How does coffee trade work in Laos?

The Bolaven Plateau in Laos is home to 76,000 families which consist of four primary ethnic minority groups. Although Lao P.D.R. speaks Lao as the national language and teaches it in its schools, each village also has their own unique language, cuisine and culture.

JCFC families are stewards of small plots of the forest, taking care of usually between 1-2 hectares of naturally grown coffee within the jungle canopy. These farms often consist of several different varieties which are often mix-planted. The most commonly planted species are arabusta catimor and robusta, however, the JCFC families grow more of the arabica species.

Within the Arabica species, it is known that SL28, SL34, red and yellow caturra, red and yellow catuai, bourbon, French Mission bourbon, typica Java and others are present in the plateau. These varieties of the Arabica species yield dramatically higher better prices due to their high cup quality. In most cases, farmers outside of the JCFC are unaware of the differences between all of these fine coffees: something we are actively involved in changing. The result is the vast majority of farmers have beautiful coffees that are left undiscovered.

In Laos, there are only a few ways for families to sell their coffee. They can sell coffee cherry, parchment or green beans. However, most families elect to sell either cherries or parchment because they do not have the equipment to process their coffee into green bean. If a family picks coffee cherries and elects to sell those cherries to collectors, middle-men or the family transports their cherries to one of the many large companies in town known as “collectors”. The sale is final and farmers do not get paid again. The farmer's value-chain stops at this point of sale.

Additionally, many farmers are unaware of the correct timing of picking ripe cherries nor do they have an incentive for the extra labor, and so the majority of farmers pick under-ripe cherries which are green and yellow as pictured above. 

In this case, one hectare of robusta or arabica yields farmers approximately 2-2500 USD, but when you take out all fertilizer and living costs, it equates to 1,200-2,200USD per hectare per year. Considering most families (family of 5) own around 1-2 hectares and coffee represents 95% of their income, most families fall below earning 2USD per day per person. This means most families fall below severe poverty thresholds as determined by the United Nations’ development standards.

To understand how the JCFC traceability system is different than the prevailing Lao trade model click below.

VARIETALS

The coffee of these communities are unique, relatively undiscovered, and rare. The high elevation (1300m+), volcanic soil, unique micro-climate, and plateau landscape lends itself to great coffee growing conditions. Most of the coffee grown is Arabusta Catimor. The communities we work with currently grow specialty quality Arabica Typica, Arabica Typica Java, Arabica Catuai, Arabica Caturra, and Arabica Bourbon.

Many Lao coffees carry an intense bouquet of kaffir lime blossom, jasmine, honeysuckle, plumeria, tea rose, and a hint of bergamot aroma. The sweetness is refined, but intense, reminding us of a well-balanced butter cookie. The body is silky, but light enough to carry the floral aromas well. The acidity is very obvious and lends well to the fact that the citrusy, floral aromas need such a sparkling grape/apple/lime acidity to keep everything together. These communities grow some absolutely world-class and undiscovered specialty coffee which needs to be experienced by any serious coffee connoisseur.

 Mr. Vy, Houaytoey Village standing with his unidentified yellow Arabica variety. This coffee cupped beyond 90 points and you would be forgiven if you mistook this coffee for a Panamanian Gesha.

Mr. Vy, Houaytoey Village standing with his unidentified yellow Arabica variety. This coffee cupped beyond 90 points and you would be forgiven if you mistook this coffee for a Panamanian Gesha.