For decades, Chiang Mai has had the potential to become a booming coffee city. The numerous coffee plantations and slow-life culture have always been there, but the appreciation for and knowledge to pour good coffee was missing. In fact, the drink of choice for locals was instant coffee mixed with a copious amount of condensed milk and sugar. But a couple of years ago things changed in a big way. A newfound appreciation for local beans, as well as the rise of knowledgeable growers and internationally experienced roasters, made Chiang Mai Thailand’s go-to destination for quality brews.
Locals educated in the world’s coffee-culture capitals from Sydney to San Francisco returned carrying expert roasting knowledge and an increasingly fussy attitude to what local beans they’ll use. In turn, farmers have become extra meticulous when it comes to growing and picking, while consumers have cottoned on to the beauty of a fresh single-origin pour-over instead of an instant cup of joe.
One such cafe owner is renowned latte artist and barista Arnon Thitprasert of Ristr8to, arguably the most happening coffee shop in town. Arnon perfected his coffee credentials on the notoriously caffeine-snooty streets of Sydney, where he won several coffee-making awards.
“I participated in latte art competitions, so it made sense for me to use my latte art skills in Thailand,” he says. “Back in the day, the quality and flavor of the coffee beans wasn’t important to most locals. They couldn’t care less about where the beans came from or how the coffee was roasted and prepared. A lot of them only knew about ka fae ron (hot coffee) and ka fae yen (iced coffee).
Over time, regulars began to realize that there was something special in Ristr8to’s coffee that went beyond the pretty designs on the surface of their foam. Arnon’s product, they discovered, had a distinct, more complex smell and taste. He took this opportunity to educate his drinkers about why his coffee tastes so good—how the origins of the beans and the way they’re roasted then blended affect the taste.
Presently, Ristr8to boasts a variety of blends from beans sourced from 20 different locations worldwide. “I source international beans by looking at their profile and characteristics,” he says. “When I choose the beans, I make sure they come from a credible, reliable source. If a grower is passionate about their coffee, they go to great lengths to ensure it is picked at the right time.”
Like Arnon, Rawi Kasemsuk, co-founder of Ponganes, a coffee shop solely focused on pouring the best cups possible, wanted to introduce a different coffee culture to Thailand after returning home from Sydney. A native of Northern Thailand, he realized that Chiang Mai was the perfect location to hit the ground running.
“Chiang Mai had all the resources needed to become a great coffee city,” says Rawi. “The city was already equipped with plantations and the ideal weather. All that it lacked were talented roasters and brewers.”
Rawi is so dedicated to what’s in the cup that his coffee shop doesn’t even have Wi-Fi or air-conditioning. He wants customers to visit purely for the quality of his coffee.
“Going to coffee stores has become today’s new trend,” he explains. “Our objective is to focus on genuine coffee appreciation, rather than what’s chic. We wanted to create a space for true coffee lovers to relax, socialize and enjoy the variety of coffee we brew. That’s why we don’t really have a food menu.”
Because coffee is the only thing on Ponganes’ menu, Rawi can be very particular when it comes to selecting his beans. Apart from looking at location and type, he also takes into consideration the grower’s work ethic and attitudes. They must truly understand their coffee and be passionate about their product.
Fortunately, he has on his doorstep one of the best coffee growing regions in Southeast Asia. Local growers and farmers have played a huge role in the Northern capital’s booming cafe culture. Lee Ayu, of the award-winning Akha Ama coffee bean brand, ventured into the world of organic coffee-growing with the desire to help his hill-tribe community.
Ayu was the only person in his village to go to university. He studied English before working for an NGO with the hope of using what he learned to help his village prosper. After discovering that there was great potential in the Arabica beans grown by his village, he founded Akha Ama, which today produces beans that are internationally recognized for their quality and have been certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe for several consecutive years (his beans are sold at the Rimping Supermarkets in Chiang Mai and his own Akha Ama Cafe).
Another local grower, Wullop Pasananon of Nine-One Coffee, fell into the industry after obtaining a piece of land on Chiang Mai’s outskirts. After realizing the environment was perfect for growing coffee, he began teaching himself how to farm beans organically. Gradually, he transitioned from growing to roasting and opened the Nine-One Coffee bar.
Wullop now has two branches in Chiang Mai, both specializing in local, organic, single-origin brews that are widely praised by both locals and visitors.
Although the roasters and growers of Chiang Mai have successfully put their city on the serious-coffee-drinkers’ map of the world, they hope that one day the whole of Thailand can become a leading coffee nation. “We have more coffee stores than a lot of leading coffee nations,” says Arnon Thitprasert of Ristr8to. “We have more and more skilled baristas moving out here. We have an abundance of plantations nearby. Now, all we need is communication. It will take time, but it is doable.”
15/3 Nimmanhemin Rd.,Suthep, 053-215-278. Open daily 8am-11pm.
133/5 Ratchapakinai Rd., Sriphum, 087-727-2980. Open daily 8:30am-4:30pm.
9/1 Hassadhisawee Rd., Changphuak, 086-915-8600. Open daily 8am-8pm.
300 Moo 2, Doi Saket, 081-171-7575. Open daily 7am-8pm.