Hello. My name is Susan and I am afflicted with coffee obsession.
As an emancipated green-apron barista and a sometimes local food enthusiast, my first Thai supermarket trip included a significant time investment in the coffee aisle, plowing under stacks of instant, sugary crap in a packet hoping to taste this place hosting me through the local caffeine source. Though Thailand is not a major coffee exporter, the mountains nearby provide small microclimates where the plants can be cultivated, and I wanted to hide them in my stomach.
I’ve sampled several blends grown in the Chiang Mai province for the past few weeks. They’re good. Complex, yet drinkable. With a price point of about $5 per bag of grounds, it’s not a steal, but it is half the cost of similar products available back home. The beans are tasty enough for me to question the proliferation of red packets of pre-sweetened crap riddled with dry milk powder when the good stuff grows just a few miles out of town.
Being a coffee nerd, I had been wondering about touring a farm or otherwise seeing my first vice thriving and growing up close and personal, but had come up dry with practical opportunities. As such, I may have been a touch obnoxious on a group hike when I spotted a sign indicating a field as a university’s agricultural coffee experiment. Coffee! Growing! On a plant! Right in front of me!
When the hike continued to a Hmong village with coffee shops separated by bean sorting trays, I went into overdrive. I was experiencing a real-life a mash-up of picture-book lessons from the green mermaid in the sky and college lectures on adding value to local commodities as a tool for indigenous communities to preserve independence and economic viability in a globalizing world. If you didn’t already know, that last sentence surely proved that I am a physical embodiment of Stuff White People Like and a trove of source material for Portlandia. Carrie, you can call me whenever you want. I’ll write the second season for you.
I ambled between the village’s two shops anxiously, ignoring my hike friends and Andy, trying to photograph the bean trays with an iPhone, trying not be the asshole totally gawking at what is a normal day of life for the people living in the village. I wandered back to Andy, who wisely grabbed a spot in line, and grabbed a cup of locally grown and roasted french-pressed coffee.
This coffee was fantastic, so much so that I chugged it without thinking. It was the perfect cup: not scaldingly hot, roast oils floating on top (paper filters rob your coffee of everything beautiful), aromatic, medium-bodied with a hint of coffee silt, and completely enhanced by the surroundings. I should also mention that a few minutes earlier I had basically descended a mountain by surfing on pine needle brush and running into trees, because I’m not as good at walking as everyone else, so panicky brain chemicals were probably enhancing my experience.
I would strongly recommend a hike with a stop for coffee to travelers coming through Chiang Mai who want to interact with the landscape and regional hill tribes. Even if you’re not as freaky as me when it comes to coffee, seeing the whole process from growing plants, to bean sorting trays, to roasting sheds, to point-of-sale is pretty cool. This is also a good way to see the hill tribes, as it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. You purchase a coffee and some crafty handiwork and get to enjoy the surroundings while the community gets a bit of cash. It’s a normal vendor-customer relationship.
I’ve avoided the hill tribe treks advertised about Chiang Mai because they look like visits to a human zoo. Signs reading “Come see the longnecks!” hang adjacent to advertisements for Tiger Kingdom and the Elephant Nature Preserve. For those who are wondering, “the longnecks” are the Karen people, the largest indigenous group in Thailand, not giraffes or other animals. Tourism in these villages sometimes forces residents into a sort of circus; residents have to dress up and parade around for visitors who can take pictures, but might not learn anything about their culture, history, or struggles. It’s not clear if the residents are actually benefitting from this arrangement, or how much of the tour fees make their way to the village.
I did notice some folks on the hike getting cameras all up in the faces of the people serving coffee. The appropriate thing to do for those who want to document their experiences without being total assholes is to ask for permission to take a photo. If you can’t speak Thai, you can communicate through body language.
A Tiny Bit of the Geography of Coffee, Because I Can’t Help Myself
From Seattle to Italy, the places most famous for brewing artisinal coffee don’t often have the climate to grow coffee plants. The famous roasters, blenders, and slingers must source their beans from areas in Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Central America, areas between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn that provide the wholesome home environment required of young, whipper-snappery plants.
The coffee plant is needy; it requires a temperate climate, no warmer than 80 degrees and no cooler than about 55, and a moderate amount of sunshine and rainfall to produce the bright red coffee berries we depend on. Mess with its perfect climate and the plants seize production and occasionally die. Coffee farmers around the world are having a blast with climate change, which shows itself more bombastically in microclimates that produce single crops. In some areas, farmers can move to higher elevations to escape “coffee rust” and other issues, but as mountains are pointed, there is generally less farming space as elevation increases. If you want to get depressed, see my related links at the bottom of this post.
Hi! I'm Susan, and this is my travel journal. You can read more about me here.
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