Enough coffee of the Robusta species is produced in Thailand to make it the world’s ninth-largest producer of that species in 2021. Of more interest to readers of this book, however, may be the relatively small volumes of Arabica grown in the tribal highlands of northern Thailand, in the Thai portion of the Golden Triangle, a mountainous region shared among Thailand, Myanmar and Laos and long famous for its production of opium poppies. This region is home to hill tribes, semi-nomadic peoples with cultures and languages distinct from one another and from the majority peoples of the cities and agricultural lowlands that dominate society in Thailand and neighboring countries.
In Thailand these “highland Thais” remain largely outsiders in their own country, literally non-citizens, alienated and impoverished. Starting in the 1970s various agencies began to see coffee as one potential replacement cash crop for opium and began to sporadically encourage coffee growing in the Thai portion of the Golden Triangle.
These efforts apparently had little success owing to the relentless leveling impact of the commodity coffee system, until the opportunities offered by specialty coffee emerged as an alternative path to market. The first Thai producers to seize on this opportunity, and rather spectacularly, were the mainly Akha people of Doi Chaang village in Chiang Rai Province, led by the late Wicha Promyong, a charismatic Thai artist, musician and entrepreneur. Assisted by a key partnership with a Canadian businessman, John M. Darch, Doi Chaang Village developed what is to date one of the more successfully vertically integrated small-holder coffee cooperatives in the world.
What is unusual about Doi Chaang is its success in managing to capitalize on the marketing and sale of its roasted coffees directly to consumers. Green-coffee cooperatives often attempt to roast and retail their own coffees, but for a variety of reasons — mainly difficulty in gaining access to retail markets outside their own country — this vertical integration has proven to be difficult to achieve. At any rate, Doi Chaang Coffee has succeeded to a greater degree than most, with nearly all of its coffees sold roasted under the Doi Chaang name in Thailand, other Asian countries and in Canada.
The Doi Chaang story has been documented by coffee historian and writer Mark Pendergrast in his engaging book Beyond Fair Trade: How One Small Coffee Company Helped Transform a Hillside Village in Thailand. Lovers of light-roasted or medium roasted coffees may be disappointed by Doi Chaang retail offerings, however, since most are roasted rather dark.
Other Thai companies produce Arabica coffees from the same Golden Triangle region. These coffees usually make allusion to the Doi Chaang region in their naming or sales materials. They can be quite pleasant coffees, although they seldom turn up outside of higher-end Thai and other Asian markets.
Thailand Coffee Ratings and Reviews
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