In which countries do you think it is possible to drink coffee that was harvested only a few hundred kilometers away? Brazil? Colombia? Mexico? May be! But I’m not so sure about that.
Often it’s the case that the grown coffee is directly exported and not intended for domestic use. Many of the coffee farmers have not even tried their own coffee, at least as far as I’m aware of it! That’s most likely the case in African coffee countries. Except for Ethiopia, but that’s a different (coffee)story. ;-)
Take your mind away from the known coffee cultivation regions of Central & South America and Africa and turn the globe a little bit to the east in front of your imaginary eye.
Of course, there’s Asia! Yes, coffee is also grown in Asia. But, not only in Indonesia, India or Vietnam. But also in Thailand! Especially in the Northern part of Thailand, the Chiang Mai / Chiang Rai region, coffee is cultivated especially for the domestic market.
Thanks to my global Coffee Connections, I was able to meet an incredibly inspirational and dedicated coffee person, Fuadi Pitsuwan of Beanspire Coffee, who is exporting specialty coffee out of Thailand.
Fuadi, who at that time was doing his PhD at Oxford, took us, Resi of The Way to Coffee, Korn, Head Roaster at Roots BKK, and me, on a coffee road trip from farm to cup in tropical mid-January Northern Thailand. A short trip that included much more than the search for specialty coffee. But read for yourselves…
Tuesday, January 16th, 2018, The Baristro, Chiang Mai, 8 am
A road trip to Thai specialty coffee origin has to start with coffee on this 16th of January, that’s for sure! We meet at 8 o’clock in the morning, a coffee is definitely a good choice to start this journey. Meeting point is at The Baristro, one of the hip cafes in Nimman district in western Chiang Mai, Thailand’s coffee capital, and within walking distance of my accommodation.
After some last agreements Resi and I climb on the back seat of Fuadis Jeep, then we are ready to go… The tour stretches over almost 200 kilometers, but we don’t go all at once. Our destinations are all along the way, and from stop to stop we get a deeper insight into the processing as well as the roasting of the Thai specialty coffee grown in the region.
First stop: Indoi Coffee Farm, Doi Saket, 9:45 am
After only an hour, the first stretch is already done. We stop at Indoi Coffee Farm, a family business. The young couple who runs the farm today are in the process of turning the coffees on the drying beds. I learn that Naturals and Honey Processed coffees are only possible over here, if the weather is willing as well, that is, when the sun is shining. As soon as it rains, the entire batch of Natural-processed coffee beans that are laid out in the sun to dry, is gone …
After a tour of the processing area, we move on to the actual farm that is only a few hundred meters away. Although you can’t really call it ‘farm’ in a plantation kind of sense in the case of the Indoi Coffee Farm, because coffee trees over here are almost wildly growing along a sometimes steep slope. Together with the other guys, my camera hanging around my neck, I make my way through the bushes, ever so often interrupted by Fuadi’s explanations about the coffee cherries that are being cultivated here.
Back on safe ground, we taste the first coffees, classically brewed by hand, there’s also a yeast fermented coffee among the ones to taste. The Indoi Coffee Farm is experimenting with all kinds of treatment methods, despite the rather small processing facilities – the entrance is used for drying the beans to just give you an example how small.
And, I’m trying my first coffee blossom honey! I drink it to be more precise, because I receive the honey served in a cup. Very floral and sweet, really delicious, for my taste!
At lunchtime Fuadi pushes for departure, we still have a few stops on our road trip in front of us, even if our next destination is only half an hour away.
Second Stop: Nine One Coffee, Doi Saket, Rest Area and Organic Coffee Farm, 1pm.
This destination comes at just the right time, because road tripping and coffee tasting makes you hungry. Nine One Coffee is located in Doi Saket just off the main road and is the perfect resting area for hungry (coffee) travelers.
I am amazed at the extent of the site, which houses a café and a restaurant as well as lush greenery, winding paths and small bridges. I can barely get enough of it. A real gem that hides behind the rather inconspicuous entrance area.
I already know Nine One Coffee from Chiang Mai, a café that offers optimal conditions for me as a location-independent freelancer staying in Chiang Mai for a couple months.
In Doi Saket, the coffee farmers’ farm is owned by Mr. One, owner of Nine One Coffee. In order that the organic beans can be processed directly, you can find a wet mill in the jungle. For our road trip, a visit to the farm is not provided, but a lunch in the midst of this iconic scenery. And coffee, of course.
Third Stop: Beanspire Dry Mill, Mae Kha Jan, 2:50 pm.
Immediately after the meal, we leave to continue our journey. Behind a gas station owned by Fuadis business partner Jane Kittirattanapaiboon is a huge, almost empty, warehouse with in my opinion an oversized Dry Mill, but hey, how many dry mills have I actually seen so far in my life? …, also run by Jane, and a couple of coffee bags labeled Roots BKK, Beanspire Coffee or Cafe Imports laying on the dusty floor. During harvest season this place is certainly more busy.
As we walk through the facility, which is about halfway between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, Fuadi tells us everything about the delivery, processing and shipping of the processed coffee beans; Beanspire exports all over the world.
Fuadi and Korn, head roasters at Roots BKK, one of Bangkok’s Specialty Coffee Hot Spots, are particularly proud of the coffee grown and processed in the Chiang Mai / Chiang Rai region. Because both sides have put all their efforts into the development of the farms, the experience of the farmers and the quality of the coffee grown here.
The medium-term goal is to offer only coffee grown, processed and roasted in Thailand in all Roots cafes. I’m sure it will not be long before the rest of the (coffee) world will turn its attention to Thailand, especially after showing up at Coffee Masters during London Coffee Festival 2018 and at other coffee events & competitions in Europe, where Thai specialty coffee already has been used.
Fourth Stop: Coffee Processing at Doi Panghkon, Chiang Rai, 5:20 pm.
The longest and most exciting stage takes us away from the main road into the deepest jungle and into a small village that lives almost exclusively on coffee cultivation, Doi Panghkon, Chiang Rai. Our jeep passes through several washing and processing stations for the coffee beans grown in the region, and finally stops right in front of Akha Noi Coffee, coffee farm and roasting company.
Many of the locals include the Akha, a hill tribe that set out from China in the early 20th century towards Southeast Asia and now inhabit large parts of northern Thailand. About 300 families manage the coffee farms in Doi Panghkon. In the evening, I even witness the Chinese lessons that the Akha children hold after the regular Thai classes during the day from 6 to 8 pm in a specially designed school. Really impressive.
After arriving in the village, we have to hurry to get to the very remote farm Beanspire is working with before it gets dark. Fuadis Jeep, however, is not designed for the bumpy and muddy road, so we switch to a four-wheel-drive SUV, which should bring us to the plantations. This short trip is adventurous enough… I even take the opportunity of standing in the back of the truck and let the breeze blowing around my nose. When will I ever be able to experience something like this again, I think by myself …
The view is breathtaking! I am at about 1,500 meters altitude, coffee trees and jungle as far as the eye can see. In between, every now and then a few swatches of pink – January is high season of cherry blossom in northern Thailand.
However, it has become very dark now. At the same time we wanted to be present at the delivery of the coffee cherries harvested during the day and have a look at the fermentation plant …
During the harvest season, up to 3 tons of ripe coffee cherries are delivered by the farmers in big bags every evening, which are then washed on the same day to free the beans from the pulp.
In the fermentation tanks, the beans then undergo various dry and wet fermentations in the next few hours before being processed further. In one of these fermentation tanks are also the beans for the competition coffee for London Coffee Masters, I learn here. A special project in which the coffee beans were fermented with pineapple enzymes…
Connect Hostel, Chiang Rai, 10:30 pm.
After a proper meal at a traditional Thai restaurant in Chiang Rai, I’m going to bed rather early and very tired, but full of unforgettable impressions at my hostel. Because the next morning, we’ll already have an appointment at The Roast Chiang Rai, a coffee roastery, to cup some coffees that had been grown on one of the farms we visited today…
Have you ever tried specialty coffee from Thailand? If so, in which café or roastery? And how did you like it?