Derek Smith, Saffron Coffee, Luang Prabang

Derek Smith, Saffron Coffee, Luang Prabang

What do you do and how did you get into the industry?
I work for Saffron Coffee – a crop to cup coffee company in Luang Prabang, northern Laos. I am the general manager of our Espresso, Brew Bar, and Roastery on the Mekong River and I have a few responsibilities with the company in general too. The café serves to highlight the high quality and unique flavour of our northern Laos, shade-grown, organic Arabica coffee.

For me, coffee started as a part-time job during university and developed into a hobby in my 13 years as a teacher. I ended up running a small coffee-vending business part-time in Australia for a couple of years. Coffee is now my passion and a huge part of my life.

Share with us an interesting story from behind the scenes.
We’re a small coffee company with very good coffee. We get all kinds of visitors and regularly receive requests to ship our coffee to different corners of the globe. A green coffee broker once emailed me to request a meeting during his short stay in Luang Prabang. I met him at the café and we sat down to drink a double espresso and talk. He told me he represented one of the world’s biggest coffee chains and, because Saffron Coffee was so good, wanted to use our coffee. I asked how many tonnes he’d need per year. “We’d like to take 60 tonnes in the first year, and then likely increase in following years,” he said. Our total, yearly production at that stage was 8 tonnes…
Another visitor joined me for a tour of our processing plant and roasting facility. During the three hours he asked many questions and seemed very knowledgeable about coffee. As the tour was wrapping up he told me he’d like to buy coffee from us. I led him to the wall space in the café where at any one time we have between 2 and 5 kilos of roasted coffee displayed for retail sale. I said, “What would you like?” He turned to me and said, “Oh, about 500 kilos a week.” Haha. Nice one, buddy!

What’s the best/ worst part of your job?
There are many, many satisfying parts to my work. I often have to pinch myself because it’s such a privilege. Perhaps the best part is that I get to do coffee work (production, processing, roasting, brewing) with wonderful, warm-hearted Lao people. It’s amazing. It’s also wonderful to hear from customers about how they have appreciated our coffee.
The hardest part of my job is dealing with the mistakes I make with language, my poor cultural awareness, the relational difficulties, and all the things that get lost in translation. These are very humbling experiences. There are cultural and relational elements of which I am not aware and these are super frustrating at times. My Lao language is improving and I am learning more about the culture and how people think and act.


What’s your favourite drink/ meal at Saffron Coffee’s Espresso, Brew Bar, and Roastery on the Mekong?
The Pulled Pork Panini with either fries or salad. It comes with our spicy homemade Coffee BBQ Sauce. I love it. I drink our double espressos quite regularly, but I love the Pine Lime Crush too.

When you’re not at Saffron Coffee where do you go?
Cocktails: 525, as the website says – www.525.rocks – rocks.
Food: Tangor Restaurant on the main street.
Massage:  super-clean and professional Frangipani Spa, not far from Saffron.

What’s one of the saddest things you’ve seen behind the scenes?
At the end of 2016 I went to do some coffee plot inspections and visit farmers. Though my language level was very basic, I had no trouble interpreting the enormous and tragic effect of a landslide that had occurred late in the rainy season. The landslide had taken out the farmer’s four-, six-, and most of his 8-year-old coffee trees. He was left mostly with just two-year-old trees. To give some perspective, the yield of a coffee tree is best from the 4th to 8th years after which pruning is necessary. In an instant this family had lost not just immediate income, but income for years to come. Farming is high risk and farmers need to be very resilient. It was super hard to witness.

The perfect day off would be…
Hanging out with my family, spending the afternoon swimming (as a surfer, I really miss the having the beach nearby), reading a crime/thriller novel and dozing by a pool. This would best be followed by dinner at a restaurant by the Mekong (sharing Thai curry and sticky rice with my kids!).

What do you do for fun?
I love to exercise, read, do gardening, and spend time with my wife and three children. If I get time to watch some sport, that’s always enjoyable too.

What’s your favourite food and beverage pairing?
Living in Asia for the last five years means I’ve been able to have some pretty amazing eating experiences. Nevertheless, I think my favourite is still a medium-rare Aussie steak with a glass of Cab Merlot or Shiraz.

What’s in store for you in the upcoming months?
We’ve got an exciting six months coming up in the life of the company. For the next couple of months it’s high season for tourism so the café is very busy, customers are buying a lot of coffee at the cafe, and with many people in town, all our roasted coffee customers (hotels and guesthouses) are in overdrive too. 

It’s also the middle of harvest season so multiple times a week we visit villages to buy red ripe cherries from our farmers and then process, grade and sort the coffee in Luang Prabang. In January we’ll move thousands of coffee sprouts from our seed beds to our nursery and prepare to plant them as coffee trees in June. 

Lastly, we are fundraising for our community project “$1 = One tree. Many lives.” Shade grown Arabica coffee trees provide a family with income for decades and they are excellent for the environment. We want to plant at least 30,000 coffee trees with our farmers in June. Company profits provide the foundational funding and infrastructure for the first 10,000 trees, so the additional trees are only $1 each to plant. 
(So if you’re keen to leave a legacy somewhere at the moment, choose hill tribe families in northern Laos! Check out www.saffroncoffee.com to find how you can contribute.)

Check out Saffron Coffee’s Espresso, Brew Bar, and Roastery on the Mekong River in Luang Prabang here.

Derek Smith, Saffron Coffee, Luang Prabang
Derek Smith, Saffron Coffee, Luang Prabang
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One Comment

  1. Great interview!

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