High-Quality Coffee from Laos: Coming Soon to a Specialty Café Near You?
With support from the USDA CLEAN project, which helps growers practice sustainable farming techniques and find new markets, coffee from Laos could become the next big thing.
The four coffee varietals from Laos were little known in the United States. Todd Arnette, one of the most experienced specialty coffee experts in the world, was excited to introduce them.
How good were they? Arnette would soon query the group for their impressions. But first, he shared an anecdote from last year’s “Taste of Laos” virtual coffee cupping event, to which a select group of influential buyers were invited through a Winrock project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“I asked the judges to just give me a passing comment, you know, ‘What do you think about one of the coffees?’ And one of the judges wrote on their form: ‘I will buy the whole lot.’ And sure enough, he did.”
Arnette relayed the story to about 25 people assembled at a private event held at Capitol Cider House in Washington, D.C. as they sipped and assessed each of the single-origin coffees, some of which were grown by smallholder farmers working directly with the Creating Linkages for Expanded Agricultural Networks (CLEAN) project in Laos. He wanted everyone to understand that in order for hardworking farmers in Laos to earn a good living growing coffee – even if they pay meticulous attention to quality and employ sustainable best practices during cultivation and processing ─ what they need more than anything else is a good market.
With that, Arnette asked the group what they thought of Sample One.
“Green apples! Nutty … walnuts!”
“Berries!” some shouted. “Overripe!” Arnette nodded: “For some people, they’re really looking for that fruity-juicy.”
How about Sample Three, the lone Robusta of the set? (Specialty coffee generally comprises Arabica varietals, grown at higher elevations, while Robusta is generally cultivated at lower elevations.) “Ripe plum…fig!“ came the replies. “Do you get a little bit of salty aftertaste?” Arnette asked. “Some people compare it to edamame.”
And Sample Four? “Nutty! Smoky!” the crowd called, glancing back over color-coded tasting forms filled with checkboxes denoting nine generally descriptive elements like “roasty” and “floral,” and 35 further sub-properties ranging from “hay-like” and “winey” to “caramel” and “vanilla.”
“As you add more adjectives to it, you start to get more of a premium,” said Arnette, Q Program Manager at the U.S.-based Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), which is partnering with CLEAN to help smallholder coffee farmers boost the quality and value of their coffee, and enter new export markets.
With CQI advice and expertise on the technical and market side, CLEAN is collaborating with the Laos Department of Agriculture (DOA) under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF), and local partners including the non-profit Lao Coffee Association, to lift smallholder coffee farmer productivity, competitiveness and sustainability through training and new markets. The CLEAN project also supports Lao farmers in three other value chains: cassava, cabbage and sacha inchi, a perennial vine native to South America that is cultivated in Laos for its high-value, ultra-nutritious seeds, commonly referred to as nuts.
“We’ve tried to bring a little bit of a lighter touch with the farmers, coming where the need was,” CLEAN Chief of Party Alex Dahan told the group in D.C., who had come to learn more about coffee from Laos and its market potential. Early on, Lao coffee farmers told CLEAN they felt their coffee was pretty good, and Dahan said the project saw an opportunity: If farmers could lift their scores (as judged by certified Q Graders like those trained by Arnette and CQI, and which are used by buyers to determine prices paid) for their already-good coffee, they could expand market reach and boost incomes. They’d then have a chance to enter one of the world’s most lucrative markets for specialty coffee: the U.S., which consumes more coffee by volume per year, at around 27 million, 60-kilogram bags, than any other country.
While Lao coffee is already available in Europe due to the country’s history as a former French colony, very little is currently exported to the U.S. In order to change that, U.S.-based specialty traders, roasters, and the industry’s influential Q Graders first need to learn about Lao coffees.
That, in fact, is why Dahan was in the U.S. The week before the March 11 coffee tasting in D.C., he attended North America’s largest annual specialty coffee trade conference, the Specialty Coffee Expo, in Boston. Winrock and CQI organized an event there to introduce Lao coffee to potential buyers. Meanwhile, in Laos, the CLEAN team was coordinating with CQI to conduct the country’s second national coffee cupping competition, in which Q Graders will score samples from across the country. CLEAN organized the country’s first national competition last year, and has expanded it this year to include more farmers and coffees. Also this year, CLEAN is collaborating with a project implemented by the International Trade Centre with funding from the European Union to hold the first online auction of the highest-scoring lots of Lao coffee from the coffee competition.
One prospective buyer at the Lao event in D.C., Matthew Saperstone, is already a fan of high-quality, sustainably produced and transparently traded coffees from South Asia. He currently offers coffees from Myanmar and Thailand through his Nilaa Coffee business. Saperstone, who has lived and traveled extensively in Asia, including in Laos, attended both the Boston and D.C. events to learn more about Lao coffee and potentially, buy some for a new café he plans to open in Philadelphia.
“I’m in touch with traders who’ve got some connections on the Bolaven Plateau, and they’ve been able to get coffee here through existing connections, but I’ve not been able to ─ yet,” Saperstone said. The CLEAN project works mostly with coffee farmers on the Bolaven Plateau, an elevated region between the Mekong River in the west and the Annamite Mountains bordering Vietnam to the east, though one of the coffees presented in D.C., a naturally-processed java/catimor blend from Yuni Coffee Co., was cultivated in Nala Village, in northeastern Laos. The other Lao coffees were submitted by Nambeng Gold Coffee Group (Arabica yellow/caturra honey); Outspan, a subsidiary of Olam International (naturally-processed Arabica/Bourbon blend; and Bolaven Farms (naturally-processed Robusta.)
Dr. Bounthanongsack Chanthalath, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Lao Embassy in the U.S., hopes Saperstone’s problem will be resolved as word gets around about the quality of Lao coffees.
“The more I tasted, the more I wanted to try ─ I wanted to taste even more varieties,” Chanthalath said. “I have never seen Lao coffee for sale here in the U.S. and I think the American people should know Laos for its good coffee. This product has a bright future and we want a wider market for it, not just to sell to traders in Thailand.”
With CLEAN currently winding down five years of supporting farmers in Laos, Sarah Polaski of USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, said: “We’re very excited for this process, to see the project actually making market linkages, and for allowing us to taste the coffee. We obviously want to help bring more [coffee] to the U.S. and other places. We hope you’ll look out for the Lao coffee and the other products.”