventually becoming one of the world’s foremost coffee suppliers.
If Lao coffee farmers can leverage further private and governmental investment in infrastructure and training, they’re poised for tremendous growth.
So there you have it.
After tracing the journey of Lao coffee from its French colonial roots to family-run farms today, it’s clear this origin is still unfolding its potential.
Despite small output, improvements in quality and global recognition point to immense promise if infrastructure and training investments can empower farmers to share their volcanic gems with more coffee lovers worldwide.
I can’t wait to see what the future holds for this captivating coffee.
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