by Dave Stamboulis.
Bangkok has joined the world gourmet coffee scene in the past few years, with tons of knowledgeable young Thai coffee connoisseurs opening hip cafes the likes of which have never been seen before, but hey, many of those superb beans that they are brewing with are sourced from the fertile mountain slopes of Northern Thailand. So naturally, Chiang Mai has followed suit and is now experiencing its own caffeine buzz. We head to Thailand’s northern capital to check out some of the top players in a town gone wild over a good cup of joe.
Undoubtedly the heavyweight champion of the Chiang Mai coffee scene, Ristr8tto is the brainchild of Arnon Thitprasert, a Thai barista who spent time in Melbourne, as well as visiting San Francisco, Venice, and all of the world’s cafe meccas in order to perfect his craft, also taking part in numerous barista competitions around the planet. The results are staggering, as the cafe, located on trendy Nimmanhaeminda Road, is packed daily with gourmet caffeinistas, all sipping single origin flat whites, ristrettos, or cigarettos, brews which the average coffee drinker has never even heard of. The level of coffee knowledge here is unsurpassed, and even the newspaper-like menus come with detailed descriptions of how many grams of milk and caffeine are in each drink. The latte art is also astounding, with baristas turning milk into elephants and other amazing designs. They’ve also opened a new branch nearby called Ristr8tto Lab, which showcases cult coffees and even serves up wicked alcoholic coffee concoctions such as Ethiopian Monkeys (mocha and creme de menthe).
No mention of Chiang Mai coffee is complete without listing Akha Ama. Founder Lee Ayu grew up in an Akha tribal village and his somewhat rags to riches story has taken him to the forefront of the coffee world, training in cupping and roasting in San Francisco and Portland, and starting a project in his village to grow some of the world’s best Arabica on the remote northern slopes of Chiang Rai. Ayu now runs annual coffee tours to the village, and the success of his hidden away Chiang Mai cafe has led to the opening of a new high profile coffee bar, Akha Ama La Fattoria, located right on the main street through the historic Old City area. Single drips here come in a choice of roasts, there is dazzling latte art, and Akha Ama, along with Ristr8tto, sets the bar for coffee in Chiang Mai.
A relative newcomer on the Chiang Mai coffee scene, Graph Table is a sleek and inviting hideout. Located inside of theold city moat, the interior here is all dark wood, it’s cool and stylish, and tinted windows hide the charm from the street. The specialty here is cold brew, which ranges from the 24-hour steeped concentrate Number 0 to the Number 9 single origin. They also do a knockout nitro coffee with ice cream, a mean doppio ristretto, and to top things off, even serve a wide array of brunch items, ranging from falafel to pancakes.
One Day Drip
Another newcomer, this tiny open-air stand is aptly named. Owner, barista, and sole employee Bird was a graduating filmmaking student from Bangkok who came up to Chiang Mai to do a documentary on coffee farming. He laughs when he reminisces that prior to heading to the northern hills, “all I knew about coffee was 3-in-1,” and after returning to Chiang Mai and not finding work, went back to live with the farmer for a few months and really learn the art of growing good beans. Bird learned how to roast, studied under a Japanese expert back in Chiang Mai, and then opened his tiny bar, hidden away in a small alley in the old city. There’s a big sign outside that says “Slow Bar,” and Bird says he loses tons of business during high season, as many customers don’t want to wait the time necessary to heat water to the perfect temperature, and slow drip pour a cup of strong coffee. There is a range of beans to choose from, and Bird encourages everyone to smell them and choose their favorite.
The final mention, among a hard selection of many, goes to this small cafe, located on the south side of the Old City, just inside the moat. Set in what looks like a small guesthouse with a few garden tables, and set back from the road, not too many tourists seem to make it inside here, and they don’t know what they are missing. The cafe, which resembles a gallery or warehouse, has some of Chiang Mai’s most fancy coffee making paraphernalia, and the owner has well-honed coffee knowledge. Happy lets customers choose from a variety of world beans that they roast themselves, grinds them, and puts them into a drip machine that churns out the perfect cup of brew. They also do doppio’s, lattes, and world-beater espresso. The folks here are well into minimizing the middleman and helping local Thai farmers grow single origin beans that can compete with the world market.