In late 2019, when I moved to Chiang Mai in Thailand. I was far from imagining the impact its culture and landscape would have on my life.
Surrounded by mountains and with a climate ideal for Arabica coffee production, the region has lived intensely for coffee for over 50 years. In the fields, in the cities, in small neighborhood coffee shops, everything revolves around this little bean and what it can provide us – and I couldn’t be further from that.
I was born and lived in Lisbon until I was 40. Portugal is a country where coffee is more of a commodity; a shot of adrenaline to wake up and an excuse to gather friends around the table to talk about mundane matters.
Served in the good old Italian way: short and in a very hot cup, coffee has to be good. Although most people can’t tell the difference between a coffee from Brazil or one from Colombia. For more than 100 years it has been known in any coffee shop in town as “BICA” (in Portuguese, the initials for “Drink This With Sugar”), which explains a lot about the relationship we have with coffee.
For me, coffee was a non-issue and I didn’t even drink it regularly. But once I set foot in Chiang Mai, I quickly realized that it is taken very seriously here and that it was inevitable that I would start appreciating it differently.
Suddenly, I discovered that coffee wasn’t “just” coffee. I discovered that there were dark, medium, and light roasts. I heard for the first time terms such as “washed process,” “natural process,” “honey process,” “anaerobic process”. When I ordered a coffee, I was asked if I liked fruity or floral, more acidic or sweeter. They pointed out the coffee’s region of origin, the variety, the altitude. And as if this were not enough, I was also asked about my favorite extraction method: V60, Chemex, Kalita, Melita? I had no idea. But I liked the idea very much. I hadn’t had a sip of coffee yet, and my neurons were already firing like corn popping in a small pot.
Coffee is to the Thai what wine is to the Portuguese:drinking it is an act of culture that pays tribute to a tradition and a group of people who do everything to offer us the best coffee possible – from the humble farmer to the cool barista who handpicks a trendy neighborhood in the city to set up his coffee shop.
Today, the coffee scene is a true phenomenon in Chiang Mai. With just over one million inhabitants, there are more than 2,000 specialty coffee shops scattered around the city, and it is practically impossible to know them all. You have to be lucky to discover that one coffee shop that is just right for you. But as a famous golfer once said when asked if you need luck to score a hole-in-one, here you train your luck every day.
A few months after touring dozens of coffee shops in the city, Chiang Mai’s coffee culture definitely entered my bloodstream. I met Pierre – a former designer who one day traded the hectic carousel of Bangkok for the slow, pleasant swing of Chiang Mai.
In an old Chinese antique store, Pierre has set up a small counter where the mostly northern coffee is brewed without haste. While we watch the ritual of coffee extraction in a kind of collective meditation, we hear fascinating stories and learn to value it more. Because, at least in Chiang Mai, coffee is not “only” coffee.
Gonçalo Loureiro is a Portuguese copywriter based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He didn’t drink any coffee until he moved to Thailand in 2019. But it was impossible to ignore the amazing coffee culture in the country. He is also a freelance food writer and has a blog where he tells stories on food and now, coffee. Follow him on Instagram here. And read his blog here.
The video is by Gonçalo. All images of Pierre in his coffeeshop are by Tunz, who you can follow on instagram here.