Graph Café is a lovely little coffee shop in the heart of old Chiang Mai which just happened to be at the other end of the lane from the guest house where I spent the second half of my week in the city. Coincidence? I think you can probably work that out for yourselves…
Part of a small chain, which consists of a brunch spot (Graph Table) on the next street over, a high-end coffee shop (Graph One Nimman) in the new One Nimman shopping mall, and a coffee shop/roastery (Gateway) on the main road into Chiang Mai, this is the original, a tiny spot serving some excellent Thai coffee, with a seasonal blend on espresso and a surprising range of single-origins on pour-over, all roasted at Gateway. There’s not much seating, with space for 10 inside (if everyone shares) and a few more sitting on the step out front.
What turned out to be one of my favourite spots during my recent trip to Chiang Mai was also one of the hardest to find, although it was well worth the effort. Cottontree Coffee Roasters epitomises much that is good about Chiang Mai’s (and, indeed, Thailand’s) growing speciality coffee scene. It’s relatively new, having been set up in 2015, catering to a local crowd, offering both Thai-grown and imported coffee, but with the light roasts beloved of the third wave. The name “Cottontree” by the way, is a play on the names of the owners, a lovely young couple, Fai (Cotton) and Ton (Tree).
The coffee shop, which doubles as the roastery, is perhaps the most beautiful of those I saw in Chiang Mai, which is saying something given how many beautiful coffee shops I found. With its high ceilings, and clean, uncluttered lines, it’s worth seeking out on aesthetic grounds alone. Cottontree roasts both Thai single-estate coffees and seasonal imports (currently Ethiopian and Kenyan single-origins). There are two options on espresso (one for espressos/ Americanos, the other for milk-based drinks) and two more on pour-over via V60, Chemex or Syphon. If you’re hungry, there’s a range of freshly-baked cakes and pastries.
Cherry Espresso Bar opened towards the end of 2016, although it’s been going since 2013, operating inside Stein’s Deli on Magazine Street. This branch, in the Uptown district, west of the Lower Garden District, is a bit of a trek, but well worth the effort. Occupying the ground floor of a lovely, sunny, south-facing building near the river, it’s very much a neighbourhood spot, but with multiple options on espresso and pour-over, plus full breakfast and lunch menus, served until three o’clock.
In many ways, I picked a poor time to visit. I arrived shortly before Cherry Espresso opened another branch in the Lower Garden District, midway between Uptown and the French Quarter, at the same time closing its original location. Cherry Espresso has also started roasting (as Cherry Coffee Roasters), with plans to move to its own coffee on espresso, but retaining a guest roaster on the second grinder.
For now, however, Portland’s Roseline provides the house espresso, while there is a rotating weekly guest single-origin on the second grinder, which was from Wisconsin’s Ruby Coffee Roasters during my visit. There are also two single-origins from Roseline available through the Chemex while Cherry’s own coffee is on the bulk-brewer.
When it comes to speciality coffee in Bangkok, one of the pioneers, and one of the few I’d heard about before I reached the city, was Gallery Drip Coffee, recommended by the ever-reliable Simon from Fancy a Cuppa? and featured in his excellent book, Crossing Paths, Crossing Borders. Located inside the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre, Gallery Drip Coffee only serves pour-over coffee (the clue is in the name), a style directly inspired by Japanese coffee culture.
It occupies a weirdly-shaped space inside the atrium of the Centre, with a long counter facing the door, which is where most of the action takes place. There are multiple single-origins on offer, seven while I was there, three of which were from Thailand and the rest from around the world, all roasted in-house. These are made using the V60, while there is also a house-blend of Thai coffee which is made using the Melitta filter and served with steamed milk to provide a latte substitute for those who like their coffee milky. Finally, if you want something sweet to go with your coffee, there’s a wide selection of cheesecakes and their ilk in a cooler cabinet at the end of the counter.
I’ve made (and will continue to make) much about Chiang Mai’s speciality coffee scene and its championing of Thai-grown coffee. However, it would be wrong to give the impression that this is all there is. There are also plenty of internationally-inspired places roasting/serving coffee from around the world. And where better to start than with Chiang Mai pioneer, Ristr8to, which boasts amongst its many achievements current world latte art champion, Arnon Thitiprasert, as head barista?
Ristr8to is a roaster and chain of four coffee shops, two Ristr8tos and two sister shops, under the name Doppio. The subject of today’s Coffee Spot is Ristr8to Lab, the second Ristr8to and, as well as a coffee shop in its own right, home to Ristr8to’s 6kg Giesen roaster. Serving a bewildering array of espresso-based drinks using its Black Hand blend and a different single-origin every month through no fewer than six filter preparation methods, it’s a real treat for coffee lovers.
However, you don’t have to be a coffee geek to appreciate Ristr8to. It’s a lovely spot with seating outside on the terrace or in the air-conditioned interior, plus there’s table service and a dedication to hospitality that I’ve come to expect in Thailand.
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.
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.
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.