Thailand’s coffee culture is a somewhat new industry that is blossoming across the country. Traditionally a country of tea (black, red thai tea or green) the northern part still grows lots of tea in neat rows on the rolling hills of Chiang Rai province. The difference now is that coffee farms and plantations have also popped up on any available land in the north. Thai’s are so into coffee that there is even a small coffee plantation on Phuket island! While every small town, gas station and village now drink or grow coffee, the origins of Thailand’s coffee obsession started with the Princess Mother and her Mae Fah Luang Foundation which wanted to help the hill tribes of Northern Thailand stop growing Opium and change to other profitable and positive cash crops – such as tea, coffee, macadamia nuts and ethical home wares.
The princess mother decided that the opium plantations would be substituted for economic forests scattered with coffee and other cash crops that would improve the economy and bring a sustainable income to the locals. The Princess Mothers brand, Doi Tung Coffee, even carries a seal from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) as the UN recognises how the change from opium to coffee has helped the whole country.
Once Thai’s realised that they had the perfect conditions to grow coffee in, and the potential value of good quality Arabica beans the coffee craze began. It took time for the coffee beans to trickle down into the cities, but major companies such as Starbucks had already started buying up hundreds of kilos of coffee beans from Mae Hong Son province.
However Thai’s weren’t really exposed to good quality coffee until around 2010. Before that Nescafe and Birdy instant coffee had the market share of coffee, with the only alternative being freshly brewed street stall coffee laced with sweetened condensed milk. It was around 2010 when many Thai’s who had been working in Australia as baristas started to flock back. Cafes and import-export shops such as Ristr8to, Akha Ama and Pacamara started to open and once they became successful cafes started to pop up in every available space. These days every city has a cafe or specialist coffee shop every kilometre and the baristas are usually very skilled. If you do come across bad coffee it is usually hidden under ice and sugar so you wouldn’t even know it!
Interestingly enough while Thailand grows a lot of coffee it is still a net importer thanks to their appetite of good coffee. “According to United States Department of Agriculture, in 2011-2012, Thailand produced around 54 million kilograms of coffee, however consumed around 62.4 million kilograms”. Thailand exports lots of green beans but also imports and roasts from other countries. However because the government taxes green beans at between 90-120% (depending on how official the transaction is) there is a high incentive for Thai’s to grow their own quality coffee, either for export or for domestic consumption.
Now in Thailand most of the North is becoming covered by coffee plantations and the cities by cafes, but what’s coming next? Most likely even better coffee, as the baristas are even in search of the perfect cup of coffee. These days specialist cafes such as pour over, drip coffee, cold brew cafes and cafes with machines close to 1 million Baht start to penetrate all the large cities. The quest for the best coffee is becoming big business and also gets a lot of press. And what’s fuelling the this craze? Well, it’s probably the amount of caffeine that Thai’s are now consuming on a daily basis!