Coffee News: from Seed to Cup

Xam Tai, Laos: The Birth of Specialty Coffee Farming

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It’s out there, but most people don’t know about it. Even some locals aren’t aware that specialty coffee is being farmed in Houaphan province, eastern Laos. Because Laos doesn’t really produce coffee – and when it does, it’s all Robusta and it’s all in the south. Right?

Wrong.

In fact, for 20 years now, Arabica trees have been faithfully producing cherries under hidden jungle canopies in Xam Tai, a small district in the Houaphan province. So why does no one know about it?

And why is it all about to change?

SEE ALSO: The Golden Triangle: What’s the Link Between Opium and Coffee in SE Asia?

village in laosForgotten coffee growing in a Xam Tai village. Credit: T. Gant

Coffee Production in Laos

Although it’s surprising news for many, coffee is actually Laos’ primary agricultural export. In its peak in 2013, the country exported 30,000 tons of it – making it kind of a big deal for this SE Asian country.

However, Laos still doesn’t make an appearance in the top fifty coffee-producing countries – and unfortunately, its coffee exports have been falling. In 2015, the country only exported 23,000 tons. That’s a 24% drop in just two years.

All this means that you typically won’t find Laos listed alongside its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam as a great coffee-producing country. Only a truly adventurous coffee lover would tell you that they’ve even tried Lao coffee.

And the number who have tried specialty coffee will be even smaller, since 88% of the land used for growing coffee is given over to Robusta.

coffee map

Laos doesn’t even appear on this map of coffee-producing countries. Credit: Pixeltoo and Petr Dlouhy, via Wikipedia.

Hidden Coffee in the Houaphan Province

The vast majority of Lao coffee is grown on the Bolaven Plateau in the south, where it was introduced by the French in the early 1900s.

Yet twenty years ago, as part of a forward-thinking government initiative, coffee was brought into the Houaphan province as a cash crop. The aim: to bring vital economic stability to struggling subsistence farmers in the region.

But after the coffee trees matured the market never came calling. The province, with its poor infrastructure, remoteness, and poverty, was ill-placed to compete with the Bolaven Plateau for investors.

And the coffee? Well, most people forgot about it. Even the farmers decided that it would be better to cut down the trees and use the space more wisely.

Yet in Xam Tai, a district of the province, there were some farmers who held out hope that the coffee buyers would come. And so for 20 years the coffee remained, present but forgotten.

first lady of coffee in Xam Tai

The ‘First Lady’ of coffee in one village in Xam Tai. Credit G. Johns

A New Era: The Rise of Coffee Farming in Xam Tai

Coffee entrepreneurs Steve Patton and Tyler Gant caught wind of this forgotten coffee and decided to take a closer look. And after sharing meals and conversation with farmers, and bumbling along windy mountain roads, Patton and Gant found potential in the region’s forgotten fruits. In Xam Tai, they found shade-grown Arabica coffee, ripe for the picking, and small plot coffee growers patiently waiting for a buyer.

Shortly after, the two formed Yuni Coffee Company and contracted the farmers of Xam Tai to harvest their coffee in late 2015. These subsistence rice farmers, with little-to-no other source of income, were now coffee farmers. For many, it would be their very first sale after years of waiting.

buying coffee cherries

For the villagers in Xam Tai, these coffee sales were a long time coming. Credit: T. Gant

Changing Practices: Specialty Production in Xam Tai

From the outset, the partnership between the Xam Tai farmers and Yuni Coffee intended to bring the specialty coffee market to this hidden corner of the world. For small plot farmers, producing high-quality coffee to share with the global specialty market is the key to real, sustainable financial and social change.

As with most new ventures, the learning curve was steep. To bring out the best of Houaphan’s coffee, Yuni was relying on the world’s newest farmers to care for their trees, learn appropriate harvesting techniques, and understand innovative processing methods.

For first-time coffee farmers, coming to terms with the intensive production process involved in specialty coffee was a stretch. They had to learn that they must pick the ripest cherries, measure moisture levels, and monitor the weather during drying in order to produce the best brews.

Most people in Xam Tai had never brewed the coffee they’d grown, so it was difficult for them to understand how the extra effort made a difference when it came to taste. But with the newfound opportunity to profit from coffee, the Xam Tai farmers were increasingly willing to go to greater lengths to access this demanding market.

sorting coffee

Sorting for ripe cherries after the harvest. Credit T. Gant.

And after years of patiently waiting, the once-forgotten coffee is now hitting the specialty coffee market worldwide – and, in doing so, bringing both opportunity and pride to this small province in eastern Laos.

Written by T. Gant and edited by H. Paull.

Feature photo credit: T. Gant.

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