Any visitor to Chiang Mai, or for that matter pretty much anywhere in Northern Thailand, will be struck by the preponderance of coffee shops; they are simply everywhere and, a few international chains excepted, provide cheap and excellent quality coffee. Here’s a rundown on the local brew up here in the north.
Coffee cultivation in Thailand is a relatively recent phenomenon; production in 1960 was around 750 tons, shooting up to a peak in 1992 of 60,000 tons. Total output has tailed off somewhat in more recent times due to a glut in the market partly due to booming production in neighbouring Vietnam’s Central Highlands. But production today remains high and with a booming domestic coffee culture a lot of coffee is consumed in Thai and Chiang Mai coffee shops.
Relatively small quantities of coffee beans of the Robusta variety have been grown in the more equatorial southern Thai provinces for some time but the tremendous increase in output is mainly down to the rapid expansion of Arabica plantations in North Thailand’s more temperate hill country. Much of this expansion began in the 1970s as government, and often Royal, projects to provide hilltribe people with replacement crops for the opium that was endemic in the region at that time.
Under pressure from US and Western governments to stem the flow of raw opium and refined products from the Thai part of the Golden Triangle region, the Thai government had to rapidly find high earning replacements as incentives and coffee proved a perfect alternative. The upland areas of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces in particular proved fertile areas for high quality beans and the profitability of even relatively small plantations at a village level negated the necessity to deforest entire hill sides to plant low-value replacement crops.
Much of North Thailand’s coffee is now grown and cultivated by Lisu, Lahu, Hmong and Akha hilltribe villagers alongside other high-value crops such a tea and temperate fruits like cherries and strawberries. Even if overall ownership is generally in the hands of Thai or even occasionally foreigners it does provide a decent and legal living for people. Plenty of coffee is marketed as “hilltribe” and many are named, in the manner of wine, after their region of production, such as the famous Doi Tung or Doi Kham coffee brands.
While initially the best quality coffee would have been reserved for export and tourists, and the cheaper lower grades consumed locally, the rapid rise in living standards and disposable income in recent times is responsible for the development of a huge local coffee, or coffee-shop, culture in cities such as Chiang Mai. Parts of town such as the affluent Nimmanhemin Road, located close to Chiang Mai university, seems to see a new cafe opening every week.
Popular local coffee franchises include 94 Coffee and Wawee Coffee, which happily often seem more popular than the international chains that are jumping on the Thai coffee bandwagon. A multitude of smaller independent cafes can also however be found throughout the city, in tourist and non-touristy locations — markets, hotel lobbies, petrol stations and even temples will have coffee outlets to keep caffeine addicts satisfied. Most will have air-con indoor seating areas and outdoor garden areas where you can have a cigarette with a cuppa; most will have high-standard bakeries attached and all free WiFi.
Finally we can’t discuss North Thai coffee without mentioning the latest craze for elephant poo coffee beans. Clearly competing with Indonesia and Vietnam’s civet dung brews, enterprising initiatives to collect the eaten but undigested beans from North Thailand’s elephant camp residents has resulted in an interesting — and extremely expensive — new fad.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 10th October, 2013.