Coffee Facts - From the Tree to the Cup

The Coffee Tree   

Coffee trees start in a nursery where they are grown under shade and transplanted in the field after about a year. Coffee on the plateau is usually planted with a cover of shade trees. This keeps the coffee trees from over-producing and depleting the soil of nutrients, and adds balance to the farm by improving bird and insect life.

In Laos, often the coffee has been planted in the jungle using the natural tree canopy for shade - a truly natural growing method! It usually takes a coffee tree 5 years to reach maturity when it can produce its maximum harvest and it continues to produce at this level for the following 5 to 6 years. 

After the first rains of the spring, the coffee trees flower and produce fruit buds. These buds grow into full-size coffee "cherries" in closely formed bunches on the tree branches. As the beginning of the next dry season approaches, the cherries ripen and turn a bright, deep red. This is the time to harvest the cherries; if they are picked to soon or too late you end up with a green, sour coffee or a fermented, winey coffee. If the cherries are harvested at the peak of ripeness, the quality of Lao coffee is as good as anywhere in the world.

Coffee farmers in Laos are highly dependent on their crop for survival; it represents over 80% of their total income. So when the harvest starts, it's all business. The harvest can last as long as 5 months: from November to January for Arabica and February and March for Robusta. The farmers have a choice between selling their freshly picked cherries to traders, who then process the coffee and sell to exporters, or to process the coffee themselves. Coffee farmers in Laos are more often choosing to make their own coffee beans; they get a higher price and they can store the dried coffee for months - a safe way to bank their income!

There are many support programs on the plateau helping the farmers to learn the techniques for processing coffee for the export market. There are few organizations including LMC  working with farmers in cooperation with the Coffee Research and Experimentation Center managed by the Champasak District government. Processing coffee for the export market using the industry standard Wet method is a time consuming and challenging process and is explained below.

The ripe cherry on the tree holds two beans covered in multiple layers that need to be removed to get a dry green bean ready for roasting. Sometimes the beans fuse into one and you get a peaberry - often considered the best quality bean. Coffee beans are covered in four layers from outside in: the cherry itself, mucilage, parchment and silverskin. The coffee industry uses two main methods to produce green beans: wet process and natural process or 'Brazilian'.

Wet Process- Once coffee beans are squeezed out of the fruit by a pulping machine, they need to ferment for a day to break down the mucilage layer that covers the beans. The beans are then washed and laid out to dry on raised netting, still in their parchment layer. After the beans reach 11% moisture, they are hulled to remove the parchment, graded by size and sorted to remove damaged beans.

With the growth of the specialty coffee industry and a growing taste for premium coffees by consumers, the Wet Process has become a standard for Arabica coffee beans around the world. This process produces a smooth, clean cup of coffee with a balance between acidity and body which allows the true aromas and flavors of the coffee to blossom.

Natural Process- In coffee growing areas with little water this is the preferred method. The cherries are simply harvested and laid out on a drying surface in the sun. After drying for about 20 days the entire cherry, with the beans inside, are hulled, graded and sorted for export. 

Because the beans dry in the fruit, this processing style produces a fruitier coffee with a heavier body and less acidity and is usually blended with beans made using other processing styles. This has been the main processing method used in Laos and is still the only one used for Robusta.

Tasting Coffee   After the farmers have done their best, and the coffee is bagged and ready for export, the international coffee buyers will begin testing the beans. They roast samples and taste the coffee in a process called "cupping". The coffee is judged on the following criteria: fragrance, aroma, flavor, acidity, body, and aftertaste.

After the coffee sample has been roasted and ground and small amounts have been placed in empty cups, the coffee buyer, or cupper, will test the fragrance. The intensity of the fragrance indicates the freshness of the bean sample used. Hot water is added, and, after brewing for a few minutes, the cuppers then smell the coffee again to measure aroma. It might be said that the aroma is the most important attribute to specialty coffee. There are over 800 aromatic compounds in coffee, making coffee one of the most complex sensory experiences.

A balanced acidity in coffee brings out all the other qualities in the cup. Too much and it overwhelms the flavor; too little and coffee will lack structure and the flavors lose their brightness. Lao coffee typically has a mild acidity which is well matched with its subtle flavors. What cuppers mainly look for in flavor is one, defects, such as a winey, earthy or fermented flavor and, two, unusual characteristics that make the coffee unique

Body is the weight of the coffee that can best be sensed by allowing the coffee to rest on the tongue and by rubbing the tongue against the roof of the mouth. Of course, aftertaste is just that: does the coffee leave behind a mild sweetness or rough bitterness?

The Arabica Typica grown in Lao is well known for both its balance between acidity and body and the uniqueness of its flavor, including light lemony citrus, floral and chocolate notes. Lao Mountain's city roast washed Arabica is an excellent example of a balanced, bright, smooth coffee that dances on the palate.

To make a great cup of coffee use the following guidelines: Grind beans just before brewing. Match the coarseness of the grind with the brewing style; coarse for french press, medium for drip and fine for espresso. Use 2 tbsp of coffee to 6oz of hot water (10g to 180ml). After brewing, add hot water to adjust the strength of the brew. Keep beans in an airtight container in a cool dry place - never in the refrigerator. Store ground coffee in the freezer and only defrost what you want to use. Use the beans within three weeks of opening the bag.