Written by Chen Szu-An, Translated by Sam Robbins
Image credit: Thomas Schoch, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Before you go to work each day, do you head to a supermarket to buy a cup of coffee to give yourself some energy? According to statistics from the Taiwan International Specialty Coffee Association, Taiwanese people on average drink over 200 cups of coffee a year, which reflects just how popular the product is here. You can find independent coffee stores littered across both large boulevards and tiny alleys all across Taiwan. This love for coffee in Taiwan has given rise to chain coffee shops, making it just as easy to get a cup of coffee as it is to get tea from a drinks store in Taiwan now. This said, what is less known is that just over 10 years ago, Taiwan experienced a coffee craze targeted at a different consumer base: older women. Older women became the target consumer for businesses who, with “quality coffee for only 35 NTD (£0.96)” as their slogan, tried to break into a market that was dominated by Starbucks at the time. In doing so, these businesses rang in a new era in Taiwan’s coffee history. The low-cost coffee being sold at that time was made with beans from one rarely-discussed country in Southeast Asia: Laos.
The history of coffee in Laos can be traced back to the French colonial period in around 1915. Coffee had already been popular in Europe for a couple of centuries, and although originating as a sort of sacred good to make sure Monks could stay awake, it slowly became part of daily life for all types of people. Coffee was brought to Laos by French colonial army officers who wanted to ensure they had access to this now daily necessity and thus decided to plant coffee locally. After 15 years of trial and error, they successfully managed to plant coffee trees in the temperate and fertile Bolaven Plateau in the south of Laos.
This successful experiment made many French people aware of the potential of this region. Because of the agreeable climate and elevation, the Bolaven Plateau was not only suitable for stronger flavoured varieties like Coffea Canephora or Robusta, it could even support the growth of more difficult to grow varieties like Coffea Arabica. This realisation led the French government to start a number of coffee development centres and research centres with the hope of producing coffee not only for the French colonists, but also those back in the mother country. They also planned to sell these products to other European countries.
This golden era for the French colonists was shortly brought to an end. The breakout of the Second World War abruptly ended the French government’s plans. The French colonists mostly left Laos to avoid the violence of the Southeast Asian front of the Second World War, and coffee production stopped after they left. Starting in the 1950’s, with its ideal geographic conditions, the Bolaven Plateau became a crucial route for the Northern Vietnamese army on their march to the South of the region, becoming part of what is now known as the “Ho Chih Min Trail”. In their attempt to stop the advancement of the Northern Vietnamese forces and cut off their resources, the American army deployed over 20 million gallons of Agent Orange across Laos, a herbicide that caused large-scale environmental and social devastation across the region, including in regions that had previously been used for coffee cultivation. All crops that had not yet flourished perished, and Laotian coffee production was forced to stop all together.
Coffee production across the Bolaven Plateau thus all but stopped for about 40 years following the Vietnam war, with the remaining coffee farmers selling their beans at extremely low prices to Vietnam to be blended in with Vietnamese varieties and lots of sugar and Non-dairy creamer to make the now-famous drink known as “Vietnamese coffee”.
It was only in around the year 2000 that the fates of Laotian coffee began to change once again and new opportunities started to arise. The so-called “third-wave coffee movement” started in the 1990’s and was motivated by the concept that Erna Knutsen referred to as “specialty coffee”. This movement led to new attention being placed on the environment and method through which coffee was being grown. In contrast to how coffee had been consumed up to that point, this new movement encouraged renewed interest in where coffee was being grown. It was through this movement that Laos began to move away from producing coffee for Vietnam to branding itself as a new site of coffee production and try to make more people aware of its goods.
Starting in the 2000’s, aid projects and businesses from around the world started to invest in the plateau region. NGO’s and enterprises from France, Japan, China, Malaysia, and even Taiwan all started to view Laos as an emerging market. In the era of globalisation, development and market competition, Laos had been somewhat of a late player to the game. Whether it be in developing resource extraction or tourism, Laos appeared like a blank slate to foreign investors, who jumped at the opportunity at a fresh start. After such global market forces had caused countless regions to be at risk of environmental and social collapse, these forces now lay their eyes on a thus-far untouched region with the hopes of penance for their past actions. With an image of “natural” being linked to Laotian production, Laotian coffee started to enter into the global coffee market and become a competitive player. Coffee companies around the world seized this marketing opportunity and used the story of “natural” production to sell Laotian coffee.
Taiwan was no exception. According to data from the Lao Coffee Association, Taiwan was one of the earliest to enter the Laotian market and invest in coffee production after the government allowed foreign investment in the year 2000. There was even a period where some in Taiwan dreamed of becoming a major player in the development of Laotian coffee. In contrast with the Laotian beans that were first imported to Taiwan as cheap goods, as Taiwanese consumers became more accepting of the idea of “specialty coffee”, Taiwanese business people started to repackage Laotian beans. These beans were not only seen as on par with their South American and African counterparts, but also brought with them an air of quality and local speciality, and in general were more likely to be sold as Laotian beans as a means to set them apart from other beans. The convenience stores that had first broken into the older women coffee market with promises of cheap coffee were now instead stressing the exquisite quality of their Laotian coffee beans to consumers.
From beans sellers to reports, you could hear the follow kinds of narratives and understands of Laos circulating, all which reveals Taiwanese people’s impression of the country:
“Laos is very poor, children don’t have access to schooling, so obviously people can’t afford fertiliser, what that means is all coffee grown here has to be organic coffee”
“Laotian people don’t even know how to use fertiliser”
“Laotian coffee is grown on the Bolaven Plateau, the soil there is so pure and untouched that any coffee seedling planted there will grow”
“If you buy Laotian coffee, you’re helping the give aid to local poor people”
It was with these slogans and marketing strategies that Taiwanese businesses link Laotian coffee with “natural” “poverty relief” and “organic” in the minds of many consumers, which all made Taiwanese consumers more accepting of Laotian coffee. What these stories make us overlook are the real stories and struggles of Laotian farmers in their attempt to produce coffee for the global market. The reality is much more complex than an untouched verdant land of poor but hardworking people who need the help of the noble people of Taiwan, which was the implicit (but never explicit) content of many narratives of the time.
According to statistics from the Lao Coffee Association, over 90% of coffee produced in Laos is produced in the Bolaven Plateau. If you visit the region, you will not only find large-scale coffee farms backed by foreign investment, but also many government agencies or international NGO’s working to support local farmers. If you pay a visit to the local farms, you will find that many of the products on sale are labeled as “organic”. When I visited, the boss of one coffee farm told me that this was the highest praise that can be given to Laotian coffee by foreign specialists. He’d even checked what it meant online, and found out that, as long as you don’t use fertiliser, you’re organic. All products he sells are grown by him and his team and since no fertiliser is used “organic certified” is listed next to all foods. In reality, there still exists no specific policy guidelines or standards for labeling products as organic in Laos, so each farmer has their own methods of proving the “organicness” of their products.
In order to help promote the trustworthiness of their organic labels, many small farmers will try to prove their organicness throughout their tours. For example, the boss of the coffee farm that I visited took me around his field. Many leaves on the trees in his coffee farms were curled up in an unnatural manner. In worse cases, many leaves curled up together into a small ball. If you rubbed it in your hands, you would feel a deep stench that shocks you to your core. If you looked closely, you would see that they were covered in the corpses of tropical ants. “This is proof that my coffee is organic,” He told me with pride. Because there is no fertilizer being used, ants were forming a web across the coffee leaves, bu, as the boss reassured me, this doesn’t influence the production of the coffee.
If farmers aren’t careful and leave their arm in an ants nest for too long whilst harvesting coffee, their whole arm can be taken by the ants. This boss told me he knows many people who have lost an arm this way. Despite this, in order to maintain his “organic” label, he still refuses to use pesticides to kill the ants, because, as he said “organic is better, right? I don’t sell to big factories now, I process the beans myself and sell them, everyone loves organic coffee”.
But who is “everyone” and what is “organic”? Farmers must live with increased risk and danger in order to maintain their organic label, but this doesn’t necessarily mean things are better for them. With the threat of insects, under half of coffee grown in the region is actually harvestable, but in order to meet the demands of consumers, farmers maintain that this is the best way to do things. Even the government has become convinced of the power of labels such as natural and primal to carve out a space for Laos on the global stage, and have thus started to put organic production and sustainable development into their national goals.
This said, Laos is increasingly entering the non-organic market with large-scale development plans. With the arrival of China’s Belt and Road initiative, the Laotian market is once again at a turning point. The recently-opened Sino-Laotian railway that travels from Kunming in China’s Yunnan province to Vientiane, Laos’s capital, in combination with the construction of dams across the upper Mekong are in contention with the goals set by the Laoitan government. Coffee production is also increasingly being undertaken in unsustainable ways.
In addition, the linkage between natural and specialty coffee is increasingly being brought into question. Following the increased visibility of Laotian coffee in international markets, many local farmers began to study the requirements for the label of “specialty coffee”, which includes regulations on growing coffee trees, coffee roasting, and other skills. As more became aware of the complexity of these terms, debate emerged about the difference between “natural” coffee, and “speciality” coffee and whether Laotian coffee was in fact “speciality” or just “natural” in the sense that certain techniques weren’t used. More are thus beginning to ask: does the “natural” quality of Laotian coffee still even exist? As Laos becomes a rapidly developing country and tries to show off its many diverse facets to the global market, perhaps the “pure land” of Laos is slowly disappearing, but what can be done about it?
As one of the first global entrants of foreign capital into this “pure land”, Taiwan has established many schools and hygiene facilities in Laos. This said, as Covid has crossed over the world in the last two years, international trade has become increasingly difficult. In addition, the market for Laotian coffee in Taiwan had never been too large. Many stores in Taiwan that specialised in Laotian coffee have now switched over to providing other varieties. Even where Laotian coffee is still present in Taiwan, which is increasingly uncommon, it is clear that understanding of Laos and Laotian coffee is somewhat stuck twenties years in the past, with many sellers seeing Laos as a poor and rustic region.
Perhaps for the Taiwanese market, the heyday of Laotian coffee has already passed, and what seemed like a long-term connection was in fact just a passing fad. However, if we take a closer look at the methods used to promote Laotian coffee in Taiwan, and how ideas of “organic” and “natural” were sold to consumers, we can see Laotian coffee as a precursor to debates happening about coffee production within Taiwan. Taiwanese consumers have seemed to naturally accept coffee produced by Taiwanese indigenous communities as high quality, but is it simply because the same story of “purity” is being sold all over again? Even if these stories and sales techniques seem harmless, perhaps there are more stories worth telling about coffee production that can tell a more complex picture of “pure vs mass-produced”, “low quality vs high quality”. Laotian beans were appealing to consumers in Taiwan because they were “natural”, and therefore “organic”, and therefore “good quality”, but it behooves us to be more critical and ask, what do any of these terms actually mean?
Chen Szu-An is an editor at story studio. Her life goal is to travel across the world. In the name of research, she travelled to Laos and met many people in the process. She hopes she can hope to share and record their stories.
This article is part of a special series of translations from “Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour (尋找台灣味”). Each article is an abridged and translated version of a chapter from the book. Find all published articles here.