"Coffee roasting is treated as a family secret here,"
Confusing … there's no other word for the place. Just off Highway 13, eight kilometres from Pakse in southern Lao, stands a low-rise building that's a coffee-roasting mill by day and a disco by night. Following the tour guide towards its concealed entrance, I'm trying to fathom what they serve here to keep the young boppers awake and shaking their thing all night. Double espresso or Beer Lao?
"Coffee roasting is treated as a family secret here," says Udone Philomhuck, our Lao guide, before hurrying us through to the back of the building. "The roasters have invented techniques to give unique tastes to their speciality varieties - adding the local hooch, for example."
We're on a tour behind the scenes to see how one of Laos' celebrated exports is made. Those lured to southern Laos by the thought of weaving through the Mekong River's myriad small islands or fighting up the steep path to the Khmer ruins at Wat Phou shouldn't overlook the fact that Pakse is the "capital" of Lao coffee.
But, mention "Lao" and "coffee bean" in the same sentence, and you'll seldom get a nod of recognition from a local. The beans that go to make the rich brew are more famous outside the country of its birth.
Introduced by the French at the beginning of the 20th century, Lao Arabica has managed to flourish through four wars and is now finding favour in France and America. The Arabica beans from the Boloven Plateau - at 1,100 metres, perfect coffee-growing country - are recognised as among the finest in the world by CIRAD, the respected coffee research institute in France. But ironically enough, it's actually very hard to find a cup of Arabica espresso in Laos - let alone a well-trained barista. Here, in a place where people love to take their coffee with condensed milk, the Robusta is king.
"For the local market, Robusta always rules," says the owner of the coffee roaster-cum-dance hall, giving us a glimpse into his secret recipe for Robusta beans.
The roasting mill is a dense fug of smoke and heat, a real sweathouse beneath the roof of corrugated tin. One hooded figure is busy at the roasting box that's spinning fast over a huge wood fire. Another man, with his T-shirt soaked and head half wrapped, tends the soot-black boiler. Braving the choking white smoke, I poke my head over the bucket-shaped boiler and discover a sticky, dark liquid bubbling at the bottom. The roaster casts his eye over it one last time before pouring the mixture out on to a long, beaten-up tray.
"What is it?" I ask, finally giving vent to my curiosity. I'm desperate to find out how this boiling tarmac-like stuff can possibly be of use to the roaster.
"It's sugar and butter - it adds to the coffee's aroma," he replies.
This is the source of the creamy, caramel aftertaste that's unique to Lao coffee, whether taken black or white. Many find it enticing - coffee connoisseurs, however - might disagree.
"Before the French colonists arrived with their Arabica and Robusta, there was a local variety of bean," says Udone, who confesses to preferring instant Nescafe to the local blends. "But back then, there was too little coffee to meet demand. To increase the quantity - if not the quality - roasted tamarind seeds were added, which gave a sour twist and a lingering smokiness."
Your average Lao actually drinks a good quantity of coffee each day, but probably not as you know it. Locals seem to value tastiness over subtle aromas. Drop by one of the small street-side coffee stalls, and you'll find out why.
Back in downtown Pakse after the trip to the roasting mill, I order a hot "cafe Lao". A teenager in a white long-sleeved shirt and traditional Lao sarong taps the boiler professionally, looking like she's fresh out of Lao barista school. She spoons the coffee into the homemade filter then pours in hot water, pausing to allow the black Robusta brew to drip into the glass of condensed milk below. I stir it up and take a sip - the hot summer's day gets a little hotter.
The best coffee, they say, is like fine wine. It has the power to transport the discerning drinker to its place of origin. But Lao coffee, too, has its own tale to tell.
"In January, the berries ripen," says Udone, "and the Boloven Plateau sees an influx of young pickers from all over Laos. It's a romantic place and a lot of them arrive with their sweethearts - January is always a busy month for weddings."
Just how fine can Lao coffee be? I'm no connoisseur so it's difficult to say, but the ordinary cup of Robusta gives a powerful caffeine kick that keeps me bouncing all day. And as I take in the bittersweet burnt flavours, I can almost catch the strains of a wedding song.