Laos for beginners
The country in a nutshell
Caffeine in Laos: A coffee (and tea) primer
Laos produces some exceptionally good coffee; some locals boast that it’s the best in the world. Of course, this depends on personal taste, but for those who like their coffee rich and strong, they’ve come to the right place.
Most all of the coffee produced in Laos is grown on the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos (where, by the way, there are also some stunning waterfalls). Elevated to around 1,000 metres above sea level, the plateau stretches for more than 50 kilometres and forms a relatively cool and damp microclimate, well suited for the sprawling tea and coffee plantations that support some 5,000 families. Many of the farms grow the Arabica coffee plant, introduced by the French colonialists. Organic farming is increasingly popular on the plateau, the result of which is a growing variety of delicious organic teas and coffees sold in major food and tourist shops around Laos.
The most common brand you’ll find on shelves is Lao Mountain Coffee, which offers about 10 different blends and roasts, most of them organic. A bag runs at around 50,000 kip. If you want to indulge in some high-end beans, look for Le Trio (not to be confused with Trio instant coffee packets) sold at Pimphone Market on Setthathirath Road in Vientiane and other selected stores. Sample a whiff from the ‘sniff patch’ on their brown bags and enjoy a heavenly scent.
Lao teas are a variety of green and black teas, Oolong being the most common. Their flavour does not compare to the delicacy of other Asian teas; while the teas of China and Japan are often subtle and aromatic, Lao teas tend to be earthy, with a strong herbal taste. The coffee is likewise lacking in the subtlety you might be used to with European blends, but is instead robust and bold.
The Lao mostly don’t drink their coffee black, and instead diffuse it with a cocktail of powdered milk, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk. They brew it with a massive cloth filter, slightly resembling a large sock, and ensure the brew is extra strong. The result is a thick, sweet, almost chocolatey, delicious concoction of rocket fuel to refresh and revive those weary from the heat– and travel.
The Lao word for coffee is cafe, and with milk it’s cafe nom. For hot add ‘hon’, but aside from during the three cool months of the year, it’s best served cold. An iced milk coffee is cafe nom yen. The Lao prefer their coffee exceptionally sweet and milky, so if you like it just a tad sweet say ‘wahn noy neung’ and to take a smaller amount of milk request: ‘sai nom noy neung’. Lao iced coffee is available on almost every corner, ranging from 7,000 to 12,000 kip for a big cup. Just look for the cans of condensed milk on display and you’ll find it. For more exciting blends, head to Noy’s Fruit Heaven and try their tasty ice blended coffees with coconut, banana or mango.
Western-style cafes often serve a standard selection lattes and cappucinos, brewed with Lao coffee — a delicious fusion of coffee cultures. JoMa and True Coffee are safe bets for such beverages.
Like so many other parts of Southeast Asia, Nestle seems to have invaded the market, and despite their treasure trove of cheap, fresh, organic coffee, a lot of Lao drink instant Nescafe. If you spot this imposter brand, kindly ask if they have fresh coffee by asking ‘Mee cafe soht, boh?’. If not, find someplace else to indulge in a caffeinated delight.
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