Before Laos became hooked on caffeine, the lush country was hooked on something else. Preceding the coffee plantations that now reside in the country’s highlands, Laos was one of the largest producers of opium.
After the Laotian government enforced regulations against the narcotic, hill-tribes of northern Laos were left without a source of income. No other crop was as profitable as opium, and families struggled to get by. However, it was found that the mountainous areas in which the hill-tribes lived were perfectly suited for coffee cultivation, and began Laos’ journey into the world of coffee.
For the most part, Laos succeeded in turning the country’s agriculture away from opium and harvests were pretty good, however they faced a major drawback: a lack of demand. That was around the time Saffron Coffee came to be.
At 11 years old, it is by far one of the oldest specialty coffee shops I’ve ever visited. The story started when the owners’ chicken farm gave out due to bird flu. Instead of going back to their previous business once the storm had passed, the owners saw the possibilities that lay in Laos’s budding coffee industry, and decided to take the leap.
Going beyond just serving coffee, Saffron works with 800 hill-tribe families and has remained committed in supporting and creating demand for quality Laotian Arabica coffee that everyone can benefit from and enjoy since its founding. The shop that isn’t just part of Laos’ coffee scene, but a driving force behind it.
The shop is located right by the Mekong and is a particularly good spot for early morning reading and for lazy rainy afternoons. Warm and homey, Saffron is far from showy, but anything but tiresome. The main floor is pretty simple – terra-cotta tiles, a solid baristas’ counter, a small coffee roaster, and mini manual brew station. The second floor has a slightly more Laotian feel with wood paneling, floors, and seating.
The coffee served at Saffron is 100 percent Laotian and cultivated by the families whose pictures decorate the second floor. As I found was the case in most cafés I visited in Luang Prabang, the shop gravitated towards darker roasts. Expect strong coffee that makes for a great pair with the shop’s homemade cakes and bakes. A cup of their Americano and a slice of carrot cake is a great way to kickstart your morning.
Also on the Saffron’s menu is cascara – otherwise known as coffee cherry tea. You can ask for it brewed in a French press, or alternatively, try out the shop’s cascara kombucha – something you certainly don’t find everyday. On their shelves, you’ll find a selection of coffee beans waiting to be taken home, along with other coffee based products like coffee soap and even coffee jam (if you’d like to have your coffee and toast at the same time).
For coffee lovers looking to go beyond their regular cuppa and actually see how the drink is taken from tree to cup, Saffron regularly hosts coffee tours, which include a trip to a coffee plot, roasting and packaging facility, and a coffee sampling session. The tour is held throughout the year, even during the rainy season – the shop offers a condensed version.
Having had such a long run with Luang Prabang, you can often find regular tourists who stop by Saffron Coffee every time they revisit the tranquil city. Who can blame them? Saffron is more than just your average coffee shop – it helped shaped the area’s industry, and you won’t find that around every corner.