Words and photos by Gary Hirson.
If drinking coffee was illegal I’d be a criminal, no doubt about it. The funny thing is that I only need two cups a day – first thing in the morning, and the second cup sometime during the afternoon. 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. The soil on the plateau is extremely fertile and the French, who colonised Laos, saw the potential and brought in coffee saplings fromone 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.
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.
On a cool foggy morning I find myself outside Koffie and Won’s Wok roasting coffee establishment being warmly welcomed by the duo- coffee in hand.
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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