Oh coffee. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. You are a delicious, nectar of the gods. My love for you is nothing short of a life-long love affair.
I can vividly remember my first, wholly mediocre, cup. I was 15 years old and stage managing a theater production with rehearsals that went long into the night. One evening, I filled a dismal styrofoam cup full of black sludge from a communal urn and my life was forever changed. That first time I drank my coffee black with a generous helping of sugar but in the intervening years my regular order has fluctuated from cappuccinos to sugary lattes to coconut cream-filled drip coffees to my current favourite a simple black Americano.
When I travel I pride myself on trying local food and drinks but seeking out good coffee is always a priority. While in Laos I discovered the Bolaven Plateau, which in addition to being known for jaw-dropping waterfalls and remote villages, also boasts cooler temperatures perfect for growing coffee. My friends, Andy, Sophie, Peter, and I explored the region on a two-day, one-night motorcycle loop. As we were two to a bike, our daily rental cost of 60,000 Kip ($7.40US) and 20,000 Kip ($2.50) for gasoline were shared making it a very affordable trip indeed.
We set off from the city of Pakse following a hand-drawn map and stopping whenever inspiration struck. We enjoyed some short hikes and plenty of stunning waterfalls including Uttayan Bajiang and Tad Fane. We visited a local market for fruit and explored traditional Laotian towns. However, my personal favourite was our afternoon at Mr. Coffee, an organic coffee farm that offered drop-in tours.
After a morning of gorgeous scenery and ever darkening skies, we pulled on to the property just as it started to rain. We jumped off our bikes and hid under the outdoor shelter as the skies opened. Luckily Mr. Coffee himself – otherwise known as Mr. Vieng – was there with hot cups of coffee and freshly roasted peanuts. As we waited out the rains, I relished my cup of coffee which was served black and very strong. Normally in Laos they follow the vaguely disturbing trend found elsewhere in SE Asia of serving coffee with condensed milk – a thick, sweet, creamy-ish substance.
A Locavore’s How To: Roasting Coffee in Laos
The How To of Roasting Coffee using traditional Laotian techniques is very labour-intensive. I listened in awe as Mr. Vieng described the steps that he goes through to grow, harvest and roast the coffee beans.
Step 1: Grow the coffee. In another post, I’ll speak at length about the interesting agricultural system known as Agroforestry that Mr. Vieng employs on his farm. For now, suffice it to say that on his organic farm he plants two types of trees that produce slightly different beans – Arabica and Liberica. Arabica beans are more valuable as they produce a more complex cup of coffee so why does he bother planting Liberica? Mr. Vieng made it clear that he plants both types in an effort to increase species diversity which can protect against crop failure, an incredibly important choice for an organic farm. Hysterically he told us that the less desirable Liberica beans are easily identified by their goat-like aroma! Was that a mistranslation? I’ll never know as he’d already energetically headed off to find examples of ripe red fruit and unripe green fruit.
Want to learn more about Agroforestry? Join me on a tour of Mr. Vieng’s farm!
Step 2: Harvest the coffee. The best quality coffee is made from fruits that are ripened on the tree. Most large scale coffee plantations use machines and so their yield is a mix of ripe, underripe and overripe beans leading to an inferior product. Mr. Coffee and his family harvest all the beans by hand to ensure only the ripest beans are picked. They purposely keep their trees cut to less than 6 feet so they can easily access the beans.
Step 3: Roast the coffee. Once picked, the outside layer of the fruit is removed to reveal a yellow bean. The beans are dried for a minimum of ten day before they are roasted but you can apparently store unroasted beans for up to two years. This yellow coating must be removed before roasting which is traditionally done in a large mortar & pestle. Again using a traditional technique, Mr. Vieng employs a hand-cranked, wood-fired roasting oven. As it is vital that the beans don’t burn, the crank must be turned constantly and consistently for the 45 minutes of roasting. When we asked him why he hadn’t invested in a less labour intensive technology, he said he enjoyed sitting by the roaster, having a smoke and chatting with friends.
Step 4: Brew the coffee. After the beans are cooled, they are ground coarsely. To brew Laotian coffee, the grounds are boiled directly in the water until a froth appears on top. The grounds are allowed to settle for a few moments, but not long enough for the coffee to cool. When serving the coffee, the water must be carefully poured from the top of the pot avoiding the many grounds. The end result is a strong, thick, bold cup of coffee!
While I was already in love with the visit thanks to my cup of freshly roasted coffee, it was about to get even better as we soon headed off to explore the farm and see an organic, agroforestry project in action. You can read the full story here!
Do you love coffee as much as I do? Enough to write a little love haiku and share it below?
Now It’s Your Turn! Have you ever wondered where you coffee comes from and who grows it? Spend a couple of minutes today researching your favourite brand and see what their policies are on fair trade, sustainable coffee. If their website doesn’t mention words like shade grown, organic, robust labour laws and transparency, than you may want to consider switching brands. It will only cost you a few dollars more a month and can make a huge difference to the lives of the coffee growers and then lands they work.