Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, has a reputation as a foodie heaven. What I hadn’t realised, until I got here, was that it is a speciality coffee heaven too, with a strong emphasis on Thai-grown coffee and with the third-wave philosophy of farm-to-cup put into practice. Without even trying, I had a list of more than 10 places to try, although top of pretty much everyone’s list is Akha Ama Coffee.
A social enterprise, with direct relationships with Thai coffee farmers, Akha Ama has been going since 2010. There are three branches so far, two coffee shops in Chiang Mai itself and a new roastery/coffee shop, Akha Ama Living Factory, about 20km north of the city. The focus of today’s Coffee Spot, Akha Ama Coffee La Fattoria, is the second of the two coffee shops and the one you are most likely to come across since it’s right in the centre of the old city.
Serving a variety of Thai coffee, mostly as blends, but with some single-origins, there’s a choice of both hot and cold/iced coffee on espresso and pour-over. There’s also a decent range of beans which you can buy. If you’re hungry, there’s a limited cake selection.
Welcome to the latest instalment of Brian’s Travel Spot, which is, I appreciate, posted somewhat out of order, since I’ve not finished telling you about my previous American adventures. However, I’m sitting on the Chiang Mai sleeper as I write this, not long after dawn, and we’ve just begun our ascent into the mountains, so I thought this was the perfect time to publish this.
I flew into Bangkok on Monday morning (having left Heathrow on Sunday afternoon) and spent the rest of the week in western hotels, cocooned in meeting rooms and air-conditioning, rarely being let out for long enough to see anything of the city, although I will have a weekend there when I get back from Chiang Mai. I can tell you, from the odd times I ventured out, that it’s hot (~35⁰C most days) and incredibly humid, with the river, which I was staying by, providing a welcome breeze.
After five days of this, I escaped and made my way to Hua Lamphong station in the centre of Bangkok to catch the Chiang Mai sleeper, 13 hours on a train (the “special express” no less) to the heart of Thailand’s mountain country to the north.
I’m currently in Thailand, which, I appreciate, isn’t Vietnam, but the climate and general feel of Thailand very much reminds me of Vietnam, which puts me in mind of my trip there last year. I found a lot of great coffee in Vietnam, including Shin Coffee, a small roaster/coffee shop chain in Ho Chi Minh City. Shin was a recommendation from Vietnam Coffee Republic, which I’d visited the day before. However, on my way there, I’d already spotted Shin and added it to my “should investigate further” list.
Shin had caught my eye from the street, with the rather provocative “speciality coffee” written on the window. Add to this a tagline of “best coffee in town”, this suggests that either it is very, very good, or full of bullshit. Fortunately, it was the former. Shin roasts all its own coffee, all Arabica, including a range of Vietnamese blends and a few single-origins from both Vietnam and around the world. There’s a traditional espresso-based menu (using a blend of Ethiopian and Vietnamese coffee), plus V60, Syphon, Aeropress and Cafetiere, as well as traditional Vietnamese filter coffee. Shin was also the first place I visited in Vietnam that serves decaf.
Having grown up just over the border in North Wales, Chester is, in many ways, my home city. I frequently pass though on my way to/from my Dad’s, but rarely stop, partly due to circumstance, but also because, when it comes to coffee, there’s not much to entice me to get off one stop earlier at Chester Station. However, with the arrival of the likes of Moss Coffee, that’s slowly changing.
Chester has struggled a little with speciality coffee. Apart from the well-established The Barista’s and Jaunty Goat, coffee shops, such as Moon Beer & Coffee, have tended to come and go. Hopefully Moss Coffee can buck that trend. It’s off to good start, serving an espresso-based menu with the Arboretum blend from Dark Woods, along with a small selection of locally-baked cakes. The owner, Daniel, is keeping things simple for now, with plans to expand in the future.
For a long time, speciality coffee in Portsmouth and Southsea was left to the pioneering few, including Canvas Coffee (Portsmouth) and Southsea Coffee Co (Southsea). Recently, however, this has changed, with several number, including Hunter Gatherer Coffee on Southsea’s Albert Road, entering the fray.
The labour of love of a fellow Brian, Hunter Gatherer was many years in the making. In an example of the supportive nature of the local coffee community, when Brian first had the idea for Hunter Gatherer, he knew he didn’t have the coffee know-how, so Canvas Coffee gave him a job, allowing him to gain the necessary skills. After two years at Canvas, Brian found the right location, Hunter Gatherer opening in September 2016.
Serving a house-blend from West Sussex’s Craft House Coffee, Hunter Gatherer also does pour-over, with one option from Craft House and another from a guest roaster, served through either V60 or Aeropress. There is also a brunch menu, now totally vegetarian/vegan, which is available until 3 pm each day. This seems surprising, given Hunter Gatherer’s small size, but appearances can be deceptive. It goes a long way back, with a large, basement-like rear section housing additional seating and the kitchen.
As anyone who travels by train in the UK knows, good coffee is hard to come by. Every now and then, a coffee stand, such as The Flying Coffee Bean in my home town of Guildford, or Glasgow’s Luckie Beans, provides welcome relief, but a proper, sit-down speciality coffee shop is a rare find. This makes Canvas Coffee, located in the old station buffet on the concourse of Portsmouth and Southsea station, such a delight.
Since opening in a small kiosk across the concourse in March 2014, Canvas has gone from strength-to-strength, moving into the vacant station buffet six months later and slowly growing to occupy the entire space. In many ways, it’s a typical station coffee shop, with commuters calling in for their morning coffee on the way to the train or office, while a steady stream of people and their luggage kill time before their trains.
However, it’s more than that. With the Drake Blend from Winchester’s The Roasting Party served from a concise espresso-based menu, backed up with a range of options for lunch, plus cake throughout the day, it’s a destination in its own right, a large, spacious coffee shop that would grace any city.
Bluestone Lane is the Aussie-inspired chain which, having started in New York, made its way to Philadelphia in November 2015 and now boasts branches as far afield as San Francisco and Los Angeles. I first came across the Broad Street branch in Manhattan’s financial district. Small and cosy, this was very much a coffee shop, one of 17 that Bluestone Lane now boasts. At the other end of the scale, Rittenhouse Square is very much a café, currently one of eight such Bluestone Lane establishments, offering full table service and an Aussie-inspired all-day brunch menu, containing such Aussie standards as banana bread, avocado smash and various egg-based dishes, all backed-up by an interesting selection of cake. Large, bright and airy, it’s as far as you can get from my experience in Manhattan.
Turning to coffee, there’s a standard (for Australia/UK) espresso-based menu with a single-origin espresso, plus a blend (Maverick) that’s used in milk-based drinks, which include piccolos and flat whites alongside the more familiar (for America) cappuccinos and lattes. Pleasingly, all are served in suitably small-sized glasses/cups. There’s also bulk-brew for those who fancy filter. Having originally sourced its coffee from San Francisco’s Sightglass, it’s now all roasted in-house.
From Australia to Sloan Square via Winchester: Party on Pavilion is the first (for now) coffee shop of Winchester-based Aussie imports, The Roasting Party. It opened in August last year and I popped along during its second week with a promise that I would return the following month after a trip to Chicago. Seven months later and slightly shame-faced, I finally made my return on a sunny Friday afternoon after a hectic travel schedule that had seen me return to Chicago and China at the end of last year with two trips to the USA this year.
From the street, Party on Pavilion looks to be a tiny spot, just a counter and a bench, but don’t let that put you off. There’s a staircase off to the right which seems almost an afterthought. This leads to the Party’s best feature, a sunny loft space which runs the full length of the building, where there’s plenty of seating.
When it comes to the coffee, the Roasting Party’s Drake Blend is on espresso, with the Party Blend reserved for milk-based drinks. There’s also a selection of two or three single-origins which change every few weeks, available through either Chemex or Aeropress.
Welcome to this instalment of what I have somewhat ambitiously called Another Grand Adventure, part of my occasional Travel Spot series. It follows my second long-distance American train trip, which saw me travelling from Boston, in New England, to Phoenix, in the south west, by train. Well, almost.
I actually went from Providence to Tucson by train, driving the first and last legs. If I’d had the courage of my convictions, I’d have carried on from Tucson to Los Angeles so that I could have completed my second coast-to-coast train journey. However, given that I actually had to be in Phoenix for work, this would have required me to turn around and come straight back again once I got to LA. That would have been rather extreme, even for me.
The trip started with my flight to Boston, while the second instalment covers the series of short journeys I took along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor from Providence to Manassas, south of Washington DC. This instalment takes us from Manassas to New Orleans, travelling on Amtrak’s Crescent Service, while the remaining two instalments will cover the leg from New Orleans to Tucson on the Sunset Limited and my flight back from Phoenix.
On a busy corner in Stokes Croft in Bristol, opposite Cafe Kino, stands a five-sided building, home to one of a new breed of coffee shop. The Elemental Collective is many things to many people: as well as a coffee shop, it’s a greengrocers, selling fresh fruit and vegetables, a bakers, loaded with freshly-baked bread and pastries, plus a store, stocked with local produce, including milk and eggs. And it’s not just a coffee shop, since it’s also home to Triple Co Roast with the roastery clearly on show at the back on the right, while on the left the Elemental Espresso Bar serves Triple Co Roast’s output.
Triple Co Roast, which has built up an enviable reputation for roasting excellent coffee in a relatively short time, will feature in its own Meet the Roaster in due course, so this Coffee Spot will focus on the espresso bar. There’s a single-origin on espresso, with a different one on pour-over through the Clever Dripper. These change every month or so, although Jo, the man behind Triple Co Roast, doesn’t roast for a specific extraction method, so you may find a given coffee on espresso one month and on pour-over the next.