What comes to mind when you think about Thailand? Very few of you might consider it being a specialty coffee producing country. Even though Thailand's Arabica output is as high as that of Panama, currently growing at 15% per year, we rarely see Thai beans in coffee shops around Europe. I get increasingly unenthusiastic about yet another Yirgacheffe, even though I appreciate the taste, because as a frequent coffee drinker I'd welcome more diversity on the menu. And Thailand would surely deserve the recognition!
This article is seeking to introduce the joint efforts undertaken by farmers, exporters and coffee shops who push Thailand to become an integral part of the specialty coffee landscape. Together with the coffee developer Fuadi Pitsuwan, who is also co-founder of the green beans exporting company Beanspire, we visited two coffee farms in Northern Thailand who already achieve great results and work hard to further improve the quality of their crop.
Doi Saket - Experimenting with varietals and processing methods in one of Thailand's oldest coffee growing regions
Doi Saket is a coffee growing region in Chiang Mai province, where farms are mostly cultivating the Typica variety on lush hills covered in forests. The coffee farm Indoi, whose highest elevation is 1500m, is no exception. It is, however, experimenting with other varietals such as Geisha in its farm. The Indoi family business started 35 years and 3 generations ago and is comprising a micro wet mill. Nowadays, a young Thai couple is running it, working with different processing methods to create more sweetness and complex flavours in the cup. According to Fuadi, sweetness is the new acidity, which is why he is eager to experiment with natural and honey processing methods whenever possible. He explains that washed coffees show the true value of the bean and lead to a cleaner profile. Natural and honey processing, however, can add value to a coffee that is otherwise not that interesting.
Natural coffees are dried without removing the beans from the cherry. The dried flesh is then removed mechanically in the dry processing mill when the moisture content is down to about 11%. Preventing mold and over-fermentation during the drying process takes knowledge, time and a constant control of temperature and humidity. The limitations are evident. Unpredictable weather is the biggest obstacle. With frequent rain occurring in Doi Saket even during the dry season, often washed processing is the only option. Nevertheless the farmers at Indoi don't shy away from the challenge to constantly innovate their practices. Together with Beanspire they have gained valuable experience with black and yellow honey processing, which they continue to develop. Their best coffee is currently a natural cupping at 86 points.
Kenyan processing in Pangkhon (Chiang Rai)
Thanks to social media the communication in the coffee world has shifted from being dominated by North-to-South dialogues to more frequent South-to-South exchanges, meaning coffee farmers are increasingly connected across continents and support each other in improving their coffee. This is how a few farmers in Pangkhon have learned to add interesting characteristics to their beans from Kenyan farmers by developing their interpretation of Kenyan processing. Pangkhon's coffee farms lie 1250 to 1500 meters above sea level and are administered by 300 families who are part of the Akha ethnic group. They have been cultivating coffee for over 40 years.
The process is as follows: after sunset the farmers start collecting the picked cherries to bring them to a collective washing station. The first step of a Kenyan wash is to mechanically depulp the cherries on the same day they were picked and fill the beans in different tanks for dry and later wet fermentation. Dry fermentation takes about 12 hours during which bacteria and wild yeasts break down the mucilage surrounding the beans. While dry fermentation proceeds faster than wet fermentation, which lasts 18 hours, it is also more inconsistent and hence requires close monitoring. The water added for the second round of fermentation allows the bacteria to float evenly but might create less interesting flavours. As a final step the beans are soaked once more to remove any residues before drying in the sun on raised bamboo beds. Recently, the farmers at Pangkhon who work with Beanspire have been experimenting with cold temperature to drag out the fermentation process, which creates even more interesting flavours.
Fuadi predicts that coffee will move more and more into science, very similar to wine, just a hundred years behind. He suggests that fermentation will be the main concern for the next 10 to 15 years. "Beer brewers are the most advanced in terms of controlling desired flavours" he tells me, "and both beer brewers and coffee farmers could benefit from knowledge exchange."
Roots Coffee Roaster in Bangkok - Making the switch to roasting and brewing Thai specialty coffee exclusively
Thailand's import tariffs for coffee are the second highest in the world, making it a pricey endeavor for coffee shops to feature beans from abroad. It is more likely to find a Brazil, Colombia or Ethiopia in a blend together with Thai coffee rather than as a single origin. The Bangkok based roastery Roots has been working together with Beanspire and local farmers to push the quality of Thai specialty coffee and will, in the course of the next couple of months, switch to roasting local beans only. This is sending a strong message to the coffee community in Bangkok, and is another indication for the progress that Thailand is making in terms of improving the quality of its coffee from seed to cup. "The goal of introducing foreign coffee to Bangkok has been achieved", head roaster Korn tells me, "now the new ambition is to promote Thai coffee around the world.".
Roots currently has two locations in Bangkok:
Roots Coffee at theCOMMONS
theCOMMONS, Thonglor 17, Sukhumvit 55, Bangkok
Roots Coffee at Supanniga Eating Room x Roots Coffee, Tha Tien
392/25-26 Maha Rat Rd, Phraborom Maharajawang, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok