Photo courtesy of Akha Ama
If you Google “Thai Coffee” you’ll be led into a world of very sweet, milky iced coffee drinks, often flavored and almost always with sweetened condensed milk (I know). And while that’s still the most common coffee beverage in Thailand, that trend is changing.
In 2014, I (Dan) had the pleasure of meeting with Ayu “Lee” Cheupa to talk about the coffee industry of Southeast Asia. Lee is an inspiring social innovator in Chiang Mai, Thailand, who is leading a radical transformation of coffee cultivation in his rural home village.
Lee spoke about his good fortune and the payoff he received from his years of hard work and formal education. And how when he returned to his village after completing his studies, the community couldn’t understand why. When he told them he had returned with ambitions to produce better coffee, they didn’t trust him. To them, coffee was simply a cash crop commodity sold to middlemen, and never lucrative.
During that first season, Lee’s family and a few charitable neighbors followed his guidance on cultivating a small portion of their coffee differently, including processing their beans with equipment Lee acquired. And, instead of selling those beans to a middleman, Lee took samples on the road, giving them out to every willing soul. Eventually, Lee sold these high-quality beans at prices his village partners had never seen. The following year, many more farmers signed on to what would soon become Akha Ama coffee.
In 2010, 2011 and 2012, Akha Ama was selected into the World Cup Taster’s Championship by the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe, and they presently run three non-descript cafés in Chiang Mai. But as I sat across the table from Lee, sipping my coffee and in awe of his story and commitment, I realized this young man and his coffee are far from non-descript. He has accomplished something spectacular: for himself, for his small village of 32 families, and for the world of coffee.
When he left my office, he was on his way to spend several days with some of the most notable coffee roasters on the West Coast; sharing his amazing coffee and learning more about roasting and preparation — that wonderful feedback loop that continually moves the coffee industry forward.
Lee didn’t single-handedly change the world’s view of “Thai Coffee,” but he is a powerful force fueling that change; not simply in perception, but in the quality of coffee that finds its way into our morning cups.
And, while not from Lee’s village, we have been buying coffee from friends that are helping another Chiang Mai village, Doi Wiang, produce increasingly better coffee. We were happy to land a limited shipment of a wonderful natural coffee last week that we don’t expect to last long. Mild, sweet berries and a hint of nuttiness. From Thailand. Who would’ve thought?