Before the peace of the morning evaporates to the chaos of tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and cars, Laotians sit on plastic stools to enjoy a coffee. The bright orange sun has risen, saffron-robed monks can be seen on their way to receive their daily alms, and it’s time for a morning ritual: gossiping with friends over a sweetened black brew. Almost everything can be discussed at the village coffee shop.
Yet tourists, falang (foreigners), and local demand for modern services and experiences are driving a change in this tradition: from traditional coffee to specialty.
In fact, Laos’ growing café culture has become captivated by specialty coffee or, as it’s called here, SaPaCaFe.
Morning rituals of alms giving, Savannakhet, Laos. Credit: Vincent Rouffaer
A Surge of New Cafés
Mr Ariya Khamvongsa (Pop) is the owner of the popular coffee shop chain, Naked Espresso, in Laos’ capital Vientiane. Pop went to Australia for a Business degree and returned with something even more valuable – barista experience in some of Sydney’s busiest cafés.
Naked Espresso has been so successful serving up flat whites and lattes, Pop’s recently expanded into new ventures: the specialty coffee bars 30ML Espresso and BAR 2 Bros and the roastery 2nd Crack Roaster.
“Despite my parents’ protests about a ‘proper job’, my wife and I opened the first Naked Espresso in 2012 on my 20th birthday in Vientiane,” he says.
Pop isn’t the only one seeing business success. It seems like a new café opens every week in Vientiane, a city of fewer than one million people. In 2012, cafés were rare but today, they are everywhere.
Quality Becomes Key
The interest in SaPaCaFe has led to a flurry of changes in roasting, serving, and sourcing. There is a drive towards single origin coffees, both from Laos and abroad. In response, roasters are starting to direct-source high-quality green beans from Lao producers. Some of the more well-known players include Le Trio Coffee, Bolaven Plateau Coffee Producers’ Cooperative, Mueang Xieng Coffee, and Yuni Coffee Co.
However, quality is key: producers and coffee shops must work together to improve the consistency and cup scores of local coffees. In 2016, Pop bought four tons of green beans from Xieng Khouang Province in northeastern Laos directly from the producers.
“Quality coffee farming is new to coffee producers. The impact of poor harvesting or over-fermenting is hard on poor farmers. We pay more money to support local farmers – from ₭35,000 to ₭45,000 (around US $4 to $5.50) per kilo for good-quality green beans,” he explains.
A busy day in Naked Espresso. Credit: Naked Espresso
Experimenting With Roast Profiles & Varieties
It’s not just producers who are working towards quality, either.
As passers-by walk along the busy Rue Setthathilath in downtown Vientiane, the aromas of That’s Coffee waft out from Cubic Café. Yet another change in the emerging Laos coffee scene is the creation of branding, and That’s Coffee is the brand of Dr Thatheva.
A passion for coffee brought together Mr Lat Rattanavong, owner of Cubic Café, and Dr Sphangthong Thatheva, a roaster and agricultural scientist. Most evenings and weekends, you’ll find them experimenting with roasts and brews in pursuit of the perfect cup of coffee.
By adjusting the temperature in the roaster and paying attention to the sensory signs of roast development, they work to capture the unique characteristics of the beans – no matter where in the country they come from. Within Laos, you’ll find a diversity of coffee flavour profiles, varieties, and more. You’ll find the often looked-down-upon Robusta but also Catimor, Typica, Caturra, Java, and even Gesha/Geisha.
And Mr Lat’s passion for coffee extends beyond the roastery. He creates illustrations of growing techniques and cherry processing methods. The Outspan Bolovens Ltd subsidiary of Olam Coffee then uses these drawings in training sessions with small-scale coffee producers. They want to support quality coffee production and help producers move up the value chain by processing cherry to parchment.
These producers work with Olam Coffee to improve quality and sustainability. Credit: Outspan Bolovens Limited
Laos’ Most Valuable Crop
The changes in the Laos’ coffee market can have a significant impact on the country, far beyond people’s choice of morning brew. Coffee is Laos’ most valuable agricultural export crop, after all.
This is according to Phouxay Thepphavong, Secretary General of the Laos National Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He stated this in 2017, along with several other key facts: Laos coffee exports were valued at US $50 million in 2016. This was from a harvest of 27,000 US tons farmed across more than 75,000 hectares.
This industry also furthers other industries in the country, such as tourism. Cherry-to-cup tours are growing in popularity, both in the north in Luang Prabang and in the south in Champassak. Eco-tourism companies such as Green Discovery, Exo Travel, and Saffron Coffee collaborate with local farmers and cooperatives to offer activities such as picking cherries.
Jhai Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative consists of 2,240 families in 68 villages along the Bolaven Plateau of southern Laos. Income from tour group activities is reinvested back into the local community for water wells, hygiene education, and coffee-processing equipment.
Similarly, Saffron Coffee in Luang Prabang invests tour profits back into its hill-tribe coffee-farming families. Tourists learn about Saffron’s shade-grown, wet-processed, organic coffee and local Lao customs and culture. Meanwhile, 780 hill tribe families across 18 villages produce over 7,000 kg of beans destined for consumption throughout Laos and abroad. It is a sustainable and reliable source of income in Laos’ northern mountains.
Cherry-to-cup tours bring producers and consumers together. Credit: Outspan Bolovens Limited
A Young, Female Industry
Ms Sengdavone Bangonesengdet, former head of Laos National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, tells me that coffee provides employment for many families and, in particular, for young people.
This is through coffee production, café ownership, and also coffee tourism. Revenue from tourism in 2016 was worth over US $724 million, with the 2016 Statistical Report on Tourism in Laos ranking it fourth in a list of “tourism and major exports” in Laos.
At the 2016 ASEAN Women’s Private Sector Forum, women’s role in Lao coffee was also highlighted. Duangmala Phommavong, Managing Director of Exo Travel Laos, was part of the event. She passionately believes that the crossover of these two industries can support women, especially when entrepreneurship is possible. She explained, “In Laos, women play a critical role in tourism and agriculture. Investing in women will boost opportunities, create income generation, entrepreneurship and economic growth.”
Similarly, Sirina Sisombat-Hervy from Sinouk Coffee was awarded the 2017 Most Inspiring and Innovative Women Entrepreneur of the Year in the ASEAN Region for promoting tourism and coffee.
Ms Sengdavone Bangonesengdet (far right)works with youths to build demand for quality coffee. Credit: Slurp Coffee, V5 Lao coffee Academy
In Laos, coffee is an industry of opportunity. It can empower women and youths, increase tourism, and provide opportunities for entrepreneurialism. There are still difficulties, of course, from quality to marketing – but as the aroma of freshly roasted single origins wafts down the street, for many, this is the scent of a positive future.
On the 1st October 2016, Laos celebrated International Coffee Day for the first time. Coffee aficionados shared their love for the country’s coffee, both new and traditional. From strong, dark brews sweetened with condensed milk to silky cappuccinos, there was plenty on the table for the people of Laos to enjoy.
Written by Nicole Motteux, based on a case study with CARE International in Lao P.D.R (Nicole Motteux, 2017: Disconnect – the transition from shifting cultivation to coffee production). All interviews were conducted with Mr Thongchanh from the Coffee Research Station as an interpreter.
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