Plainspoken Coffee. A Coffee Review for Ordinary People by Ordinary People, #33.
The vast majority of the coffee grown in Thailand is robusta, grown in the southern part of the country and commonly doused with chemicals. In the late 1970s, planting of arabica coffee (and other crops) in the northern highlands was encouraged in order to replace the cultivation of opium poppies, as well as to counter deforestation from shifting agriculture practiced by many of the local ethnic groups, known as “hill tribes.”
The hill tribes of the northern Thailand have faced extreme challenges in the past several decades. When cultivation of opium poppies was outlawed in 1958, it forced these people to use more land to generate income and sustenance, a situation exacerbated by their increasing numbers, which have quadrupled the last 30 years; the growth rate is double that of the national average. The poverty of the hill tribes is further compounded by their cultural isolation, difficulty in attaining citizenship and land ownership, and lack of good access to education and other employment opportunities.
Until recently, much of the coffee grown in Thailand was typically used in the domestic market. The better arabica beans were mixed in with inferior beans, so some farmers were not receiving the prices their beans merited. Now some of the hill tribes in northern Thailand are working with partners to market their beans for export.
The Akha tribe of Chiang Rai province in the Golden Triangle is one. Their Canadian partners are Vancouver investment banker John Darch, trade and shipping executive Wayne Fallis, and Alberta roaster Shawn McDonald. McDonald’s coffee ventures include Planet Coffee Roasters and import/export company Mayan Winds. They’ve teamed up to form the Doi Chaang Coffee Company. The tribe’s coffee farmers, consisting of over 800 families, retains a 50% ownership in this company, and entirely owns their Thai-based company.
Doi Chaang coffee is grown on over 2400 ha in the vicinity of the village of Doi Chang (20.325, 99.839) in Chiang Rai province (highlighted on map above) at around 1200 meters. It is 50% Caturra, 35% Catimor, and 15% Catuai. The coffee is grown
under the shade of various fruit and nut trees, including macadamia, plum, pear, and peach. Reforestation efforts in the area strive for a 50/50 mix of native tree species and cash crop species (both marketable and consumable crops are necessary to replace the income formerly generated by poppy growing). The photo below shows some of the coffee and shade cover in Doi Chaang: there appears to be liberal use of shade trees and nice variety.
Doi Chaang offers eight varieties/roasts including aged and peaberry offerings. Green beans are also available. We reviewed the medium roast. Our expectation was that it might be slightly on the darker side of “medium,” since many south Asian/Indonesian coffees are roasted dark. But it was a typical medium roast with just a few pinpricks of oil. The aroma was interesting, and did lean towards an Indonesian bean. It was described by our panel as spicy (several people), woodsy, dry, tobacco/smoke, and (in the spirit of not dismissing anybody’s opinion) soy sauce, and meatloaf with gravy.
Those of us with more coffee tasting experience were anticipating a taste like a Sumatran or Timor. We were very surprised by the Doi Chaang coffee — it started out with more acidity than we expected, a juicy, tart beginning that was more reminiscent of a Central American. It was also much sweeter than we thought it would be, also like a Central, with a little hint of chocolate. As it cooled, it betrayed its heritage, with cedar and especially leather notes coming through, and it had a characteristically Indonesian heavy body. Overall, however, the Sumatran-like profile was muted and subtle, and mingled with classic Central American attributes. It was a really interesting and pleasing combination. Darker roasts, of course, might weigh in more on the Indonesian-like side.
We confess that brewed in a drip machine, it lost much of this intriguing nature. It was still pleasant, but both the bright sweetness and the sturdy leather spicyness were rather lost. It would not be a disappointment, but if you try the Doi Chaang, prepare it at least once in a French press to appreciate the subtle and satisfying interplay of flavors. The final tally was 3.25 motmots. Coffee Review tasted the peaberry and the dark roast varieties last year. UPDATE: We review the Doi Chaang Wild Civet coffee here.
The Doi Chaang project represents part of an effort towards sustainable agriculture and development in northern Thailand to provide economic stability for the hill tribes. Thailand has been losing forests at a higher rate than most other southeast Asian countries. Although mixed agriculture that includes coffee and other crops and native trees is not “reforestation” in a pure sense, it is certainly preferable to illegal logging and unsustainable farming practices. Some ventures to aid the hill tribes have met with criticism and failure, and one of the early problems was an inability to efficiently move and market cash crops. The energetic marketing efforts of Doi Chaang Coffee Company of a quality product, as well as the retention of ownership by the Akha, indicate this project is better concieved and executed, and much more of a success.
More general info:
- Reclaiming the Golden Triangle — Ecos Magazine (link to PDF)
- Thailand environmental profile — Mongabay
- Fragmentation and wildlife in montane evergreen forests, northern Thailand. Pattanavibool, A. and P. Dearden. 2002. Biol. Cons. 107:155-164.
- Secondary forest succession after the cessation of swidden cultivation in the montane forest area in Northern Thailand. 2008. Forest Ecol. Manage. doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2007.12.022