Two very different brews on Chiang Mai's aromatic coffee culture
Per square kilometre Thailand’s northern “rose city” of Chiang Mai probably has more coffee shops and baristas than anywhere else in the world, something that may well come as a pleasant and very aromatic surprise.
Chiang Mai’s mountainous surroundings and slow pace of life combine handsomely with its historical legacy to attract culture and adventure seeking visitors from all around the world. In the past decade the city has also developed to become a cosmopolitan masterpiece where both ancient and modern seamlessly fuse together.
Instant coffee stirred with iced water and doused in condensed milk and sweetly laced with copious amounts of sugar; that’s how coffee has traditionally been served in this region. This blend can still be found on just about every street corner, although now the chances are that you’ll find at least one barista coffee shop slotted between them.
Sure enough the major big brand chain coffee stores have had a flimsy foothold here for many years, but the arrival of local artisan coffee only started in earnest around 6 or 7 years ago, and rapidly flourished. This is largely thanks to a handful of local baristas, who learned their craft in the major coffee cities of the world, and then returned home with their skills to set the grinders in motion.
Nimmanhemin Road (a few blocks west from the old walled city) is undoubtedly the caffeinated centre of town. Along this stretch you’ll hardly be able to take a second step without passing an alluring speciality coffee shop. The area is slightly off the main tourist trail and it attracts many local students as well as several expats and passing coffee connoisseurs, many of who come here to sample the delights of the city’s most famous coffee shop – Ristr8to.
Ristr8to was opened by Thai barista and world-renowned latte artist Amon “Tong” Thitiprasert; “I’ve travelled and studied coffee all over the world, and I lived for 6 years in Sydney. I had my own speciality coffee shop there, but wanted to come back home with my skills and make it work here.” He told us over a plush cup of his favourite Ethiopian ristretto.
At that time the city was only just awakening to speciality coffee – and that was mostly fuelled by the local expat community and tourists; “Thai people find westerners and their culture fascinating, so they became curious to try our coffee and learn about it.”
With the local coffee culture still to define its self it was something of a risk to leave behind a thriving business; “Coffee is my passion, which is why I love my work so much. I could have waited a few years and made some more money, but I wanted to see if I could make it work while I was still young; so that if the scene and business did not happen in Chiang Mai then I had time to make a new career doing something else.”
The coffee menu and selection at Ristr8to is truly world class, and features coffee from many of the leading coffee regions of the world as well as locally grown coffee; “Foreigners have always been open to Thai coffee, but our Thai customers tended to look down on it – considering that it could not be as good, which is just not true.”
Naturally cost has an impact on such preconceptions; “We have to pay 97% duty on imported coffees, plus many other costs, which is why they are more expensive, but that does not translate to mean superior.”
Tong imports selected green coffee beans from around the world, and roasts them just a block away from his shop – at what has now become Ristr8to Lab; “I’ve always experimented with roasting and blending. It seemed like a good idea to open the lab to customers too, so that they could learn about coffee and educate themselves.”
The double-upshot of this process is that the local Thai coffees have become much more popular with all of his customers; “People have realised that the local beans are very good, as long as they are processed well. It’s not just the cultivation, or roasting, or even the barista that makes for a good coffee – it’s every single part of the process.”
As the cosmopolitan side of the Chiang Mai coffee scene continues to rise Tong’s dream remains vivid; “The slow pace of life and comparative (to Bangkok) cool air make drinking hot speciality coffee very suitable here, and I think although the local scene has a long way to go, it is easily comparable to the great coffee cities of the world.”
Coffee with a cause
Coffee has been grown in the mountains to the north of Chiang Mai for decades, mostly by hill tribe farmers. In 1983 a Royal initiative was implemented to help dissuade these impoverished communities from growing opium as a cash crop. Arabica coffee plants were given to the villagers along with instruction on growing and cultivating coffee.
Thailand is still relative a novice in the coffee game, coming in as the 17th ranked producer in the world, and the 3rd in Southeast Asia (Vietnam are the second biggest producer in the world, and Indonesia the 7th).
The Akha people were the first to seriously embrace coffee as a viable crop, and now lead the way in local production. A few minutes north of the Nimmanhemin “coffee strip” you will find a small and near anonymous coffee shop called Akha Ama, which offers a total contrast to the chic and hipness of Ristr8to.
Overcoming serious social and economic difficulties Akha born “Lee” Ayu Cheupa put himself through school by becoming a novice monk at a temple, and then graduated through university – a first for his remote village in the mountains of Chiang Rai province.
After time spent working with an NGO working with displaced tribal communities he decided that he wanted to return to help his own villagers, and quit his promising career to become a “social entrepreneur” and formed Akha Ama Coffee.
In the Akha language Ama means mother, and the company logo features his own mother. His mission was pure and simple; “I’d seen so much suffering around tribal communities, and great hardship in our village, and I just saw it as my duty to use my experience to help improve conditions.”
Given his blessed education it was something of a greater step than may first appear; “My parents were not at all happy about my decision, they wanted me to make the most of the chance of a better life for myself, but I was determined to help my people – so they stood by me.”
Coffee had been grown in the village for many years, and stood out as a potential solution; “Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world (after crude oil), and we were already growing it, so it seemed a logical way to go.”
Lee admits that he was running blind, in several directions; “I’m not a great businessman, and I knew nothing about coffee. I didn’t even taste my first cup of coffee until I’d studied. I went to a local coffee shop to try a cup to see what it was all about. The menu was bewildering to me, so I tried the first thing on it - an espresso.”
The harsh kick of an espresso can be a rude way to discover coffee; “It was small and bitter, and I didn’t like it. But, I decided to stick with it and went back again and tried more, until I got a taste for things.”
Educating himself and the local farmers was crucial; “I travelled all over the world, and studied the whole process.” Passing on his philosophy and ethic was vital, despite financial restrictions; “Here in Thailand I faced many cultural barriers, but when I travelled and told foreigners of my plans they were all too happy to help me learn. I studied the process in Portland (home of Starbucks) and also in London.”
Even achieving official fair trade status was a major issue for Akha Ama; “There was not enough money for our farmers to pay to be accredited as fair trade, so we made our own fair trade method.”
This approach meant cutting out the middlemen who often have a stranglehold on local growers; “Our coffee comes from the farmers straight to us for roasting and we retail everything ourselves, so they get much more than those who contract farm for roasters.”
Along with this Lee maintains his own strict ethical standards; “ We insist that our farmers work ethically and rotate crops so as not to destroy the land and their traditional lifestyle in the way many others have been forced to. It can be tough at times; last year frost ruined 40% of our harvest, but overall it still works out best in the long term.”
In the 8 years since the company formed conditions in the community have improved noticeably; “More young people are getting access to higher education, we have some electricity and running water. And our business has made an impact on peoples pre conceptions, and prejudices towards hill tribe people.”
Most Thai beans are Arabica, and all Akha Ama beans are single origin, and that origin goes right down to the individual grower, who even gets his own logo and bio on the coffee bags.
Akha Ama is a heart warming social-economic success story, and the coffee has become mildly world famous along the way; “We’ve twice made it to the finals of the World Cup Tasters Championships.”
Whatever your brew you’ll find it in profusion on the streets of Chiang Mai, which has one of the richest and most diverse coffee cultures in the world.