Thailand is not traditionally known as a country that produces specialty coffee, yet it has been producing Arabica coffee since the early '80s. It started off as part of the Thai King’s opium eradication project. Because Arabica coffee thrives in conditions similar to those favoured by opium, it was selected as a substitution crop against the cultivation of the illicit plant.
Today, Thailand produces about 8,000 tonnes of Arabica coffee, mainly in the mountainous north of the country. On top of that, Thailand produces about ten times as much Robusta coffee, making it the third-largest coffee producer in Asia. Thai specialty coffee is rarely seen in the top specialty roaster segment abroad.
Thailand is a middle-income country and has a thriving local coffee market. That means relatively high production costs for a relatively undemanding coffee market.
Having said this, a strong specialty coffee segment is emerging. At least on the consumer side, the Third Wave is quite well established, with artisan roasters and cafés in Bangkok and Chang Mai. These roasters have recently begun to develop and buy local coffees too, not least because of import tariffs on foreign coffees.
However, this scene is still very small and hardly creates enough incentives for farmers to improve the quality of their coffee to specialty grade – at least for now. So even though they have been doing a great job at pushing the limits of Thai coffee, the specialty coffee scene would be greatly aided with more specialty coffee knowledge and global integration.
Our sourcing partners Beanspire have been actively assisting the farming families of Doi Pangkhon to improve the quality of their coffee. For this lot, they specifically worked with two entrepreneurial siblings of the Becheku family from the Akha hilltribe: Ata and Pupae.
At 30, Ata is the oldest of the three siblings whose entrepreneurial spirit and leadership is a force for change in his community. Pupae is Ata’s 26-year-old sister. She worked in both Korea and Taiwan before returning home to Doi Pangkhon to help her brother produce coffee.
Pupae speaks fluent Chinese and is a Chinese language teacher at a local school. The young Bechekus are third generation coffee farmers at Doi Pangkhon, and they represent one of the most inspiring aspects of the Thai coffee scene. The future of the entire specialty industry around the world where farmers and their children are quitting coffee manufacturing for other more lucrative opportunities.
These people are returning home to work on coffee because they see a bright future in it, and they are farming coffee by choice; not because they lack other opportunities.
Doi Pangkhon’s coffee farms, at 1,250–1,500 metres above sea level, contain Caturra, Catimor, Bourbon and Typica cultivars. Such a mixture of cultivars allows farmers to mitigate various risks. For example, Bourbon and Typica tend to be weaker plants and sometimes come under attack from leaf rust and other diseases, but they have great cupping potential. Caturra and especially Catimor are more rust resistant and have a higher yield.
Due to the famously fragrant soil in the Chang Rai area, even these hybrid varieties are capable of producing complex and delicious coffees, yet they could struggle if grown in different areas.
A big, gloopy coffee: it's that heavy mouthfeel which jumps out at me first. That texture pairs with dark caramel and macadamia nut flavours, and then a touch of cocoa nibs on the aftertaste.
Region: Doi Pangkhong, Chiang Rai
Altitude: 1,250–1,500 m.a.s.l.
Processing method: Black Honey
Varietals: Red and yellow Catimor, Caturra, Bourbon and Typica