Despite ideal coffee growing conditions, Laos has yet to become a specialty coffee producer. This is primarily a result of its tumultuous history, and as peace continues, we see increasingly high-quality coffee from the country.
If you want to get in on the ground floor of an up-and-coming specialty coffee region, read this Laos coffee guide.
A Complete Guide to Laos Coffee Production
Coffee is a primary economic driver in Laos, the fifth largest export and a significant source of tourist dollars. Keep reading to learn more about the country’s past, present, and future coffee production.
If you’re curious, you can also read about some of the coffee beans we highly recommend.
The Rich History of Laos Coffee
People brought the first few coffee plants to Laos in the early 20th century during French colonial times. French colonists began coffee farming in the north before they realized the Bolaven Plateau of southern Laos offered near-perfect growing conditions. By the 1930s, annual Arabica production was a substantial 5,000 tons.
Then a series of events decimate the industry. First, World War II caused many French colonists to flee. This was soon followed by the Great Frost of 1949 and an epidemic of coffee leaf rust. By the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, people mostly abandoned coffee production.
The last few decades have seen a slow rebuilding of the industry. Laos exported more than 20,000 tonnes of coffee beans in the first half of 2020, double the amount of the year before, according to Lao Coffee Association chief Sivixay Xayaseng (1).
The increase was attributed to the increase in coffee prices in the global market this year, as well as the coffee trees producing more berries than last year.
This is the start of an exciting era for Laotian coffee farmers and specialty coffee lovers.
The Bolaven Plateau
The Bolaven Plateau is Laos’s major coffee farming region, responsible for 95% of production. It is located over 1000 meters above sea level and offers a cool climate and ample rainfall. Its volcanic soils provide rich minerals ideal for growing Arabica plants.
Sadly, the Bolaven Plateau was heavily bombarded during the wars and remained the site of substantial unexploded ordnance. Farmers risk their lives to make a living growing coffee plants.
Laos Coffee Varieties and Flavors
Laos produces approximately 30,000 tonnes of coffee annually, about one-third of Arabica beans and the rest of Robusta (2). Initially, French colonists grew only Arabica plants of the Bourbon and Typica varieties, similar to Taiwan coffees. But following years of frost and disease, farmers introduced Robusta and the rust-resistant Robusta-Arabica hybrid, Catimor.
Laos produces Robusta coffee, which is among the best in the world. It is one of the few places where Robusta is grown at high elevation, yielding sweeter and more complex flavours.
Producers are abandoning the heavily fertilized monocultures of the past in favor of small-scale organic farming methods. This benefits both growers and consumers, says Vincent Vire of the UN (3).
Lao people produce great coffee, so European consumers are ready to pay a higher price for a cup of coffee which is organic, respectful to the environment.
Laos coffee is robust, full-bodied, and high in caffeine. It is low in acidity and has bold flavors of bittersweet chocolate and toasted cereal, and it resembles Indian coffee and earthy coffee from Sumatra, Indonesia.
Coffee Cultures in Laos
Laos has a fledgling specialty coffee culture, with a few cafes sprouting up in larger cities. But they are geared more toward tourists and ex-pats.
Most Laotians drink instant Laos Dao 3-in-1 coffee at home. Or they brew very strong coffee, served with sweetened condensed milk. Iced milk coffee is a typical coffee drink sold at street stands.
Three Top Lao Coffee Beans in 2022
There are few options for buying Laos coffee beans as the industry is still young. Here are three suggestions for the whole Laos coffee experience.
Lao Mountain Coffee was founded in 2001 to promote Laotian specialty coffee beans. They source organic and fair trade Robusta and Arabica Typica from farms in the Bolaven Plateau.
All their coffee blends are delicious, but we particularly love the Premium Arabica blend for an authentic taste of Laos
This mix of Arabica and high-grown Robusta showcases both pillars of the Laotian coffee industry and offers a rare opportunity to enjoy premium Robusta. The heavy body, creamy mouthfeel, and bold chocolatey flavor make for a delicious espresso.
2. Bean North Laos Peaberry
Roast level: Medium
- Tasting notes: Nougat, brown sugar, dried fruit
- Brew: Drip, French press, Aeropress
If you prefer the sweetness and complexity of 100% Arabica coffee beans, the Bean North Laos Peaberry is for you. Peaberry coffee is a natural mutation that results in exceptionally flavorful coffee. And because it needs to be hand-picked, the quality is always top-notch.
This organic coffee has an incredible natural sweetness that rivals more famous growing regions. Make regular coffee with a French press to enjoy the bright flavors of nougat, brown sugar, and dried fruit.
I’m not here to convince you that this heavily sweetened instant coffee is objectively good. This is hardly a bucket-list coffee. But if you want to drink Lao coffee like a Laotian, pick up a pack of Laos Dao 3-in-1. Made from 100% Arabica coffee harvested from the Bolaven Plateau, Laos Dao is a step up from generic instant coffee and makes an undeniably tasty treat when camping.
The Laos specialty coffee industry is still underdeveloped following years of war, but it has tremendous potential. The Bolaven Plateau is blessed with the rich soils and high altitudes needed to grow high-quality coffee. Don’t sleep on Laos coffee if you want to be a trendsetter.
What is Lao Liberica coffee?
Lao Liberica coffee is a varietal that is neither Arabic nor Robusta. Only a tiny fraction of Lao coffee is Liberica, so it’s difficult to buy. The best Liberica coffee has flavors of syrupy stone fruit, floral aromas, and a woody aftertaste.
Where does Laos export its coffee?
Laos exports its coffee worldwide, but the top five buyers are Vietnam, Germany, Thailand, Japan, and Belgium. Vietnam buys more than the other four combined.
Can I tour a coffee farm in Laos?
Yes, you can tour a coffee farm in Laos. It is a wonderful way to learn about coffee production and support it with your tourist dollars. Many farms in the Bolaven Plateau have organized tours complete with coffee tastings.
- Asia News Network. (2020, August 27). Laos ups its coffee exports by 100% to hit $40M. Retrieved from https://www.phnompenhpost.com/business/laos-ups-its-coffee-exports-100-hit-40m
- Motteux, N. (2017, October 10). How Producers in Laos Are Turning to Specialty Coffee. Retrieved from https://perfectdailygrind.com/2017/10/how-producers-in-laos-are-turning-to-specialty-coffee/
- Singhalath, K. & Le Thi Huong, L. (2021, July 6). Lao farmers reaching for global, organic coffee markets. Retrieved from https://laopdr.un.org/en/134654-lao-farmers-reaching-global-organic-coffee-markets