In the early twentieth century, the French were looking for ways to make their newest chunk of Indochina profitable. Laos had become a disappointment when the grand scheme of using the Mekong as a trade link to China turned out to be impractical, but the French soon had other plans. Would coffee, which had been successfully introduced to Vietnam, also thrive in Laos? It seemed worth a try. Saplings were brought from the orchards around Buon Me Thuot in Vietnam and planted at varying degrees of elevation. From the banks of the Mekong on up to the Bolaven Plateau, rows of arabica and robusta were carefully nursed. After four years, the first harvest saw mixed results: coffee at lower elevations failed to fruit, but planters on the Bolaven were rewarded for their patience.
By the 1940s, coffee plantations covered the plateau. But then war and revolution intervened, and by the 1980s, the once painstakingly tended trees had gone wild. However, interest in Lao coffee has been rekindled over the last decade and the old plantations have benefited from foreign investment. A blight-resistant strain of arabica was recently introduced from Costa Rica, and the “Association des Exportateurs du Café Lao” is hoping to increase annual coffee production and make Lao coffee known to aficionados around the globe.
Although coffee made its way to Laos via Vietnam, the coffee-drinking etiquette and accoutrements of Laos have a flavour all their own. The tin-drip, used in Vietnam to filter coffee into a glass, is rare in Laos; the Lao favour pouring hot water through a sock-like bag filled with ground coffee.