Laos Coffee: Is This Hidden Gem Asia’s Best Coffee?

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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Laos, in Southeast Asia may not be the first place you think about when you think about coffee. However, this country does have some pretty good specialty Laos coffee.

Laos, in Southeast Asia may not be the first place you think about when you think about coffee. However, this country does have some pretty good specialty Laos coffee.

In this rugged “Land of a Million Elephants” grows a sublime coffee that’s completely unique. And specialty coffee enthusiasts are beginning to take notice.

Today, I’ll take you on an exciting journey to explore this hidden coffee gem. You’ll discover how the Lao coffee industry came to be. I’ll also spill the beans (so to speak) on why Laos coffee beans are fast becoming prized in the specialty coffee world.

A Brief History of Laos Coffee

The history of coffee in Laos is relatively short compared to countries like Indonesia and Vietnam. But like almost all coffee-producing countries, it does have a colonial origin.

In the 1900s, French colonists introduced the first few coffee plants (Bourbon and Typica). They chose northern Laos as the first coffee-growing region due to its irresistibly cool climate.

Soon after, the French realized that the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos was far more productive. Because of the rich southern soils, it became the primary region for Lao coffee production.

New Guinea Indonesian Coffee Regions

The French first cultivated three types of coffee trees: Arabica, Robusta and Liberica. Unfortunately, at the outbreak of World War I, many French settlers had no choice but to abandon these pioneer plantations. The outbreak of World War II didn’t help matters, and the Laotian coffee industry collapsed.

Fast-forward to the 1950s. Spurred on by national pride, Laos entrepreneurs began to revive coffee farming after French colonial times. Then – you guessed it – more disasters!

These first Arabica plantations succumbed to disease and the effects of war, and needed replacing with a rust-resistant Catimor hybrid. Still, coffee production in Laos didn’t truly take off until after the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

Laos Coffee Production Today

Today, Laos produces more Robusta coffee than Arabica or Liberica. Of the 20,000 tons exported in 2022, Robusta accounted for 15,000 tons and Arabica a mere 5,000 tons. Still, Arabica coffees are those giving this country its chops.

Over 80 percent of the country’s coffee production occurs in the Bolaven Plateau’s Paksong district. This area, formed from an ancient volcanic eruption, is covered in mineral-rich soil. It also reaches elevations of 4,265 feet (1,300 meters) above sea level and experiences ample rainfall. That’s all perfect for coffee!

While coffee is Laos’ second export product after cassava, approximately 40,000 families depend on the industry. Most producers are smallholders farming over 83,000 hectares of coffee.

Still, the industry has a long way to go. Yields barely register on the world’s coffee markets. Over the past twenty years, the Laos government has collaborated with coffee harvesters to improve yields. They aim to replace existing Robusta plantations with more Arabica plants.

Scoop of Green Coffee

Apart from reviving a struggling industry, what informed this change? The answer lies in Laos’ single-origin coffee. This specialty coffee has begun making waves worldwide and fetching higher prices. The economic opportunity for small-scale farmers also made the switch hard to resist.

All these efforts are beginning to pay off, big time! The Laotian coffee industry is now worth an impressive $92.5 million (2023). With improvements in cultivation techniques, farmers are now producing more high-quality coffee. Plus, the government’s help in expanding the planting of Arabica coffee plants in northern Laos is also having an impact.

Thus, I and many industry experts are optimistic and expect future coffee production to grow. Analysts predict a 5-year annual growth rate of 8.08 percent from 2023 to 2028. The future of coffee in Laos looks bright!

Laos Coffee Growing Regions

The Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos is the country’s primary region for coffee farming. In fact, it accounts for over 80 percent of coffee production. This high-altitude region is not only famous for coffee, but also some of the most scenic waterfalls in Asia. It has plenty of rainfall, a cool climate, high elevations and volcanic soils ideal for growing coffee.

Farmers here use traditional coffee-growing methods passed down through the generations. They also harvest coffee beans by hand. While this slows down production and raises costs, it’s vital for ensuring high-quality coffee, especially for peaberry and single-origin lots. Only ripe cherries make the cut, improving the final harvest.

Coffee in Laos is mainly wet-processed. Farmers use machinery and water to process coffee, pulping the cherries and fermenting the coffee beans. Then, this parchment coffee is sun-dried to concentrate the flavors before storage and sale.

Coffee Culture in Laos

Coffee culture in Laos is French-influenced. It’s the typical drink a Laotian will have with breakfast after the daily sai bat (Buddhist almsgiving ritual). It’s a common sight to see urban Laotians in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and other big cities, enjoying a cappuccino or latte along the banks of the Mekong River.

That’s not to say the Lao don’t have their own coffee culture. You’ll find most locals in “coffee bars,” tiny roadside kiosks unique to Laos. This is where they take a break from their day and embrace muan or the Buddhist principle of “happy contentment.” Amid respectful nop greetings, locals love to enjoy a cup of sock-brewed Lao coffee or the instant coffee Laos Dao.

Breville Barista Touch Cappuccino

Traditional Lao snacks and foods often go with coffee sessions. Khao jee pâté (the Lao equivalent of a Vietnamese banh mi) is the most popular accompaniment. Khao tom (sweet ‘n’ sticky rice) and khanom man tone (steamed cassava cake) also pair well.

Another interesting aspect of Laos coffee culture is the budding coffee tourism industry. Coffee farms are providing a wonderful way for coffee enthusiasts from around the world to learn more about the brew. Here, visitors take in everything from the growing and processing of Laos coffee to the unique sock-brewing method the Lao are famous for!

What Does Laos Coffee Taste Like?

In a word, sublime! Laos Arabica coffee has a distinct floral and citrusy profile with slightly vegetal and chocolate tasting notes. This coffee is also famous for its mild, medium body and unique tea-like acidity.

Most of Laos’ Arabica coffee production is for the export markets. Indeed, it’s what puts the country on the specialty coffee map. Laos produces Robusta coffee, too, which makes up the bulk of regular coffee consumed at home. This coffee is strong, earthy and slightly bitter, as with most other Robusta coffees.

How to Drink Laos Coffee (Like the Lao Do!)

The flavor profile of the Lao coffee you get will determine how you drink this coffee.

If you happen upon a light to medium roast of single-origin Arabica beans, I’d recommend using a drip coffee maker or pour-over coffee maker. These brewing methods bring out the best of this Southeast Asian coffee’s unique qualities.

In contrast, I’d recommend drinking darker roasts as espresso, French press or cold brew coffee. You’ll really appreciate the smoky, chocolaty flavors that lend themselves so well to the addition of milk, cream and sugar.

Hario Woodneck

Back in Laos the typical coffee drink of sock-brewing fame is café lao. It uses Robusta coffee, which means it’s potent, bold and not for the faint-hearted. Traditionally, you would drink this coffee with steamed milk or powdered creamer and lots of sugar.

If this coffee is too punchy for you, you could go the Vietnamese iced coffee way and use sweetened condensed milk. Or, simply make yourself a café nom yen. This refreshing iced beverage uses iced milk or iced sweetened condensed milk. It’s the perfect iced coffee for the stifling heat and humidity of the region.

Beyond these two coffee drinks, most Laotians love a local 3-in-1 instant coffee called Laos Dao. Surprisingly, this instant coffee uses the best coffee from Arabica plants in the Bolaven Plateau instead of Robusta. Experience this unique Lao coffee by getting yourself some online.

Don’t forget to buy some traditional Lao snacks to go along with your coffee!

How to Buy Laos Coffee

It can be prettychallenging to get Laos coffee in North America. For that reason alone, ensure you’re buying only peak-fresh coffee before paying a pretty penny. 

Look out for the following information on the packaging:

  • Origin: A true specialty Lao coffee should always state its origin. Look out for the estate or growing region on the packaging. If it doesn’t show these, don’t buy!

  • Roast profile: A light to medium roast profile is the way to go with specialty coffee from Laos. These profiles bring out the best-tasting notes in the beans.

  • Roast date: This is important. The roast date indicates how fresh your beans are and how long they’ll stay that way.

  • Roaster: Get to know your roaster before you buy. Who are they? What makes them tick? Are they Fair Trade or direct trade roasters? Do they value sustainability, their farmers and the local community?

To be honest, your best bet is a reliable single-origin online coffee retailer that specializes in selling Laos coffee. A good example is the coffee seller Lao Mountain Coffee. Its specialities include a Mekong Rising coffee blend and a peaberry single origin. Both were 2022 World Coffee Challenge award winners.

Coffee Cherries for Civet Cat to Eat

The Exotic Bean is another online seller specializing in organic Fair Trade Laos coffee. Their peaberry single origin, medium and dark espresso roast blends are their heavy hitters.

I also encourage you to attend specialty coffee trade shows near you. You’ll get to see who’s selling these up-and-coming specialty beans in person. The Specialty Coffee Expo, Tea and Coffee World and Coffee Fest are excellent bets.

Failing all that, I’d recommend canvasing your local specialty coffee shops. You never know; you just might strike it lucky!

Final Thoughts: Laos Coffee Beans Are on the Rise

It’s clear that Laos is a rising star on the global specialty coffee scene.

You can’t argue with this budding coffee-farming country. Despite its tiny production volume, Laos is doing some pretty special things with coffee, and it’s beginning to show!

The varied tasting notes, ranging from mild citrus and floral to sweet chocolate, are hard to miss. In fact, they’re what sets this coffee apart from other countries’ coffees in the region.

So, get yourself some Laotian single-origins on your next coffee run. Granted, it may not be the first coffee you think of. However, (and you can thank me later for this) I’m confident you’ll love this up-and-coming coffee!

Have you had Laotian coffee before? I welcome your opinions in our community section below!

Your coffee expert
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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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