The Chiang Mai region in the north of Thailand is known to many Asia fans: Because of the eponymous pulsating city between tradition and modernity, the mist-shrouded mountains and the mystical hill tribes. But only very few people know that high-quality Arabica Coffee is also grown there.
Coffee from Thailand is still a rarity in the western world. No wonder: Most of you probably only know Thai coffee beans in connection with instant coffee, because it is mainly the Robusta grown in southern Thailand that is processed for it. There is now an increasing number of farms that also plant Arabica coffee plants – thanks to a government initiative and the many ambitious family businesses in Northern Thailand.
So it is time for us to introduce coffee from Thailand in more detail. In this article you will learn why the country came to coffee cultivation relatively late, how the rare Arabica in particular is grown, harvested and processed by the mountain peoples in Thailand – and of course how it tastes!
Thailand coffee: a new tradition for mountain farmers
Coffee has only been grown in Thailand since the mid-1970s: a lot of Robusta coffee in the southern provinces such as Chumpon, Surat Thani and Krabi, and comparatively few Arabica beans in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, the northern mountain regions of the country. The Royal Project Foundation, initiated by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is mainly responsible for growing coffee today. Since 1969, its main goal has been to improve the living conditions of the hill tribes in Thailand. The other goals of the initiative also show that the focus is primarily on people and nature.
In addition to supporting the hill tribes, the Royal Project Foundation is committed to preventing the destruction of natural resources, stopping opium cultivation, and making optimal use of the soil in each area. This also includes increasing the share of alternative agriculture in favor of the Thai economy.
Thailand is one of around 18% of the coffee-growing countries that are not in the top 10 (such as Brazil and Vietnam), but are nevertheless among the top 25 of the world’s largest coffee producers. The quality of Thai coffee beans can now keep up with those from South America, only that the quantities produced are rather lower. Yet Thailand now produces as much Arabica coffee as Panama, Hawaii and Jamaica combined.
Thailand in Transition: From opium poppies to coffee plants
It is part of Thai History: For thousands of years, rainforests have been cleared in the country for the cultivation of opium poppies, which were used to produce drugs and opium – a milky, intoxicating sap from the plant. The fact that Thailand is now fortunately able to leave these times behind is also due to the Royal Project Foundation. Because the initiative introduced forms of alternative agriculture in the early years of its founding, which could bring the local mountain peoples a good or even better income than the previous opium cultivation.
For better land use, cleared rainforest was reforested, orchards were created and coffee plants were cultivated. Because Arabica coffee plants need similar growth conditions as opium poppies, and grow especially along the borders with Laos and Myanmar.
The coffee beans grow particularly well (in Thailand and in other growing areas) in mixed culture – in the shade of the useful trees that are also grown. Their canopy protects against the sun, keeps the soil cool and moist and fertilizes it in a natural way, which significantly improves the soil quality. In addition, fruit and forest trees that are planted between the coffee bushes protect against soil erosion and ensure that the water penetrates the soil through the deep roots after heavy rainfall. In the same way, nutrients from the deeper layers reach the coffee plants.
Mystic Hilltribes: Coffee from local Thai hill tribes
Some of the essential conditions for growing coffee under the umbrella of the Royal Project Foundation are not to engage in extensive farming or to use chemicals. Instead, organic coffee is now being grown in the mountainous areas of Thailand, which has also been made marketable with the support of the UN.
Since then, it has been a lucrative source of income for the local hill tribes such as the Akha, Lisu, Hmong, Karen and Lahu – often called “Mystic Hilltribes”. Even today, these tribes are closely linked to coffee cultivation: it is not uncommon for coffee farms to be family-owned; and the harvesting and processing of the coffee cherries is done by the women in the family.
Incidentally, many Thai smallholders market their coffee themselves through local cooperatives. In this way, the income not only remains in the local economic cycle, but also means that the infrastructure and quality of life of the population in remote mountain villages is significantly improved. Overall, the organic coffee grown in Thailand shows how high yields can be achieved for the farmers – by breaking new ground.
Arabica from Thailand: Special coffee beans
Can Thailand only grow Robusta coffee? No! In terms of market share, however, the 2 percent Arabica coffee appears negligibly small compared to the 98 percent Robusta. The northern mountain regions of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai currently only supply a few 100 tons of Arabica coffee beans per year, while in the southern and significantly lower elevations it is around 80,000 tons of Robusta beans. This means that Thai Arabica coffee is quite rare in the cups – still!
Arabica from Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai: A small rarity
In Thailand, Arabica coffee only grows in the cooler north of the country, in the mountains of the Thai Highlands at an altitude of around 800 to 1,500 meters – especially in the provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
Here the hot season (between late March and early June) turns into the rainy season, which lasts until mid-October. The cool season follows from October to March, when it can sometimes get really cold. Around the beginning of the Thai “winter” (more precisely between mid-November and mid-March), the ripe coffee cherries are harvested. However, climate change is causing the harvest cycles and the subsequent processing of the coffee cherries to shift: there are often extremely dry periods and heavy rainfall.
Worldwide there is an increasing demand for Arabica coffee from Thailand and is boosting production. If the harvest has remained in the home country up to now, it is now mainly the high-quality grades that are exported that were previously too small for export.
Thanks to various initiatives in the specialty coffee industry, the high-quality beans are now also grown in Thailand for their own needs. And in which country do you have the advantage that the coffee farm and roastery are only a few hundred kilometers apart?
Thai Arabica varieties and their preparation
In the coffee-growing regions of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, Yellow and Red Caturra, Yellow Catuai, Typica, Bourbon and Catimor as well as the variety Chiang Mai 80, a hybrid developed in Thailand from the Catimor variety, are cultivated.
The raw beans are usually processed in the sun-dried manner, but depending on the weather, you sometimes have to react quickly: a downpour can quickly destroy a batch of natural coffee. Other forms of preparation are washed and honey processed coffees, as well as various forms of fermentation. The latter is used especially for beans that are intended for the specialty coffee market.
A special form of wet processing in Thailand is the so-called Kenya Style Washed, in which coffee cherries are depulpated, fermented dry for one night and then wet fermented for another night in order to completely remove the natural mucus layer. The coffee beans are then dried on raised beds, freed from the pergamino skin in the mill, sorted by size, separated by density and sorted by hand.
The Thais no longer just drink instant coffee
With the cultivation of coffee, drinking habits seem to be changing in Thailand. Unfortunately, if you previously ordered a coffee there, the cup was often of poor quality. But that is now a thing of the past in good cafés, because the production of high-quality arabica is increasing. With “Doi Tung” and “Doi Chang” there are even two varieties with a protected designation of origin, similar to what we know from ham from Parma or from Bordeaux wine. Besides Specialty Arabica, there is also Specialty Robusta from Thailand!
Many Thais still prefer to drink their coffee as sweet iced coffee, which is prepared with instant coffee powder and poured on condensed milk. But as I said, something is happening in the coffee scene! As in many other tea countries in Asia, there is a flourishing coffee culture in Thailand – and especially in the cultivation region Chiang Mai or the capital Bangkok there are some cafes and barista who are creating new trends and caffeine-rich signature drinks.
Coffee cultivation in proud handcraft
The Hmong, a native hill tribe among the Mystic Hilltribes, are heavily involved in the cultivation and processing of Thailand coffee. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Hmong fled from China via Burma and Laos to northern Thailand, and settled in the sparsely populated mountain villages. These mountain people are one of the few in Thailand who are very well integrated and also very successful in organic coffee cultivation – without artificial fertilizers and pesticides. As of today, around 151,000 live in the Thai Highlands.
The coffee beans are mostly harvested and processed by hand: some of the simplest machines are used to remove the pulp and the dried glassine skin. The Hmong are very proud of their meticulous handicraft, especially steps such as picking the only ripe coffee cherries and washing, fermenting and sorting the coffee beans.
During further processing after the harvest, the coffee cherries are first washed and then fermented in tanks for up to 36 hours, then dried on bamboo tables for up to 22 days. Then they make their way out into the world, where they are gently roasted and get their characteristic taste profile.
How does Thailand coffee taste?
Thai coffees have their very own flavor profile with rough edges. They are generally characterized by floral notes, are very low in acid and offer a soft mouthfeel. The varieties from Chiang Mai are said to be a little stronger than the varieties from neighboring Chiang Rai.
And how exactly does coffee from Thailand taste like? As is typical for the growing region, it has a slightly flowery acidity with notes of orange and nuts. Some may even notice slight notes of black tea. We think: A very balanced coffee and yet a real “head of character” – strong and with a clear citrus kick! We personally love it brewed as filter coffee or, especially in the hotter season, as cold brew.
Controversial specialty: Black Ivory from Thailand
You don’t have to try every specialty in the coffee world. For us, that includes Kopi Luwak from Indonesia, and there is something similar in Thailand with Black Ivory Coffee. Black Ivory stands for black ivory, which means nothing other than elephant droppings! That’s right: The pachyderms get rice and fruit as well as a load of Arabica beans mixed into their feed. The digestive juices remove the bitter substances from the coffee beans and should make the coffee in your cup even softer, fruity and chocolatey. They are picked by hand from the manure and processed further.
For 1 kilogram of Black Ivory coffee beans, up to 30 kilograms of coffee cherries are necessary, as something gets stuck on the way into the elephant intestines or is crushed by the animals’ teeth.
In contrast to Kopi Luwak, the production of Black Ivory Coffee is said not to involve animal abuse – on the contrary, says the inventor. His elephants had been rescued from precarious circumstances, lived free and were not force-fed. Thanks to the collaboration with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, elephant leaders are also supported in their work and the production of Black Ivory Coffee, and educational projects are invested in animal welfare. And with every coffee sold, money flows back to the Foundation.
It is up to you to decide whether you want to try such supposed gourmet coffees and whether you are willing to pay huge sums of money for it. You can also get top-quality coffee from Thailand much easier.