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.
Rocket is a small chain of upmarket all-day brunch spots in Bangkok, serving some excellent coffee from the local Phil Coffee Co. This branch, Rocket S.12, is in the Silom district, east of the river, an interesting area of modern skyscrapers, interspersed with older, colonial-style buildings, where major, traffic-filled arteries, are interwoven with quiet, narrow lanes, all cut through by the concrete pillars of the elevated railway, making it a relatively easy destination to get to. I am, by the way, indebted to Lan Din Coffee for the heads-up about Rocket.
Rocket occupies a square space with a very modern/Nordic feel to it, all light woods and with a tiled floor. It shares the building with the restaurant next door (there is an open, connecting doorway at the back) but the two are separate businesses. There’s a very western-themed all-day brunch menu, backed up by a house-blend and decaf on espresso, plus five single-origins on pour-over, using a mixture of home-grown Thai coffee and various familiar origins from around the world. It’s also one of the few coffee shops that I came across in Thailand that takes credit cards, useful if it’s your last day and you’re short on cash!
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.
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 spent the first five days of my time in Thailand trapped in hotels with bad coffee and no chance to explore the coffee scene, before heading off to Chiang Mai for a week. However, I’d allowed myself three days on my return to Bangkok to explore the speciality coffee scene before flying back to the UK. After the joys of Chiang Mai, with its abundance of excellent coffee shops, I discovered that Bangkok also has an excellent speciality coffee scene, albeit one that is a little more spread out and takes a little more finding.
I’d already heard about Lan Din Coffee when the owner, Nico, got in touch on social media with some recommendations. Conveniently located around the corner from my new hotel in the Sathorn district (I wonder how that happened?) I made a beeline for Lan Din as soon as I got off the sleeper from Chiang Mai on Saturday morning. A delightful spot, it serves a primarily espresso-based menu using a blend of coffee from (ironically) Chiang Mai, although there is a secret pour-over option if you ask nicely, as well as a range of cakes and pastries, freshly baked behind the counter every day.
Last week I took the sleeper from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, a journey I related in the previous instalment of Brian’s Travel Spot. I had no firm plans for Chiang Mai, but a variety of circumstances (the poor air quality, the high temperature/humidity and, above all, my bad back, which has been getting steadily worse as the week’s gone on) conspired to convince me to stay in Chiang Mai itself for the whole week, where I spent my time exploring the local coffee scene, which, as it turns out, is excellent.
My plan had always been to return to Bangkok for the weekend before flying home on Monday, but I’d left the how/when open in case I decided to venture further afield when in Chiang Mai. With that ruled out, it was a simple question of how to get back. I briefly considered flying, but at twice the price of the sleeper, plus the hassle of getting to/from the airport, and the need to pay for an extra night in Bangkok, the balance was conclusively tipped in favour of the sleeper. Once that was decided, all I needed to do was work out which of the three available trains to take…
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.
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.