The historic, temple-dotted city of Chiang Mai has long been known as Thailand’s cultural capital, offering a slow vibe and a sense of tradition. But surrounding its old-world centre, a city of superhighways and modern construction has emerged in the past decade, attracting creative businesses and young entrepreneurs. Galleries are thriving, the food scene is on the rise and, most of all, cafes in Chiang Mai have thoroughly taken off. A cosmopolitan air has firmly settled in Northern Thailand.
Several years ago, a young barista and world-class latte artist eyed the changes of his hometown and saw opportunity. Over a cup of Ethiopian ristretto, Arnon Thitiprasert, known as Tong, is thinking back on his decision to leave the speciality coffee shop he started in Sydney and bring coffee culture back home. ‘Coffee is my passion. I could have waited a few years and made some more money,’ says Tong, ‘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, I had time to make a new career doing something else.’
In 2011, he opened Ristr8to on Nimmanhemin Road. At that time the city was only just awakening to speciality coffee, and that was mostly fuelled by the local expat community and tourists. But steadily, Thais began to discover this new way of enjoying their morning drink. ‘Thai people find Westerners and their culture fascinating, so they became curious to try our coffee and learn about it,’ says Tong.
And the risk paid off: Nimmanhemin Road, a few blocks west from the old walled city, is now Chiang Mai’s caffeinated centre and is believed to have the highest density of coffee shops in Thailand. The trendy area is slightly off the main tourist trail and it attracts local students, expats and passing coffee connoisseurs, many of whom come here specifically to sample the delights of Ristr8to, which has made a name for itself as one of the most popular cafes in Chiang Mai.
Instant coffee stirred with ice water, doused in condensed milk and 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.
The international coffee chains have long had a flimsy foothold here, but the arrival of local artisan coffee only started in earnest about six or seven years ago, and rapidly flourished. This is largely thanks to a handful of local baristas like Tong, 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 and launch their own cafes in Chiang Mai. ‘I’ve travelled and studied coffee all over the world, but I wanted to come back home with my skills and make it work here,’ he says.
Ristr8to’s beans come from many famed coffee regions around the world as well as from Thailand, which Tong says foreigners are generally open to trying; it is his Thai customers who tend to look down on local beans. Part of the reason is imported coffee is much more expensive – 97 per cent duties and other costs add up – and price tags influence perceptions. But his roasting location just a block from the shop, called Ristr8to Lab, has helped to educate customers through classes and give them an appreciation for beans of all origins.
‘People have realised that the local beans are very good, as long as they are processed well,’ he says. ‘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.’
Just a few minutes north of the Nimmanhemin coffee strip is a small, nondescript coffee shop called Akha Ama Cafe, which presents a contrast to the hip vibe of Ristr8to. It’s run by Ayu Cheupa, known simply as Lee, who has made his own mark on Chiang Mai’s coffee scene by working with coffee growers from his village, Akha, to offer ethically sourced, sustainably grown beans. The company operates in a way that ensures villagers reap the rewards.
‘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,’ says Lee. ‘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.’
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. Arabica coffee plants were given to the villagers along with instruction on growing and cultivating coffee. The Akha people were the first to seriously embrace coffee as a viable crop and now lead the way in local production.
But Lee, who was the first person in his remote mountain village to graduate from university, knew nothing about coffee – let alone starting a business. ‘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,’ he says.
The harsh kick of an espresso, small and bitter, can be a rude way to discover coffee. After this initial sampling, he continued to go back to try more. Eventually he studied coffee processes around the world, including in the United States and London.
To achieve a fair-trade approach, Akha Ama cuts out the middlemen. ‘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 farms for roasters,’ Lee says. ‘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; a bad frost can ruin 40 per cent of our harvest, but overall it still works out best in the long term.’
The community has also fared well since the company formed in 2010, with the village getting some running water and electricity, and more young people receiving higher education. ‘And our business has made an impact on people’s preconceptions and prejudices towards hill tribe people,’ Lee adds.
The coffee’s pretty good, too. Akha Ama’s beans are so good they have been selected twice to be used in the finals of the World Cup Tasters Championship.
Whatever your brew, you’ll find it in profusion at the cafes in Chiang Mai. And with the talent and passion of people like Lee and Tong, it’s quickly becoming one of the richest and most diverse coffee cultures in the world.
This story was originally published in June 2017 and updated in September 2020