My Laos Experience: Part II

How poor quality coffee becomes great: the time it takes

A continuation from My Laos Experience: Part I

Between 2004 and 2014, Tyson was in and out of my sights as he ferried back and forth between Laos and the United States. He was a very internet-savvy millennial and did a few fundraising events with Kickstarter to finance his now-evolving water well, sanitation and personal hygiene projects in his newly adopted mountain village in Laos. He was building water systems and evolving a Lao-centric life. We spent many hours talking about Laos coffee – the income source for the Lao people on the Plateau. To raise more funds, Tyson created a coffee program (this was in 2011, when he was just 24 years old).

Between 2011 and 2014, Tyson spent many hours at Thanksgiving Coffee in Fort Bragg – learning how to cup coffee and learning how to roast as well. He had this idea: he wanted to teach the Lao coffee farmers how to taste their coffee and bring it up to specialty quality. The Japanese buyers were not interested in flavor – they just wanted the volume. Tyson used his Kickstarter funds to build a coffee house in Laos, in the village he was living in. He called this coffee house The World’s First Philanthropic Coffee Roaster & Cafe. He spread the word digitally that a good cup of coffee could be had in Laos, and tourists, ex pats and the curious came to partake of a fresh-roasted and well-brewed cup of coffee… and they could meet the coffee farmers too. Customers also got to know that their purchases would go toward drilling more water wells in Laos.

By 2014, Tyson was hard at work helping the Jhai Coffee Cooperative get out from under the Japanese hold on their coffee. Having only one buyer (albeit their traditional buyer for three decades) was Tyson’s challenge. In order to get any coffee (and there was only 500 sacks), the Lao coffee co-op had to decide to short the Japanese. I had to bid up the price to make it attractive to the cooperative management.

Here is what the communication was like on February 7, 2014

On Feb 7, 2014, at 8:09 PM, Tyson Adams wrote:

Paul,

Still in Thailand. Needed to get passport pages because I ran out. In two days I will be back in Laos with better Internet access. I do apologize for the lack of communication. There were some technology challenges via not having access to Internet on my phone.

Thanks for the emails as of late! Cool project in the US and very similar to ours. Only difference is that we are located at the source and our doing the work with our own farmers.

Spoke with Nick yesterday and it looks like there will be a container load of ATJ coffee available for Thanksgiving. They didn’t want to pay more than 38,000 kip so they are only taking one. You guys are offering 39,250. About $1.25 / kilo more.

We still have to discuss all this with the JCFC and of course ATJ (Japan) wants to know about other buyers (thanksgiving) but we are crossing our fingers that their expressed desire to only take one container instead of two is a positive thing for us. Plus that the JCFC and all the farmers will reserve this coffee for Thanksgiving.

At the very moment we get back we will call a meeting with the JCFC to discuss and get back to you. ATJ will be in Laos shortly to pick up their container so the sooner we figure this put the better.
Be well,

TYSON ADAMS I Founder
Jhai Coffee House
The World’s First Philanthropic Coffee Roaster & Cafe Located At The Source

On Feb 8, 2014, at 12:07 PM, Paul Katzeff <pk@thanksgivingcoffee.com> wrote:

Tyson,

It was not my intention to out bid the Japanese by 62 cents a pound. I followed your math and used 37 cents as the export costs which I deducted from what you said was the Japanese offer. I have actually distorted the price/value proposition for future dealings. This is not good, As Jacob said, $160-$2.00 was the value I came in higher to meet what you said the farmers would sell at. It is not good to piss off buyers by raising their price after they put up 70 % for pre finance. I would settle for half a container . Do not burn bridges. The Japanese are the historical loyal buyers and their efforts need to be respected .

Paul

I had copied my correspondence to Lee Thorn who originally contacted me back in 2004 about Veterans For Peace wanting to help the Laos people, and he joined in with this e mail the following day:

Dear Tyson (hi, Vorasone, Paul and everyone),

Congratulations on a great job, Tyson! This is wonderful work you are doing. Paul. I am particularly excited to see in emails that Paul Katzeff and Thanksgiving Coffee are planning to buy the co-op’s coffee and bring it to the U.S. As you may know, Paul is a leading light among coffee people and is an extremely experienced and renown coffee man. His son visited the co-op quite a few years ago. I cc Paul here.as well as some people on the Jhai side who helped start the cooperative.

I loved working on this! I had loaded bombs that in all probability landed in those fields. Many people who live in the coffee villages have told me they used to live along the Lao/Vietnam border. I know we heavily bombed that area, too. I was pleased to find out that many of the village elders and leaders were war veterans like me. They were from both sides of the Lao conflict. I know we all shared and share the hope of the coffee fields and the sorrow of the war. For me, this work was an amends and an amazing and illuminating chance to become friends with so many people who know how true community really works. It is humbling.

And, of course, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything in Laos without the great help and comradeship of Vorasone and Ariya Dengkayaphichith as well as Bounthanh Phommasathit and her great extended family. Many people from those days have passed on, now, and I mourn their passing.

Please give my best to everyone and tell them they all are still in the hearts of Jhai Foundation (which is chaired, now, by Eli Neiburger cc-ed above), my family and myself.

Yours in Peace,

Lee Thorn
Consultant
Chairman Emeritus and Senior Advisor, Jhai Foundation

That was 3 years ago (2014) and much has happened in the 1,000 days since then. The coffee house has received visitors from many countries, foundation grants have enabled Tyson and The Jhai Coffee farmers Cooperative to build a warehouse to store coffee, farmers have been given agricultural training in organic farming and compost building, children have been taught western personal and dental hygiene, and coffee was exported last year into the United States. I was encouraging but having been burned a decade before, I figured I would wait out their first export coffee and jump in in their second year… which is 2017.

So now, after thirteen years of flirting with Laos as a coffee origin, I will get a second chance to present our loyal customers with coffee from Laos.

The History of Coffee in Laos

Laos has an interesting coffee history. The French, when they Colonized Laos, planted coffee trees and began the industry which lied dormant and was destroyed during the secret war in the 70’s. Most trees died but what was left became the basis for the revival which began with the Japanese buyers in the early 90’s.

The French knew what they were doing. The Bolivan plateau is prime.

The climate and the soils are a perfect match for the great varieties the French planted 75-100 years ago. Now, with a very sophisticated coffee world, with people who are dedicated to great coffee flavor, and with a young man with on a mission to help build a new and sustainable Lao Coffee Industry that improves the lives of the people in the villages who grow the coffee, I can’t wait to taste what comes next.


This photo is of the cherries now being harvested by the JHAI Coffee Cooperative. (all ripe means the flavor will be as good as the tree can do. The key to preserving the trees effort will be in the depulping, drying and grading yet to come)

Laos Coffee Cherries

Next up, My Laos Experience: Part III

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