The Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) has been a key member of the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) funded CLEAN Project, implemented by Winrock International, that is working to improve the agricultural sector in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. This project is supported by Laos’ Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the Lao Department of Agriculture, and the Laos Coffee Association (LCA). The CLEAN program works with market-ready farmer organizations, agro-enterprises, entrepreneurs, and traders in three distinct regions: Bolaven Plateau , Xiengkhuang Plateau, and Vientiane Plain.
The CLEAN project engaged CQI in 2020 to support coffee quality improvement in Laos. Under this project, CQI first conducted a comprehensive analysis of the Lao coffee sector, including harvest season diagnostics and benchmarking coffee quality. Utilizing findings, CQI has implemented an array of activities with the goal of raising the profile of specialty arabica and fine robusta coffees from Laos with international buyers, building specialty coffee production expertise, and training local cuppers to understand the quality and value of their coffee.
Field work on this project was impacted by COVID-19 travel restrictions for almost two years, but through creativity and perseverance, work continued virtually, including a virtual Taste of Laos coffee event to kick off the program and introduce Laos specialty coffee producers and their beans to roasters and green buyers in the USA.
Together with Winrock International, CQI hosted the first Lao Green Coffee Competition in 2021 to raise awareness of Laos’ specialty coffee and plant the seeds of future market linkages. This was the first time a green coffee competition was organized in Laos; the pilot left behind a legacy of cooperation and capacity with established rules and regulations based on specialty coffee standards, grading protocols, transparency, and fairness. CQI’s Q Graders served as panel judges, with the coffees traveling to their home coffee labs for evaluation.
Based on the success of the first Lao Green Coffee Competition and interest generated by the producers, CQI organized a second green coffee competition in 2022, with sector participation doubling and LCA stepping in to observe how such an event is managed and regulated.
CQI worked with two hubs to grade the 2022 coffees, with the hubs convening panels composed of Q Graders. The panels ran the samples through reception and grading protocols and scored the coffees using CQI’s Q Matrix. A multilateral partnership between the CLEAN project, CQI and the International Trade Center’s ARISE program resulted in an online auction featuring the best of the season’s specialty coffee. Coffee owners were excited to see this year’s harvest to go full cycle to this auction – the top bidding Arabica (carbonic maceration) sold for $17.10/lb and the top Robusta (natural) sold for $3.10/lb and gives them more confidence about claiming good prices for their high-quality coffee.
CQI has also worked to build awareness of the Lao coffee sector through hosted events, tables, and booths at industry events, as well as a promotional event in Washington, DC.
Building a body of trained coffee cuppers and sensory experts is a critical goal for a growing specialty coffee sector. In cooperation with LCA, CQI delivered a variety of coffee sensory evaluation classes and courses in August 2022. As a result, 53 coffee professionals were trained in foundational coffee sensory concepts and practices, with 17 individuals receiving CQI’s Q Cupping Essentials Certificate. More than simply the knowledge of evaluating coffee, this training is inspiring the rapid growth of Laos’ specialty coffee community to host local events that encourage specialty sector growth.
Further building sensory evaluation knowledge and capacity, CQI worked with LCA to build out the first Certified Q Venue in Laos. The Q Venue credential for LCA will allow them to host future CQI sensory training and gives them access to global resources and a network of professional cupper and coffee taster educators. It will also be the future epicenter for regional and national coffee competitions.
The next step is to work directly with Lao coffee producers and processors to understand and implement good processing practices, and to impact the quality of next year’s harvest.