Coffee in Northern Thailand is part of the culture here. It is primarily Mountain Arabica coffee farmed by Hill Tribe minorities, where much of the harvesting is done by hand in a very labor intensive fashion.
Chiang Mai has hundreds of coffee shops all over the city, and most are independent and are very cute shops, usually with good background music (maybe something from Mozart or a Thai lullaby). They also serve great coffee — Thai coffee, which is fast becoming one of the great coffees of the world, and many of the international taste competitions are being won by coffee growers in Northern Thailand. Thai people drink coffee both cold and hot, so if you’re looking for a hot morning coffee, you had better specify it — ron (hot) or sometimes sounding like lon (as the sound for R is often substituted with an L). Almost all Thai coffee shops have WiFi, so it is a relaxing place to get caught up with the morning email. Some shops even have an electrical plug available for your laptop so you won’t have to hurry through everything before the battery dies. Morning coffee shop stops are fast becoming a tradition in Chiang Mai, and I personally enjoy starting my day this way.
The town also happens to have a lot of wonderful bakeries, so most coffee shops also serve a gorgeous slice of cake, cheesecake or a nice fresh pastry. Fantastic.
What’s really nice is that there seems to be a great coffee shop on every corner of Chiang Mai, so you will probably find one within a very short walking distance of where you are staying. But if you are in a rather odd location where there may not be a good shop, or you just don’t like the look of the one down the street, hop over to Nimmanhemin Road (commonly called just “Nimman”), which is one of the more fashionable shopping areas of Chiang Mai and you will see them on every block (maybe several), and most of them are beautiful shops serving the greatest coffee in the world (all from Thailand).
Every visitor and expat in Chiang Mai quickly comes up with their favorite coffee shop and will rave about it to everyone, but honestly it is difficult to find the truly best coffee shop in Chiang Mai since there are so many good ones. And they are very pleasant places to visit. It is fairly easy to build up a rapport with the shop owner, who is usually interested in talking with their traveling customers. Shop owners have a wealth of good information on where to go, where to shop and what to do in town. As long as you are friendly, you can expect the same back.
The Coffee House Barista in Chiang Mai is likely to be extraordinarily artistic. The designs made with the coffee cream can often be nothing short of amazing, and it is sometimes difficult to break up the artwork by actually tasting the drink.
Coffee in Thailand comes from the mountain areas of the country, primarily around Chiang Rai and further North. Though situated in a tropical region, Northern Thailand enjoys a more mild climate compared to the rest of the country. The area has lower humidity, a shorter monsoon season, and a lower annual temperature, creating a micro-climate among the Northern mountain ranges. Rain water from the mountains seeps into the soil, making it particularly rich in mineral content.
The coffee farms are often high in the mountains, with fields as high as 4000 to 5000 feet above sea level. Thai coffee growers hand pick the beans, picking only the beans ready to be harvested. In many other coffee growing regions, growers use equipment that sweep all the coffee trees, grabbing all the beans and much of the plant and later mechanically separating the proper beans from the chaff.
The actual coffee bean is protected by pulp and several layers of outer skin. Many modern coffee growers will power wash and strip these outer layers. The higher quality Thai coffee producers will let the beans soak to soften the outer layers, and then will remove the outer layers and leave the beans to sun ripen, thus preserving some of the complex flavors of the coffee. It is extremely labor intensive, and it is difficult to have this more careful process done in expensive labor areas of the world. Thai coffees rival the highly regarded Kona Coffees, and have actually beaten Kona Coffees in the title for “Best Asian Coffee” awarded by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).
Thai coffees are still new to the world market, and little is exported at this point, but coffee growers in Thailand are increasing production as recognition and demand outside of the area grows. Many of the Northern Thai coffee producing companies are actually farmer’s cooperatives, owned by many coffee farmers, and they benefit the Hill Tribe people in the growing areas with schools, medical clinics, better roads and better housing. One such coop is the Doi Chaang Coffee Company that even operates a Coffee Academy to teach farmers how to grow coffee, and to improve coffee quality for existing farms. Most Thai coffee growers are Fair Trade Certified, which means that there is no exploitation of coffee farmers.
You can find some Thai coffees in specialty shops in the US, but probably not yet in most supermarkets. Thai coffees are available for sale on line, and when you come to Thailand for a visit, it would be smart to take a few bags of freshly roasted beans back home with you.