Wake up, smell and drink the coffee and only then can the day begin. That’s my philosophy on life. Filtered coffee with milk and sugar is the way I like it. Deprive me of these two pleasures and I’m not a pleasant person to be around. So while enjoying my first cup of coffee in Laos, SE Asia I was pleasantly surprised at the quality and the way it’s served. The ground coffee is put into a sock like bag and hot water is poured in. The water filters through the coffee into a short glass that already has a healthy dollop of sweetened condensed milk resting on the bottom. The served glass is a neatly layered combination of the dark, rich, brew floating on top of the white, thick milk. Coffee is an extremely popular beverage in Laos and when not drinking a glass of hot sweetened coffee in the morning, the locals also enjoy the brew poured over crushed ice, served in a bag to enjoy as a cool pick me up throughout the day.
I was enjoying my new taste experience in the town of Paksong on the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos. The Plateau, which sits on top of an exhausted volcano rises between 600meters to1300 meters above sea level. This makes it much cooler than the rest of Laos, and offers a welcome respite from the shirt drenching heat one experiences on the lowlands. Besides the many coffee and tea plantations to visit on the plateau there is also the option of elephant trekking, visiting silk weaving villages, and many waterfalls to marvel at, with cool natural pools to swim in. The soil on the plateau is extremely fertile and the French, who colonised Laos, saw the potential and brought in coffee saplings from one of their neighbouring colonies, Vietnam, in the early twentieth century. By the 1940’s the Plateau was covered with coffee plantations but because of a bout of blight followed by the Vietnam war and a revolution, the coffee plants became wild, and the promising yield never materialised. But that’s all rapidly changing with Laos now producing in the region of 20 000 tons per annum and providing some 5000 families, dependant on the coffee industry, with income. It has been reported that in recent harvests the branches have snapped under the weight of the clustered branches.
Paksong is the centre of the Laos coffee industry and living in the town is a Dutchman – Cornelius – who aptly goes by the name of Koffie.
Koffie had been living in Thailand, and as his name suggests, is a serious coffee drinker and an unofficial expert on the subject. (He’s been drinking coffee since the age of two) Only wanting to drink the best there is he would cross the border from Thailand and buy his coffee in Paksong. There lived a Bolaven woman named Won who supplied, supposedly, the best coffee in Laos. Won’s family, including parents, sisters, nieces and nephews, own coffee plantations which have the capacity to produce 300 tonnes of coffee per year. After a few of his coffee buying expeditions across the border, and finding out that they have more in common than just coffee , Cornelius moved all his things from Thailand, married Won, and started a life on the Plateau.
Won, knowing all there is to know about coffee and Cornelius speaking fluent English, together decided to introduce coffee workshops for tourists. These included lessons on organic coffee and how to wok roast the raw beans. “ Up until recently we only supplied our coffee to local clients and Laos only contributes less than 1% to the world coffee market, but together Won and I want to help change that,” says Cornelius. They also started to explore the options of exporting their caffeine-rich brand, and their first container full of the dark brown beans is on its way to the USA.
Koffie invited me to “homestay,” with him and his family. I’ll sleep in their house and be introduced to the Bolaven way of life. Koffie will also spend a day teaching me everything there is to know about coffee.
Being the rainy season I arrive in the middle of an afternoon rain storm and I’m greeted by Koffie with a cup of his homemade black brew in hand. I’ve gotten used to and enjoy the taste of coffee with sweet condensed milk and I balk at the idea of drinking it pure. Reluctantly I take a sip and I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s smooth, gentle with no bitter aftertaste. Koffie just smiles knowingly. As we sit around and chat about life in Laos, Won and her extended family go about making the evening meal. Out of the corner of my eye I notice some Grasshoppers being roasted and I silently hope that being a vegetarian will be excuse enough for me to not have to try one. I’m extremely thankful as I notice noodle soup being boiled alongside on the fire.
Family is of huge importance in Laos and before long all of Won’s family in the region visit for the evening meal and to have a look at the South African visitor coming to learn about coffee. It’s not often that a “falang” (foreigner) is seen in the area.
Early the next morning, after a cup of freshly roasted black coffee, we head out to one of the plantations. The trees, of different ages and sizes, are planted just like vineyards, lined in perfect rows. Unfortunately it’s too early in the season to see the pickers at work, but I am shown how the coffee berries are busy changing from green to red.
“On the Bolaven Plateau there are only 2 seasons,” says Cornelius, “the hot rainy season which runs from April to September, and the cold dry season from October through to March.”
The coffee in Laos has its origin in Costa Rica, Colombia and Java. The harvested beans consist of Arabica beans, harvested first in October, and Robusta beans form the second harvest at the end of January.
“I compare the two different beans to a violin and a complete symphony orchestra,” says Cornelius,
“The Arabica has very subtle taste and the Robusta is a mouth filled with tastes.”
During the Vietnam War, the Americans had an air force base nearby and any bombs that weren’t dropped on their targets were released over the plateau before the planes could land. Laos is also the most bombed country per capita in the world and there are still vast areas of undetonated bombs and land mines. Strolling through the plantation we pass two bomb craters that are now filled with life as bushes and trees sprout forth. I’m told that there are still many “live” bombs in the area, but the plantations have been cleared.
Koffie is passionate about making the perfect cup of coffee, and once back at the house he goes about teaching me everything there is to know about wok roasting coffee. It’s not a difficult process and it’s done in a normal wok as used for stir-frying food.
“I like the process of Wok roasting coffee, as I have more control over the temperature of the flame,” mentions Koffie. “I can only roast a maximum of 1.5 kg at a time but controlling the temperature is of more importance than the size of the roast”
From start to finish the beans have to be stirred and the temperature of the beans must be constant. Starting with a low heat, which is later switched off to allowing for the beans to heat at the same rate, the heat is once again increased and the beans begin to darken in colour. About an hour later my kilogram of coffee is dark brown, fully roasted and smells like it’ll be the perfect cup when brewed. The beans are spread out in a basket and all the lightly roasted or burnt beans are discarded. Once cool they’re ground and ready to be brewed. Won and her family are as proud of me as I am of myself. They’re extremely happy that they’ve been able to impart their knowledge to someone who appreciates a good cup of coffee as much as they do. Koffie presents me with a cup of my own freshly roasted coffee and eagerly I take a sip. The taste is good. Black with no sugar, just the way I’ve gotten used to it.
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