If you listed the world’s best coffee destinations, Thailand probably wouldn’t be on it. Well, it should be. There’s a new generation of quality focused farmers improving specialty coffee in Thailand and the cafe scene is fantastic.
In this article, I’ll introduce Thai coffee culture and encourage you to experience it for yourself. If you plan to travel to Thailand, hopefully this will make you look forward to drinking the coffee!
What do Thai coffee beans taste like?
Traditionally, Thai coffee is roasted dark and served with sweetened condensed milk. If you’re familiar with Vietnamese coffee, Thai coffee is very similar. But, as quality has improved, the roast profile and taste has changed with it.
The traditional coffee style is dark because most Thai beans are robusta beans. Robusta is easier to grow, but doesn’t have have the subtleties of arabica.
However, it makes a good dark roast with strong bitter flavors and has more caffeine than arabica. The bitterness contrasts beautifully with sweetened, condensed milk. The milk mellows out the bitterness of the coffee and the coffee adds a more complex flavor to go with the sweetness.
Arabica beans are totally different. The best beans work well as a light or medium roast and can be incredibly fruity with complex flavor profiles. Without the harsh bitterness, you don’t need so much milk and sugar, which makes them perfect for filter coffee and espresso.
The growth of Arabica
The biggest change to Thai coffee is the growth of more Arabica trees and the increased focus on quality.
Farmers in the border area of Northern Thailand used to grow a lot of opium so the government invested in growing coffee and other crops. But, most of the coffee planted was the Catimor variety of Arabica, which is genetically modified to resist disease. It produces a large amount of coffee, but it’s not the tastiest type of Arabica.
Other types of Arabica, like Typica and Bourbon, usually have more complex flavors, but are difficult to grow and susceptible to disease. Never-the-less they are getting more popular in Thailand and are helping to improve the quality of Thai coffee beans.
Where in Thailand to get great coffee
If you’re interested in traveling to Thailand, it’s an awesome time to try local coffee. I haven’t spent time in Southern Thailand, but Bangkok and Chiang Mai both have fantastic coffee scenes.
Bangkok has the vibe of most large cities throughout the world. You’ll find specialty coffee roasters and modern coffee shops with great designs. There’s also lots to see and do besides drink coffee.
Chiang Mai, despite being much smaller, has an overwhelming number of coffee shops, too. But, what makes Chiang Mai really unique is that you will be so close to the source. In fact, many farmers own their own cafes in the city. Beyond coffee, there are many gorgeous temples.
Specialty coffee in Thailand: Bangkok
Bangkok is by far the largest city in Thailand, so there are an overwhelming number of amazing coffee shops. I’ll introduce the two that I recommend you start with.
theCOMMONS (Market Floor), Thonglor 17, Sukhumvit Rd., Klongtan Nue, Khet Watthana, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10110, Thailand
One of the biggest players in Bangkok’s specialty coffee scene has been Roast, a western style cafe with excellent food, coffee, and atmosphere. They have always been a specialty roaster, but have been very food oriented.
Roots is their shift to Thai coffee. Rather than offering a mix of beans from around the world, Roots only serves coffee beans grown in Thailand. They also have separated the coffee part of the business, by building a cafe, rather than a restaurant.
19/12 Ekkamai12, Sukhumvit 63 Rd. | At Siam Center, G floor, Klongton Nua, Wattana, Bangkok 10110, Thailand
Shopping malls and great coffee don’t usually go together, but they do in Bangkok. Brave Roasters mixes an eclectic design shop with an excellent coffee roaster and cafe.
In the cafe, you can find a number of bean options from both Thailand and other countries, but mostly Thailand. I recommend choosing the beans that look most interesting and trying a pour over.
Specialty coffee in Thailand: Chiang Mai
While Bangkok is a huge city that has everything, Chiang Mai is small but really into coffee. Most of Thailand’s arabica beans come from northern Thailand, so the city is perfectly situated nearby.
I recommend you start with one of these two places because both offer beans grown nearby on their own farms. You really can’t get more local than that…
9/1 มาตา อพาร์ทเม้นท์ ถนน Hussadhisawee Soi 3, Tambon Chang Phueak, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50300, Thailand
Akha Ama is a blend of a cafe and a social enterprise. All their beans are organically grown on their own farms in a local village. By doing all the growing, processing, and selling themselves they help to maintain the livelihood of the Akha tribe in northern Thailand.
They offer many different roasts in the cafe, which are all available as a pour over, plus they do espresso based drinks. You can also buy their different beans to brew for yourself. (To learn about pour over brewing, be sure to read about the brewers I recommend and my Hario V60 guide).
Nimmana Haeminda Rd Lane 11, Tambon Su Thep, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
Another specialty roaster that grows their own beans is Nine One Coffee. What really sets them apart is the quality of their coffee beans, which have won a number of taste awards.
The owner of the cafe, who is also a farmer, has done a lot to improve his coffee quality over the years and it really shows in the award-winning beans. It also shows with the staff, whose enthusiasm really stood out over a couple visits.
I recommend you try one of their micro-lot beans as a pour over.
Time to try Thai coffee
If you’re a traveler who loves coffee, you should definitely add Thailand to your bucket list. I never expected such a great coffee scene before going, but now that I’ve visited a few times I love it.
The most recent trip was to Chiang Mai and I’ve never seen such a small city with such a great coffee scene.
If you can’t visit, Thai beans may be harder to come by, but I’m guessing they will get more common in the years to come—at least I hope they will!