History of Lao Coffee
In the late 19th Century, Coffea Arabica found its way to Southern Laos. Under French colonization, the French introduced the prized elixir throughout ‘Indochine’ including Vietnam and Laos. Throughout a tumultuous period of armed conflict with the French and later the United States, a small but determined group of Lao coffee families preserved their orchards at all costs. Many orchards were lost to the ravages of war, and indeed, the Bolaven Plateau remains one of the most heavily bombed areas on the planet. While there have been many programs to remove deadly unexploded ordnance, the legacy still remains and every so often, villages lose loved ones to the wars of the past.
Another legacy of the war-time era is the concept of petrochemical and industrialized farming. After World War II, and with Laos’ close cooperation with the former Soviet Union, Laos was encouraged to adopt “Green Revolution” technology: chemical fertilizers, and mono-cropped production methods.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lao began to increase coffee production not much different than its neighbor, Vietnam. However, this increase in production led to more deforestation and unsustainable use of chemical fertilizers for coffee production. As of today, the only group of farmers working exclusively to establish organic-only coffee growing is the JCFC. As of today, organic coffee represents just above 1% of all coffee produced in Laos.
Around the year 2000, FAO Laos introduced Java, SL28, SL34, SL 6, Caturra, Catuai, and 11 varieties of Arabusta Catimor. Catimor became the main variety recommended for farmers to plant as, at that time, it was seen that catimor coffee was the best species to plant. Over the next 10 years, the global specialty coffee market began to develop a distaste for catimor coffee and this led to extremely low prices for “arabica” coffee. As of now, Central and South American countries are beginning to ban the use of catimor varieties for planting due to its low quality. In Laos, this knowledge has only been understood by the JCFC and its members. As of now, the JCFC is the only farmer group in Lao that is committed to reestablishing non-catimor, arabica-only production.
The reason most people in the world have never heard of coffee produced from Laos, as in fact only in the past 3 years has Laos even been recognized by the International Coffee Organization as a coffee producing country, is because most of the buyers in the area represent larger, lower-quality coffee buyers.
Much of Lao coffee is exported across its borders and “rebranded” as Vietnamese or Thai coffee, due to the fact that it is comparatively cheaper, lacks traceability, but produces higher quality.
As Lao coffee becomes more visible, the Lao people, and indeed coffee drinkers, are sure to benefit from its unique but fine coffee which is grown within its beautiful landscape.