Organic Arabica coffee has given the impoverished Akha community in Chiang Rai's mountains a better life and earned their brand a global reputation
Chiang Rai was once best known to the world for its opium poppies and the infamous Golden Triangle. The triangle is still there and continues to offer magnificent views over neighbouring Myanmar and Laos. The endless poppy, on the other hand, are long gone, thanks to the hard work of the Royal Project, a non-profit organisation founded by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, which replaced the deadly crop with the much less dangerous, albeit equally influential, coffee shrub.
More than three decades later, Chiang Rai is now better known as the home of Thailand’s finest Arabica coffee, with bags of Doi Tung and Doi Chaang beans from this northern province selling like hot cakes both at home and abroad.
To test Chiang Rai’s new dragon, we travel far beyond the stylish coffee bars to Doi Chaang, a coffee estate in the Mae Suai highlands.
Doi Chaang’s story began in 1983 when village headman Pike Saedoo introduced the unknown Arabica crop to his Akha community, telling them it would help relieve their poverty by generating far more income than the fruit trees that had flourished but whose produce they were unable to sell.
His words proved prophetic: Today the organic Arabica coffee cultivated in this area is recognised by coffee lovers around the globe for its delicate, crisp flavour and dry finish and they are happy to cough up about Bt400 for a 250-gram bag of peaberry. The profits go straight back into the community, providing schools for the children and an easier, though far from luxurious life for the residents.
“Arabica beans must love high mountains,” I say to myself as our 4-wheel drive negotiates an impossibly narrow curve on the remote road.
Like the Akha themselves who build their modest abodes at the top of the mountain, Arabica shrubs flourish at high altitude. Thanks to a cold climate and abundant rainfall, the Arabica has found in Doi Chaang a perfect place to nurture its fruits.
After a white-knuckle ride, we arrive safely in the Akha community and are welcomed by Ardel, son of Pike Saedoo, and manager of Doi Chaang Coffee Original. He leads us to the village coffee shop where mugs of Espresso, Americano, Cappuccino, Latte and Mocha, both hot and cold, are placed on the table for us to sample. I sip the Espresso and search for the coffee connoisseur’s vocabulary to describe its character. The best I can come up with is bitter and a bit sour and while I like it, I would probably like it more if it were more aromatic.
“The flavour is supposed to linger in your mouth for sometime but not too long,” says Chartree Treelertkul, a coffee nut and serious taster who has joined our coffee trip to Doi Chaang.
“Doi Chaang has a medium body with a hint of flora. And it’s a bit nutty too.”
From our table overlooking the coffee mill we stare out over the sloping plantations covered with wild flowers that stretch far into the valley. Visitors arrive from time to time in their SUVs and even on bicycle. Most linger over their coffee before going for a walk around the coffee plantation.
“The harvest season takes place from November to March,” says Ardel. “The hilltribe people are paid o pick the ripe cherries by hand to ensure we collect the best fruits.
“Visitors are welcome to come and they can even sample a ripe cherry.”
The fruit is then washed, sorted by hand and soaked for 48 hours. After the pulp has been removed by machine, the beans, white and shiny, are left in the sun or a greenhouse for four days to dry.
Dried and flaking with a silver husk, they are shaken clean then again hand selected to ensure only the finest grade beans are roasted. The coffee is finally shipped out of the mountains to stylish coffee houses around the world.
“Doi Chaang has a unique flavour since it’s a single estate coffee. We don’t buy coffee from other places,” Ardel says.
If you go
_ Doi Chang is about 90 minutes by car from Chiang Rai town. The cherry flowers begin to bloom in February and the beans are ready for harvesting from November to March.