By Tan Hui Yee
Regional correspondent in Bangkok
Coffee plants could be found in Thailand in the 1800s, but the industry’s growth was accelerated in the 1970s, after the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej introduced coffee as one of the replacement crops for hill tribes planting opium in the highlands.
Today, the mountains in northern Thailand are dotted with artisanal coffee plantations, fueling a cafe boom in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai as well as Bangkok.
Thailand remains a net importer of coffee and its production has been shrinking. According to data from International Coffee Organization, the Kingdom produced just 435,000 60kg bags last year, compared with 638,000 in 2013. Yet, consumption has been growing at compounded annual growth rate of 4.8 per cent every year.
The two-year-old Speciality Coffee Association of Thailand now has 400 members, says its international relations director Nutrada Kunavivattananon. There are also more than 2,000 independent cafes all over the country, many of which source and roast beans locally.
But competition is also fierce, notes Ms Nutrada, forcing even some good cafes to bow out of the scene.
If you are heading for the City of Angels, here are some coffee places to get your java fix.
1. Ceresia Coffee Roasters
Ceresia sources its beans from all over the world, roasting them in small batches and offering them on rotation. Its low-key brick and wood cafe, nestled in a lane opposite a Japanese-style supermarket, attracts a steady stream of regulars. Beans are roasted on-site, in a machine visible to customers through a tantalising window. Pair a drip coffee with a slice of carrot cake or croissant, or – if you want to take it further – sign up for one of its classes to learn about speciality coffee.
2. I+D Style Café x Brave Roasters
Have your coffee with a bird’s eye view of the warren of shops in Siam Square. This cafe, established by an independent roaster and tucked behind displays of designer accessories, puts some dramatic flair in its offerings.
Fancy a Brulee Latte, with a crown of burnt-sugar milk foam? Or Death By Coffee, which promises “super intense” flavours with its “secret milk shake recipe”?
Food choices are varied, ranging from quinoa and barley salad to heartier choices such as crispy pork curry pasta. The curry pasta lives up to its description, with generous chunks of pork deep-fried to crunchy perfection.
3. Mix & Munch
More a health food restaurant than a cafe per se, Mix & Munch nevertheless offers an airy, contemplative space near the busy Asok intersection to nurse an espresso with some low-calorie bites.
Vegans can choose from apple crumble, chocolate cranberry cookie and brownies. Those preferring a larger meal can opt for sets including seared tuna, sesame spinach and rice berry – all served with a note telling you exactly how many calories you are consuming.
4. Pacamara Coffee Roasters
Pacamara started as a boutique coffee supplier in Chiangmai province. Its retail offshoot in Bangkok’s upmarket Thonglor district bears a sign that that says “speciality coffee lab”. Inside, budding baristas due to take lessons in the white-walled classroom next door nurse their brews. Staff behind the bar offer newcomers a “nitro cold brew”, or cold-brew coffee infused with nitrogen gas and served from a tap like beer.
Savoury items on the menu include duck leg with mocha sauce. The dessert list features, among other things, green tea pancakes, which come in a majestic tower layered with fresh berries and drizzled with green tea sauce.
5. Paris Mikki
Travel up to the sixth floor of Central Embassy mall and you will enter a massive open-concept bookstore where tomes grace a soft-lit double-storey space.
Interspersed among the bookshelves are kitchen islands offering cuisine from some well-regarded eateries around Bangkok. Paris Mikki sits nicely in there, enticing the book-browsing crowd with eclairs and tarts by French-trained pastry chef Carol Boosaba that look too pretty to eat. Fresh espresso is available to complete the leisurely afternoon.
6. Sati Handcraft Coffee
Blink and you will miss it. Coffee hunters have to enter a yogurt shop across a busy street from the government’s public relations department to find this nook. Succeed and you will be greeted by the sight of a courtyard with an ageing piano shaded by a tree, next to a glasshouse where caffeinated concoctions are brewed.
Espresso, filtered coffee and salted yogurt soda are available, together with its signature drinks, masala chai latte and peanut butter latte. The latter is served smooth and fragrant in a peanut-rimmed cup, enough fuel for someone wanting to try making some wood handicraft in the shared workshop next door.
7. Some Time Blue
Award-winning drip coffee specialist Sutida Srirungthum helms this cosy nook with Victorian-inspired furnishings, tucked deep in a leafy residential neighbourhood. One of her bestsellers is the Gravity Latte, where cold coffee slowly seeps into a glass of cream, blurring the line between food and drink.
Food offerings are limited, but done well – its pancakes with bacon and a sunny-side up egg comes with the crispy pork dusted with just a hint of icing sugar.
Diners may also try spotting Ms Sutida’s shy black cat.
8. Wonderwall The Kaffebar
“Chin up! Chin up!” urges the panel above Wonderwall’s entrance. Its dark homey interior gives some welcome respite in a neighbourhood brimming with cool bars and cafes. Light snacks such as waffles and fruit with muesli are available, as well as pies and quiches. For a refreshing summer drink, try the espresso cube latte, where frozen cubes of coffee are served with a small jug of milk.
9. Hya Tai Ke
Balding men in safari suits sip their Chinese tea, trying to hold a conversation around marble-topped tables above the din of traffic. This traditional coffee shop, with walls covered with photographs of patriarchs and matriarchs long gone, offers a comfortable pit stop for seniors passing by the busy Visutkasat junction. Since its establishment in 1952, it has spawned four other branches, but this original outlet retains its retro charm. Its menu has been updated to include lattes and cappuccinos as well as fried eggs and hamburgers alongside deep-fried fish tofu.
There is no air-conditioning, but the overhead fans allow for a breezy, nostalgic breakfast.
10. Luka Cafe
Wood tables and bare concrete columns make an eclectic setting for this cafe, which sits beneath a furniture showroom that is also open to guests. The menu is extensive, ranging from brunch favourites such as truffle mushroom scramble and toast to buttermilk fried chicken sandwiches and sloppy meatballs with a brioche bun. Crispy eggplant fries were offered as one of its June specials. In July, it offered zucchini fritters.
It offers Thai-grown and-roasted espresso blends, including organic ones, as well as a wide range of single-origin tea.