As a tourist destination, Chiang Mai is famous for temples, elephants, and traditional Thai culture. However, that’s all changing. Chiang Mai’s incredible arts and food scenes have been given international attention by Anthony Bourdain’s television series Parts Unknown, with chef and restaurateur Andy Ricker helping bring faithful version of this cuisine to the United States through his Pok Pok restaurants in Portland, New York, and Los Angeles. A city of street vendors, art malls, and live music, Chiang Mai has developed a young, exciting coffee scene to complement its many charms.
Traditionally, Thai coffee has never been anything to write home about. For many years it was overshadowed by other crops—most notably opium, grown nearby in the infamous Golden Triangle region where Laos, Burma, and Thailand intersect. Due to a focused effort from the government and NGOs, Thai farmers have turned to coffea arabica in ever greater numbers as the cash crop of choice, the best of which fuels Chiang Mai’s booming coffee scene.
Rumor has it that there are more cafes than 7-Elevens in Chiang Mai—and as anybody who’s been to Thailand would testify, that means a heap. The city feels like a public experiment in fashioning a new coffee culture; it’s one of only a few places on earth where you have progressive roasters, baristas, coffee lovers, and cafe owners within just an hour’s drive of coffee plantations and farmers. That means there’s always some cross-pollination going on; some tinkering with a new way of achieving the perfect honey process or a backyard attempt at growing Geisha.
The overall effect for a coffee lover is not unlike a wine geek in wine country: your proximity to every step of the production chain results in a series of singular, distinctive experiences. The scene is intimate but exploding, young but tethered to an ancient agricultural tradition in Northern Thailand. Most of these coffees aren’t available outside of Chiang Mai—you have to go here for this coffee experience, one that comes with the added perks of food, art, music, booze, and an irrepressible street rhythm.
If you love coffee—heck, if you have a pulse—you’ll love Chiang Mai. Here’s a guide to five of the city’s very best coffee bars to get you started. Chai-yoh!
Akha Ama Coffee
Set up by Lee Ayu to help his hill tribe community sell their beans at a fair price, Akha Ama today is today perhaps Thailand’s most exciting coffee company. Akha Ama, which is named after the Akha tribe, started out in 2009 as a small cafe using a home-style espresso machine. Today the company runs two busy cafes, roasts its own beans, and produces 35 tons of coffee a year. Akha Ama also provides a livelihood for Akha youth looking for a job in the city. According to Ayu, many of the baristas actually brew coffee cultivated by their relatives at the mountain.
We interviewed Lee Ayu back in 2014, and then as now one of the most interesting innovations of Akha Ama is that the company’s single-origin coffee is truly single-origin. On the bag of beans, there’s just a pencil sketch of the farmer’s face and name. Akha farmers are the most skilled in Thailand, being able to grow true Arabica varieties such as Bourbon, Caturra, and Typica in favor of the lower quality, but disease-resistant, Catimor. Ayu has been training with Stumptown Coffee Roasters in recent years, and that’s starting to become evident in his beans. The roast is light, which has given birth to the Thai term ponlamai, meaning fruity.
Ponganes Coffee Roasters
Rawi “Pong” Kasemsuk from Ponganes Coffee Roasters is the kind of barista who will recommend a certain espresso for you based on what the weather is like on a given day. His blends aren’t really blends; they are more like artistic creations evoking moods and memories. The 100% Thai espresso I tried at this cafe tasted like raspberry with salty caramel and was a strong contender for the best espresso on this trip.
Kasemsuk is running the cafe with girlfriend and partner in crime, Pornpan “Nes” Vipaphan—hence the name Ponganes. It’s a small, rectangular place with a personal feel to it. Standing by the Kees van der Westen espresso machine tamping, twisting, and turning knobs, it’s hard to imagine any other barista in their shoes.
Pong and Nes worked at coffee shops in Sydney for several years, and their cafe does have a slightly Aussie feel to it. It’s certainly not a “third place” to chill all day with your MacBook or gossipy friends, and there’s only a handful of seats with no real tables. The way Pong describes it, it’s rather a showroom. The couple’s main business is actually wholesale customers buying beans.
Ponganes has a strong selection of Thai beans along with a few international classics such as Ethiopia Yirgacheffe and Pacamara from Central America. It’s a good place to stock up on brewing equipment as well.
Nimmanhaemin is without a doubt the trendiest neighborhood in Chiang Mai. And among all the hip cafes there, Ristr8to Coffee is my favorite.
This is serious coffee wrapped in luxurious drapes. Ristr8to claims inspiration from Australian coffee culture, with an extensive, almost encyclopedic menu of coffees and coffee styles from all over the world. Ristr8to does all the usual stuff like pour-over and syphon, but their baristas really shine when it comes to milk-based drinks. They make a Gibraltar (originally from San Francisco), a flat white (originally from New Zealand), and even something called “The Ethiopian Monkey”, a boozy drink of unknown provenance served in a skull-shaped vessel.
Service at Ristr8to is overseen by head barista Arnon Thitiprasert, a multi-time national latte art champion who placed fifth at the World Latte Art Championship in Gothenburg in 2015. Ristr8to currently runs two cafes and also has a so-called “lab” that doubles as roastery and convenient backdrop for Instagram-selfies. Clearly, this is all expat catnip, but the scene inside Ristr8to is a happy blend of local and tourist, striking the balance between travel destination and neighborhood haunt.
Drip for Friends Cafe
If you are looking for the perfect antidote to all the Starbucks of the world, you could hardly go anywhere better than the appropriately named coffee shop Drip for Friends. The cafe which opened back in 2014 is run by Hoong Nuttanunt—an art graduate with an eye for quirky details and atmosphere.
There actually is an espresso machine at the establishment, but it looks like it hasn’t been used anytime in recent history. Pour-over is the preferred method at Drip for Friends and the Donut Dripper is the go-to brewing device. It’s a refreshing change from the ubiquitous Kalita Wave and V60.
In spite of the cafe being on the smallish side, there’s an impressive range of coffee paraphernalia and art on display, worth a visit for this alone. Luckily the cafe also offers splendid coffee, featuring a wide range of freshly roasted Thai beans along with a few international offerings.
Hours at Drip for Friends are currently by prearranged appointment only, which can be done through the cafe’s Facebook page.
Hidden away just a bit outside the frenetic main roads of Chiang Mai, you’ll find Asama Cafe. Only a few cafes in Thailand are able to rival the natural surroundings of Asama. Set in a lush, green area with a river running calmly beside, it’s the perfect tranquil place to sip your espresso and contemplate the meaning of life, take pictures of the water lilies, or gaze into the eyes of your coffee date.
Asama was founded by Asama “Mook” Vichaidit, a coffee geek who means serious business. She is both a WBC and WLAC certified judge and runs the espresso machine herself most of the time. That machine is a Spirit manufactured by the Dutch company Kees van der Westen—rare all over the world, and almost unheard of here in Thailand.
Asama is renowned for their Espresso Panna Cotta, a drink based on the traditional Italian dessert finished with a freshly pulled ristretto shot on top. Until recently Vichaidit would only make four panna cottas every day. Now the number has increased to 12, but still they’re often sold out before noon. Go early or call in advance to make a reservation. The restaurant right next door is owned by Vichaidit family members, and according to the reviews, they share her finely attuned taste buds.
Asser Bøggild Christensen (@hipsterkaffe) is a Danish journalist based in Asia covering tech and the digital nomad movement for Information, F5, and more. This is Asser Bøggild Christensen’s first feature for Sprudge.
Photos courtesy of YanYan Wan.