Introduction to Coffee in Thailand
When I visited for the first time in 1987 there was no coffee culture in Chiang Mai and Thailand. In guesthouses and hotels, there was only Nescafé instant coffee. This is a brand from the Swiss company Nestlé. People regard it not as real coffee and rather as substandard. I personally like Nescafé instant coffee but that is another matter. Some people would say I am not a real coffee lover but I do like a good cup.
Apart from instant coffee, there was the “ancient coffee” (Thai:กาแฟ โบราณ), which is in general not to the taste of westerners. It is brewed coffee with sweet condensed milk. The preparation of this “ancient coffee” is interesting. It is brewed coffee that they pour through something that looks like a giant, brown old sock. I dislike the sweet condensed milk so ancient coffee is not for me.
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Arabica and Robusta coffee beans
Coffea Arabica is the first coffee plant that was cultivated. It is also known as Arabian coffee. The Arabica variety accounts for about 60% of the coffee production in the world. Most of the other 40% is made up of the Robusta variety, which is a different plant in the same family. The Arabica coffee plant is endemic in the highlands of Ethiopia. Most of the coffee in Thailand that grows in the mountainous is of the Arabica variety.
There is also a difference in taste between coffee brewed from Arabica vs Robusta. I have read that coffee from Arabica beans is sweeter and has less caffeine than coffee from Robusta beans. Plants of the Robusta variety are usually cultivated at a lower altitude than Arabica plants.
Coffee and the Royal Project
The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej initiated the Royal Project, an agricultural program to eradicate opium cultivation by the hill tribes and introduce cash crops in the north of Thailand in 1969. One of these cash crops was coffee. That doesn’t explain the explosive growth of coffee shops and coffee consumption in Thailand.
Coffee is good business. The profit margin on a cup of coffee is very high compared to other drinks, which made this business very attractive. The economic growth of an average of 10% per year coupled with booming tourism created a market for western-style quality coffee in the last decade of the 20th century.
Coffee in Chiang Mai and Thailand
In the past twenty years, the amount of coffee producers and consumers has exploded. Thailand is now home to a number of well-known local coffee brands such as Doi Chang, Doi Wawee, Doi Tung, and lots of smaller brands. Most of these brands are from the north of the country. Doi Chang has a chain of coffee shops around the country, which are franchises. Doi Tung coffee originates from the Royal Project on Doi Tung.
There are many coffee-producing villages in the north that have their own brands such as Mae Kampong and Ban Mae Klang Luang on Doi Inthanon.
Coffee chains in Thailand
The Black Canyon chain of coffee shops has been around for as long as I can remember. Starbucks, an American chain, arrived in Thailand probably about 10 years ago and made clear that you can get away with western prices for a cup of coffee. This probably played an important role in the consequent mushrooming of coffee shops and chains.
The biggest chain at this moment is Amazon, which prices are still about half of those of Starbucks. Amazon made a deal with PTT so every gas station in PTT has an Amazon coffeeshop. They also have a 7-11 convenience store. In the past couple of years, many 7-11s have a dedicated coffee corner and sell brewed coffee of reasonable quality.
The 7-11s at PTT gas stations are not allowed to sell brewed coffee as their prices are half of Amazon: 25 instead of 50 THB for a cup of cappuccino. In Chiang Mai, we have our own chain of “boutique” coffee shops: Mingmitr, the friendly coffee bar.
Coffee featured in our tours
Suan Lahu Organic Coffee Farm
For many years we have worked with the Suan Lahu Organic Coffee Farm, north of Chiang Mai. The founder is Carina zur Strassen. We organize a day tour of this beautiful project that employs many people of a Lahu hill tribe village. The Suan Lahu Highland Arabica Coffee is for sale in supermarkets in Chiang Mai. It comes in three varieties: medium-dark, medium, and medium light.
Mae Kampong Coffee
The village Mae Kampong is located in the mountains, about 50km from Chiang Mai. In the past decade, this village has become a very popular destination for local tourists. It has also become famous for its excellent Mae Kampong branded arabica coffee, featured in our trip to Mae Kampong and Chaesorn National Park.
The Hmong Family Coffee
In Doi Pui Hmong village in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park on Doi Suthep mountain I encountered the Family Coffee Shop. A Hmong man named Neng and his family run this spacious coffee shop that offers fantastic views over the forests and mountains. The brewery is next to the coffee shop and there is also a store that sells branded coffee beans and ground coffee. Highly recommended and featured in our Chiang Mai highlights tour.
Ban Huay Horm in Mae Hong Son
Ban Huay Horm is a Karen village in Mae La Noi district, Mae Hong Son province. This village has been producing coffee for decades and was mentioned to me as a supplier of coffee beans to Starbucks in Thailand. You can visit it on the way from Mae Sariang to Khun Yuam. The Interesting Lawa villages Ban La Up and Ban Dong are in the vicinity. We visit Ban Huay Horm during our Wonderful Mae Sariang Loop tour and the Doi Inthanon and Mae Sariang Explorer.
Ban Mae Klang Luang Coffee
Ban Mae Klang Luang is a S’gaw Karen village in Doi Inthanon National Park. The village has several brands of coffee and has become very popular with local and overseas visitors. In all our Doi Inthanon tours we visit Ban Mae Klang Luang for a delicious cup of local coffee. During the Pha Dok Siew hike we also pass through the coffee plantations of the village.
There are three main coffee brewers in this village: Rimtaan, Somsak, and Jose (Ban Mae Klang Luang Coffee). Ban Mae Klang Luang features in all our Doi Inthanon tours such as Visit Doi Inthanon and Ancient Lanna Cities.