Coffee in America seems to lean toward two general categories. Motor oil on the one hand and fussy, hipster-approved, mysteriously-named, pretentious bean juice on the other.
In Thailand, there is something else going on.
First off, Thailand is absolutely littered with coffee shops. There is seemingly no end to them. enormous espresso machines with their polished chrome fittings gleam from everywhere you look. Tucked in every corner of the urban landscape, you would not have been surprised if you managed to find a coffee shop in a coffee shop like Russian dolls. Many shops roast their own beans. Nearly everywhere we went, the results were the same. Perfect temperature, exacting density of foam, perfect balance of rich milk and earthy, inviting espresso.
Just like the food, location or swankiness of the venue was no indicator of how good the coffee would be. The least assuming, hardest-to-find places would often turn out the best results. Only on one occasion was I betrayed by a shop tucked away on a side street in the old city. Then again, it was also the only bad meal I had in Chiang Mai. Open late at night in an area frequented by scrungy backpackers, it was perhaps not surprising they were not making any special effort.
Like the food, there was also an inventiveness to the coffee offerings that went beyond anything I had ever seen. While the phrase “nitro cold brew” has crept into many coffee circles in the States, there were iterations on it that go beyond what I have personally ever had from the likes of Stumptown.
Unlike the food, having fresh ingredients seemed not to be the key. We had some great coffee sourced from the locally popular Doi Chaang plantation in northern Thailand, but other shops would proudly tout the Columbian or African sources of their beans. Somehow what made it into the cup was just better, even if it came half way around the world with us from the Americas.
Standing out in this crowded field was Ristr8to. Hip and urban by any standard, the experimental coffee shop was a favorite. Their menu was littered with accolades from latte art competitions the world over. The coffee came in everything from test tubes to skull-shaped glasses to more traditional vessels. From mild to bold, all of it was spot on.
Head and shoulders above them all was the Nimmanian Club. Tucked in an unassuming stall on a back street off Nimman Road, this shop stretched the bounds of credulity. The proprietor was a former bartender who traded in his liquor bottles for a cappuccino machine, but brought his skills in mixology along for the ride.
A favorite was the Caramello, begun by caramelizing raw sugar in the bottom of a coffee mug with a kitchen torch. The smoky, sweet undertones in the resulting latte-like beverage were unlike anything else I have ever had in a ceramic mug. Upon trying one of these concoctions, my friend Devin took his first sip, then held his hand up for silence as he let the amazement sink in. It was just that good.
As with the food in Thailand, presentation is for the eyes as well as the stomach. the butterfly pea tea was served on a tray specially decorated with flower petals for each order. It was an event unto itself with multiple jars and a solid ice ball that nearly filled the oversized glass.
As the last week of our time in Chiang Mai rolled around, Tia and I would look at each other and sigh. We knew we were drinking the best, the cheapest and the most plentiful coffee we ever had or were likely to have for a long time. There is good coffee elsewhere in the world, but truly great coffee is hard to find.
We consoled ourselves with the knowledge we were going home by way of Australia and New Zealand. As we shuffled across the Southern Hemisphere, the local favorite “flat white” would be waiting for us. We had dreamed about those ever since leaving Aukland last year, and the prospect of returning to a drink very hard to find outside of New Zealand and Australia was deeply exiting. We had even planned out a tour of the cafés near where we would be staying to make sure none went untasted during our short stay.
For all our excitement about what lay ahead, we knew deep down we would be leaving the best coffee, and even the best flat whites, behind us when the plane took off for Singapore.