Coffee in Laos is cultivated almost exclusively on the Bolaven Plateau in Champasak Province in the southern part of the country. The plateau, with ample rainfall, cool temperatures and rich volcanic soil, reaches an elevation of over 1300 meters at 18 degrees latitude - perfect conditions for growing world class coffee. The Arabica coffee beans from the plateau are known for their medium body and a combination of mild citrus and floral tones. The coffee growing community in Laos includes about 28,000 farming families in 350 villages and several larger farming companies. Many ethnic minority groups are members of this community and most farming families depend on the income from the coffee harvest for survival.
French colonists planted the first coffee trees in Laos around 1915, but the experiment failed. Another attempt was made in 1917, when both Arabica and Robusta plants were selected from Saigon's botanical gardens and planted in Thateng, a village in the northern part of the plateau. Again the experiment failed from lack of care.
The French finally established a successful coffee harvest in Laos in the 1930's with annual production peaking at 4-5000 tons. Twenty years later most of the coffee trees on the plateau died from a combination of orange rust disease and frost. Production fell to less than 1500 tons, and the farmers began to replace most of their Arabica bushes with more disease tolerant Robusta trees. Coffee production recovered but then fell victim to the war and production again declined from 6-7000 tons to 2-3000 tons a year. With the end of the war and the relocation of many families to the fertile and productive plateau, the coffee business again recovered.
Currently, the Lao coffee harvest generates about 25-35,000 tons a year, 80% of which is Robusta. Over the past 20 years, various development agencies and the Lao government have been working with the farmers to introduce hearty, high yielding Arabica plants to the plateau. At about double the price of Robusta, this effort has gradually improved farmer incomes.