Billy Adams: Coffee becomes opium of masses

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Chic Western-style cafes in Thailand are changing habits and providing increasing work for locals.

Most Thai people prefer iced coffee but cafes like Ristr8to are quickly gaining a following. Photo / Supplied
Most Thai people prefer iced coffee but cafes like Ristr8to are quickly gaining a following. Photo / Supplied

It might be grown on old opium farms, and picked from the dung of elephants, but $60-a-cup Black Ivory is hardly the most unexpected coffee discovery in the shadow of Asia's golden triangle.

A few hours drive south in the ancient temple-filled city of Chiang Mai, surprised visitors find it as easy to track down a great Kiwi-inspired flat white as the ubiquitous pad thai.

The picturesque gateway to the Thai highlands is home to a plethora of chic Western-style cafes that wouldn't look out of place in Parnell.

"The coffee here is incredible, as good as in the cafes back home in Sydney," says Australian tourist Patricia Murphy, sipping a 50 baht ($1.94) latte at 9th Street Cafe.

"Nut, the owner, seems to know everything about coffee. I've been travelling for a few months, and I'm still pinching myself that I didn't find a decent flat white in Spain, France or the UK, but I've been spoiled for choice here.

It's fantastic."

Blake Dinkin, founder of the exclusive Black Ivory coffee that starts life inside elephant poop, was blown away by the quality in a city that's home to 160,000 people.

"Chiang Mai is a real hotbed for coffee," he says. "Everywhere you turn there's a coffee shop."

That's certainly the case in Nimmanhaemin, which in the space of a generation has morphed from farmland into the city's trendiest suburb; home to a wide array of boutique shops, restaurants and bars.

There are dozens of small, independent coffee shops, as well as Thai chains like Wawee, which opened its first store on the main street 10 years ago and is widely credited with starting the trend.

Starbucks has 141 outlets in the country.

All the shops serve an eclectic mix of customers, from office and massage parlour employees to well-heeled visitors from Bangkok, expat residents and tourists.

Like the vast majority of Thais, students from nearby Chang Mai University prefer iced coffee, although their espresso-based cups bear little relation to the traditional Thai brew, a sweet concoction mixed with condensed milk and heaps of sugar.

Most of the 700 coffees sold daily at Arnon Thitiprasert's Ristr8to cafe are served hot, using blends and single origin beans imported from around the world.

The Australian-trained barista is on a mission to educate local drinkers and change tastes. Blackboards in the cafe, and the menu, explain the difference in coffee styles, strength, flavour and roasting.

The former engineering student even specialises in "latte art", and came sixth at last year's world championship.

He creates a host of designs on the milky creme of each coffee - from images of tigers to portraits of customers' faces.

Thitiprasert is also one of the first to emphasise the merits of ristretto over espresso, and Antipodean-style flat whites and long blacks over lattes and Americano coffees.

"This Australian and New Zealand-style flat white or piccolo latte is very new for Thai people," he says.

"Basically what I do here is how I like to drink my coffee.

"I like a long black but I don't like an Americano.

"With a macchiato I tell people I don't like a froth. We mix the coffee and the milk to bring up the whole flavour."

Baristas like Thitiprasert are adding a new dimension to coffee in a region where Arabica beans are grown by hill tribes that used to fuel the world's biggest heroin trade.

The coffee that "slow cooks" in the guts of elephants comes from the same lush hills in northern Thailand.

Dinkin, a Canadian businessman who has spent nine years developing the concept, says the elephants' stomach acid breaks down protein that produces bitterness in coffee.

Once passed, picked from the dung and roasted, he says the end product is super-smooth.

"The coffee I use is picked by women who work in traditional costume, and there's not a tourist in sight," he says.

"I was there just last week and the women were talking about how they used to grow opium, and frankly made more money doing that, but it's illegal.

"For them, coffee might be more work and they don't make as much from it, but it's sustainable and the industry is only getting bigger."

Few have had as much exposure to northern Thai beans as Dinkin's most obliging elephants, the adult females Tangmo, Plume and Pumpui; who he describes as "voracious eaters" of the raw cherries.

Most of Thailand's coffee - about 80,000 tonnes is grown annually - comes from the south of the country, where the robusta bean rules. It mostly ends up in domestic canned and instant coffee, or is sold abroad.

But the hills of the north produce the more sought-after Arabica bean, and baristas in Chiang Mai believe the abundance of cafes and local thirst for higher quality coffee are setting a new standard in Thai drinking habits.

Despite this, the majority of locally produced beans are still roasted to accommodate the tastes of iced coffee lovers elsewhere.

"That might provide the bigger chains with consistency, but it's very bitter and smoky and the coffee loses its flavour," says Thitiprasert.

He plans to roast his own beans and start selling overseas.

"We just need to keep trying to educate people how to drink coffee, and improve the ways of roasting," he says.

"If we do that, the potential for coffee all over Thailand is very good."

- NZ Herald

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