In Search of the Fairest Cup of All
[On a ten-week bicycle tour of Thailand, Matthew Kadey and Tabi Ferguson visit the Doi Chang in the mountains of Northern Thailand where the Akha tribe have replaced the poppy crop with coffe beans that are said to be the most flavorful in the world.]
By Matthew Kadey
My most woeful moment of the trip is now upon me. In the clutches of dehydration and legs wilted by a road that carves a sinuous route along impossibly steep grades, I am close to calling it a day and trying to coerce a pick-up driver to deliver me and my bike to the top of this evil mountain.
Between periods of roadside breaks, my girlfriend Tabi Ferguson is also ailing but encourages us to push on. “Only five more kilometers to an iced coffee,” she says matter-of-factly. And only five more kilometers to one of the most successful agricultural programs in all of the Kingdom of Thailand.
When conversation turns to the world’s great coffee growing nations, Ethiopia, Columbia and Jamaica are usual mentions. Thailand? Not so much. What comes to mind for most when they think of Thailand is opalescent beaches and fiery victuals. Yet, in one remote mountain community some of the most flavorful and sustainable coffee beans are being grown, harvested and brewed.
Rich in culture and tradition, shrouded in myth and legend, the Akha people of northern Thailand, who trace their lineage to Tibet, have no official written language but maintain a detailed oral history and live life according to the “Akha Way,” a spiritual, moral and social philosophy that governs behavior and emphasizes strong ties to land and family.
There are roughly 80,000 colourfully-robed Akha living in Thailand’s northern mountainous provinces. Yet, of all the hill tribes, few in Thailand have been down-trodden, shunned or as impoverished as have the Akha people.
In an effort to improve their fortunes and eager for them to produce a profitable, more wholesome crop than poppies used to fuel the opium trade, His Majesty King Rama IX in the early 1980s set forth a royal decree insisting that destitute tribal families in the mountains of northern Thailand be given coffee sprouts.
During those humble beginnings, the Akha had to transport their beans on treacherous roads that became peanut butter in the rainy season 70 kilometers to the city of Chiang Rai where shady middlemen would pay them a pittance for their beans. The absence of Thai citizenship did not help their cause either.
On the knife edge of poverty, the community banded together to form the cooperative Doi Chaang Coffee Original Co., LTD. In doing so, there was strength in numbers and it became impossible for the coffee dealers to play one family against another. Going directly from grower to buyer, the Akha would finally earn a profit from their premium grade single-estate Arabica beans by selling them to markets throughout Asia.
Today, the village is playing host to an increasing number of tourists such as Tabi and I who are looking for something more out of Thailand than elephant rides and lazy days on the beach. As chance would have it, our ten-week bicycling sojourn in Thailand and Laos coincided with peak harvest season.
Under skies as sunny as the Disney Channel, my pedal partner Tabi and I arrived in Chiang Rai, a city nestled in the exotic and notorious Golden Triangle region of northern Thailand surrounded by some of the countries most dramatic, hill-tribe dotted mountains, with one thing on our minds: café yen. This ridiculously refreshing mix of coffee, ice and condensed milk is the perfect companion to sultry climates.
Prior to arrival, we were directed to visit the Doi Chaang coffee shop where we could quaff this chilled delight and arrange a visit to the mountain top Doi Chaang village. The coffee shop with a unmistakable relaxed vibe was established several years ago to showcase the coffee grown in the nearby mountains. With rumbling tummies, we were delighted to discover that they also rustle up some tasty baked goods.
We knew we were in for a cycling challenge when the shop’s employees looked perplexed that we wished to ride our pannier-laden bikes up to the coffee growing community. “It’s a long way up,” a young worker said, trying to keep her laugh suppressed. What’s a long way when you’re buzzed on java?
Faced with a 23-kilometer climb to reach the summit of Doi Chaang, one of Chiang Rai province’s tallest peaks, that we were told would involve a road that oscillates between steep and steeper, Tabi and I make sure to load up our bellies and panniers with the offerings from the Chiang Rai morning market.
Gastronomes laud South East Asia for their abundance of bustling food markets that offer a dizzying array of local produce, meat and unidentifiables for prices that leave you agog to buy plenty. Like other markets throughout Thailand, this one is a busy affair redolent of hunger-inducing aromas and where gossiping seems to be a past-time. Or perhaps the market ladies are just laughing at my fumbled attempts at the Thai language. You try saying “kob kun krab” – meaning thank you in Thai – with a mouthful of sticky rice!
Mercifully, the 50-kilometers from Chiang Rai to the turn-off for Doi Chaang are mostly flat. For me, the ride is filled with plenty of angst as I’m less than confident my legs will propel me to the summit. A previous bike trip to northern Thailand demonstrated just how arduous the climbs can be.
Thailand roads have a nasty habit of going up quicker than Mark Zuckerbergs’ bank account instead of winding gradually along and around mountains. I make sure to send plenty of noodle soup down the gullet at the junction restaurant in a sorry attempt to carbohydrate load.
The three hour ride ends up being a verdant blur of sun blasted ridgelines, copious views and punishing inclines as the beauty of the region confronts us with every sloth-like pedal stroke. Despite the laborious task, I’m content that this road through a remote wild country is ultimately best plied in the saddle of a bike than behind a steering wheel.
With the gas tank well below red, we finally reach the Doi Chaang Coffee House, a quant coffee shop atop the eponymous mountain were the air is redolent of freshly brewed java. I collapse in a chair like a brave fish taken from the sea after a momentous battle with its captor.
At the table across from us sits Panachai Pisailert (who is often called “Adel”), the managing director of Doi Chaang Coffee Company who assures us that many cyclists ride up here. Deflated, I want to huck the espresso machine at him. Two café yen’s are placed on the table in front of us and all is instantly forgiven.
Adel is an easy-going man who we quickly take a liking to over dinner that blissfully contains mountains of tasty Thai eats. After gorging on rice like it’s about to become extinct, Adel takes Tabi and I on an initial tour of the on-site coffee processing facilities. Booming machines shake back and forth separating beans into different grades while sorters meticulously finish the job. The facilities appear spotless not to mention well organized.
“About two thousand tons of coffee come through here every year,” Adel says with unabashed pride. I’m trying to keep up my enthusiasm, but by 9 p.m. my eyelids are leaden, and I can no longer stay up to try my hand at manual coffee bean sorting or admire the night sky that has become ablaze in laser-sharp stars. After we turn out the lights, the darkness is absolute, and I fall sound asleep and dream of how I conquered Doi Chaang as if I was certain 7-time Tour winner.
We are awakened as the sun is just starting to sneak its way up the mountain to the sounds of rakes as they spread out the noble beans to dry under the big, yellow orb and the revving engines of pick-ups as they whisk pickers to the plantations. Thankfully, the coffee shop is already brewing up goodness. Heavyweights in the industry have ranked Doi Chaang coffee as amongst the most flavorful in the world.
At breakfast replete with espresso and Americano, we meet up with Miga Saedoo, an administration manager at Doi Chaang. She is a slight, cordial woman of Akha background who is content plying us with as much coffee as we can drink. Miga looks around at her crew and says brightly, “Drink up!”
With a good buzz on, Miga takes us to the Doi Chaang Coffee Academy located on lush grounds nearby. With some of the profits funnelled back to the community from the sale of their fair trade coffee around the globe, the cooperative built the academy to help foster farmer’s education in such fields as quality control and sustainable agriculture.
On a table rests a model of the school that Miga says the community hopes to build in the near future. It’s an impressive looking structure that will house hundreds of children from Doi Chaang and the surrounding villages. Coffee profits have also been used to upgrade coffee processing equipment, improve access to safe drinking water and operate a medical center.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, but it seems things are looking up for this once ostracized hill-tribe community. Film crews from North America have even shown up to document this feel-good success story.
In 2007, the energetic farming community partnered with a Vancouver-based company to introduce their coffee to the North American market. In many ways, it’s one of the most forward-thinking business arrangements in the coffee biz. The farmers maintain total ownership and control over their own Thai company and domestic sales.
In addition, without any cost incurred to them, they also have 50 percent ownership in the Canadian company, Doi Chaang Coffee Company, Inc, created to roast and distribute Doi Chaang coffee in North America and Europe and who buys the beans from the cooperative for double the going Fair Trade price. You could say that it’s Fair Trade on steroids.
The remainder of our day is spent driving to different areas of the Doi Chaang property with plant manager Kitsadathun Wuiyue on roads so pitted that the very word ‘rough’ seems comically inappropriate.
Despite being tossed around like a basketball, it’s hard not to be captivated by the glorious setting as we soak in the sylvan setting around us. Located at a temperate 1,300 meters and blessed with very fertile soil, the Doi Chaang area, which includes over 6,000 acres of coffee plants, is an ideal environment for cultivating superior organic coffee.
In the fields under a blazing mid-day sun, workers are busy picking ripe, ruby red berries and placing them in hand-woven baskets. From here, the berries will be taken to a washing station, pulped, soak, sun dried and much more.
I’ll leave this mountain humbled by the amount of work involved in the journey from tree to latte. Suddenly, three bucks for Fair Trade, organic coffee doesn’t seem so outlandish.
Being tea aficionados, we are excited to come upon a patch of tea bushes. To diversify their income, the cooperative is now producing a number of other products including exquisite oolong tea, sexy black coffee soap, floral tasting coffee blossom honey and macadamia nuts whose trees provide shade for the shade-loving coffee plants.
Wild civit cats lurk in the canopy ready to nosh on their cherished coffee cherries come nightfall. The cherries go in one end and beans come out the other. Amazingly, java die-hards buy this cat poo coffee for big bucks.
On the bouncy drive back to the coffee shop for a much needed iced coffee fix, we visit the house of Piko Saedoo, whose noble portrait is plastered on every bag of Doi Chaang coffee. A village elder, Piko was one of the first Akha tribesmen to trade in opium cultivation for coffee. This day, however, he’s engrossed in his television show, so I decide I’ll wait another day to ask this rock star of the coffee world for an autograph.
After gassing up on more caffeine, it was time for a rip roaring descent back to Chiang Rai. While Thailand remains but a speck on the coffee producing radar, the passion and commitment to community up here in the mountains and clean air is strong enough that it’s only a matter of time before Doi Chaang coffee is being sipped in more coffee shops, restaurants and kitchens around the globe.
As we whiz by thatch huts that dot the mountains, my thoughts however are being dominated by only one thing – the iced coffee awaiting at the bottom.
Want to go?
Visits to the Doi Chaang village can be arranged through the Doi Chaang @ Art coffee shop in Chiang Rai, Rattanakhet Rd, Chiang Rai City, 053-752918 / 086-73007
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Registered Dietitian, Nutrition and Travel Writer, Professional Recipe Developer, Travel and Food Photographer, and Cookbook Author. Matthew Kadey has visited Ethiopia, Syria, Myanmar, Jordan, Ireland, New Zealand, Belize, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Mexico. Many of these trips have taken place by bicycle. Sure points A and B are interesting, but it is what’s between them that is really exciting.