Lao Coffee with a Purpose

Saffron has taken the coffee culture to the next level in Luang Prabang. Sure, you can still frolic in your frappe, while thumbing around on your device. Yes, you can still feel good knowing each swallow of cappuccino contributes to the income of poor locals, who grew and processed the beans. But, how would you like a latte brewed from cherries picked off a plant you bought?   

Saffron Coffee advertises “From Mountain to Cup,” but what they really offer is a coffee journey, the tale of how that Arabica makes it from the hills to your lips, and what you can do to help these farmers besides taking a sip.

This story starts in Phu Dam Village, just outside of Luang Prabang town, though it’s a scene repeated across northern Laos, touching more than 800 families. Saffron currently works with 14 Phu Dam families and sees potential for adding 15-to-20 as the project gains momentum.

“We’ve been buying from these farmers and building a relationship with them for years,” said Derek Smith, who is the Luang Prabang café’s general manager, but does plenty behind the scenes. “This initiative drastically increases their production capacity and improves our supply.”

Saffron is a profit-for-purpose business, and dedicates its returns to increasing the number of trees and adding farmers in the north. In short, Saffron needs money for saplings for growers, and it’s easy to help.   

“Visitors to our café in Luang Prabang or website, can be part of our “One Dollar One Tree” campaign, where $1.00 buys one tree for a farmer,” Derek explained.

Consider this, the Saffron Coffee you drink at the café or brew at home today may have come from saplings bought by someone like you four-to-five years ago…the time it takes before coffee trees produce cherries worth processing. Saffron offers you the chance to pass the taste forward.

The Phu Dam Tale

Phu Dam has huge potential for increasing their yield, but currently only uses a fraction of available land for coffee growing, according to Derek.

“The growers have shown diligence in growing their existing coffee,” he observed. “However, Phu Dam has a large area within their village border that is ideal for expanding the coffee-growing area.”

Land use is an issue in rural Laos, “but Arabica coffee is the best legal cash crop at altitudes over 800 metres in this part of the country,” said Derek.

Saffron Coffee is initiating discussions with Phu Dam villagers and their chief, as well as representatives from the district and provincial Departments of Agriculture and Forestry, with the goal of releasing appropriate new land for growing more coffee.

Once all parties agree, a land survey and selection will take place. The chosen site will be divided into 15-to-20 one-hectare plots allocated to coffee farmers. 

Derek estimates that the new area could yield 60 tons of new coffee a year, which should pull in “a minimum of 240,000,000 kip ($28,800) of income per annum. We will be planting progressively over the next two years.”

The Phu Dam project benefits new and existing farmers in other ways. They are forming a coffee growers’ group, which will receive training in coffee care and harvesting.

“Saffron provides ongoing training and support, and guarantees the purchase of all coffee cherries,” Derek said. “Our farmers take on only the number of trees of which they are capable of adding to already existing subsistence crops or cash crops.”

Overall, Saffron intends to plant at least 30,000-40,000 seedlings per year in northern Laos over the next five years. The expansion aims to assist small hill tribe farmers grow Arabica on their high-altitude land.

Shady Northern Lao Coffee

The Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos has long been considered the capital of the country’s coffee. Much of its popularity relies on the area’s volcanic soil, which many deem paramount to the best coffee. Northern Laos never had volcanoes and the resulting dirt, and Saffron questions this doctrine.

“There are many factors that make coffee good or not so good,” Derek pointed out. “Soil type is important, but even in volcanic soil, nutrients can be plentiful or lacking. We have not found anything that indicates the soil in northern Laos makes any significant difference.”

Saffron is all about “quality coffee grown right,” and there are other factors, besides soil, in the flavour of northern Lao coffee…like shade.

“Shade-grown coffee is excellent for the environment, both flora and fauna, and improves the taste of the coffee in the cup,” Derek said.

“Shade slows down the ripening process of coffee, giving it more time to fully develop its flavour, as opposed to the rapid ripening that happens in the sun.”

He stressed that shade also effects the density of the cherry. “Shade-grown coffee is much denser than sun-grown coffee. This effects the way you roast coffee, so there’s a lot to this.”

Derek noted the complexity of northern Lao coffee. “We haven’t even started looking at the scores of Arabica varietals that may be planted, organic versus fertilized, over-production of trees…those are just a few factors that set our coffee apart.”

He added, “We want our coffee to be the best in the region…but the taste of coffee is always subjective. Like wine, like cheese…heck, like most things in this world…we will never please everyone, but we aim for the majority of people to walk away saying ‘that’s good coffee’.”

Processing presents another major taste factor. “Processing and grading can improve and/or destroy coffee. While not perfect, we think our processing is pretty good, and helps to maintain a good and unique flavour reflective of the north,” Derek noted.

“We also invest a whole lot of heart. Smallholder farming with villages all over the north is time-consuming, hard, wrought with issues, but worth it. Of course this may not change the flavour, but it sure does give us a sense of investment and purpose.”

A cup of coffee with a sense of purpose…and it all starts with a sapling, something anyone can buy for a buck.

To find out more about Saffron Coffee;s “One Dollar One Tree” campaign, click here.

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