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Coffee Makers

02/04/2010


The popular drink’s hold on Southeast Asia dates back much longer than the appearance of your favorite corner franchise, writes ANTHONY MECIR. Photographed by BRENT T. MADISON

Published on Apr 2, 2010

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In the rugged highlands of southern Laos, American entrepreneur Lee Thorn picks up his cup and takes a sip. “I’m telling you, it’s the best coffee in the world. I know I’m prejudiced, but I’m totally convinced. It’s unique, it’s different, it’s new,’’ says Thorn, a Vietnam War veteran who has pioneered coffee’s revival in Laos.

For the world’s average coffee drinker, Laos and Southeast Asia in general don’t immediately spring to mind when thinking of the drink. But Vietnam has emerged as the world’s second largest coffee exporter after Brazil, while Indonesia occupies the number four spot following Colombia.

Coffee culture has spread across the region in varied guises, with Southeast Asian consumption rocketing along at 20–30 percent growth a year—and it’s not all imported. Premium Arabica coffee from the highlands of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and even Cambodia’s remote Ratanakiri Province fetches top prices on international markets.

Take Thailand. Instant coffee with powdered milk used to be the dreaded staple at all but the top-class hotels not so long ago. Now, even many gasoline stations offer fine coffee at charming kiosks complete with espresso machines or at one of the proliferating locally owned chains like Café Amazon. Along country roads, it won’t be long before you spot a sign for kafae sot, literally “fresh coffee,” but meaning good quality stuff as  opposed to the instant variety.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern hub of culture and tourism, awaits world-class taste from the nearby mountains, savored in artsy hangouts, alfresco cafés or the award-winning Wawee Coffee chain started by young local Kraisit Foosuwan, where for every cup you drink, 1 baht goes to support hill-tribe children.

Thorn seeded a number of aid projects in Laos in areas once heavily bombed by U.S. warplanes. Along the way he hit upon forming a co-operative among dirt-poor farmers in the Bolaven Plateau where French colonials in the 1920’s had established a thriving coffee industry under well-nigh-perfect conditions for Arabica: cool temperatures and rich volcanic soil above 1,300 meters.

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