"A lot of people used to ask me, 'What can a 23-year-old do to change the world?'" Ayu "Lee" Chuepa says. Dressed in a loose plaid shirt and sporting a neatly trimmed mustache, he's a few years older now, but still has a boyish face and energy about him. He's leaning casually against the window of Akha Ama Fattoria, the second branch of his coffee shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand, drinking the potent, smooth espresso that's earned him fans around the globe. "They said, 'There are so many people with bigger pockets who they say that they'll do so many things for us, but they never do. You don't have money. You don't have power. Why should you be any different?'"
It was a fair question, as he readily acknowledges. Lee, a member of the Akha hill tribe native to Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and China's Yunnan province, hardly had the resources or know-how needed to launch a business at the time. As the son of coffee farmers in Maejantai, a rural village outside of Chiang Rai in the country's fertile north, this brew runs in his blood, but when he started he didn't know the first thing about how to make it. Nevertheless, he was well aware that there was a big difference between growing the plants and reaping the rewards, a fact that bothered Lee both during his time at university and working for a local NGO. "What's happened in Portland, LA, Seattle, Melbourne—there's this huge push towards specialty coffees, which have a fairly high economic worth," he tells me. "So why is it that the farmers who actually grow the coffee are still living in poverty? It's very curious, don't you think?"
Fast-forward six years and Akha Ama, Lee's coffee roastery, is booming. Patrons linger around the two cafés in Chiang Mai or purchase beans with notes of chocolate and spice by the kilo. His ambitious social enterprise has been singled out by the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe for three years, but what makes it stand out is how it has reshaped Lee's hometown community. Roughly 30 farmers, all members of the Akha tribe, grow the beans under sustainable conditions and receive some of the highest financial compensation in the world. Baristas and staff members are all carefully trained young tribe members, some of whom will go on to launch their own ventures.
"I want to see sustainability, self-sufficiency, and, of course, pass knowledge directly to the farmers," says Lee. "The whole idea behind this as a socially powered enterprise is that instead of telling the farmers to do this and that, we actually listen to them and hear what they need. Very often, the needs that we perceive may not be the highest priority for those people."
As Akha Ama has risen in popularity, it's also helped foster a distinctive coffee culture around the city. While corporate titans like Starbucks dominate the market in Bangkok, they've floundered in the northern city. Instead, Chiang Mai now boasts local alternatives such as Ristr8to, Graph Café, and One Day Drip, any of which could give Melbourne's baristas a run for their money. It was hardly an outcome anyone would have predicted a few years ago, especially given the fact that, at the time, Thai coffee didn't command much respect in its home country. Traditionally, it's served drowned in condensed milk and plenty of sugar—delicious, no doubt, but also an easy way to obscure the bitter taste of beans roasted until black.
"Thai people used to tell me, 'Oh, Thai coffee is terrible, certainly not something we can drink,'" he says.
Yet Thailand's tropical climate is ideal for growing coffee and there was no rational reason why the beans should be inferior. Poor roasting techniques and a certain snobbery on the part of the local elite were more to blame for its lacklustre reputation. "Of course, these were the same people who would go on and on about how Colombian, Ethiopian, or Costa Rica coffee was so good. I don't deny that those beans are good, but what's wrong with the idea of high-quality Thai coffee?"
Lee was determined to prove the naysayers wrong, despite having no idea what went into top-tier production.
"I thought, I don't even know how to grow coffee! I don't know how to process coffee! But my parents were like, 'Hey, Lee—cool down, man. People haven't seen what you can do yet. You have to prove to them that you understand their situation and want to tackle the same problems they're facing,'" he recalls. Luckily, his family believed in him enough to give him 2,000 kilos of beans to prove his point. "I asked them, 'If you weren't my parents, would you still give me the coffee?' They said, "Absolutely not. No way, kid. What the hell are you talking about?'"
In 2010, a few of those kilos went to the World Coffee Events in London. Lee all but forgot about them, until he received an email a couple months later informing him that the beans from his village were one of 21 types selected by the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe.
"I didn't believe it," he says with a laugh. "I thought there must have been a mistake. I wrote back, 'Are you serious?'"
That first bit of international recognition opened the floodgates. Before long, people were emailing, calling, and visiting in-person to find out more. One of those people happened to be Andy Ricker, the chef and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author who introduced many Americans to ballsy northern Thai dishes like khao soi (egg noodles in a curry broth with fried noodles), kai yaang (marinated grilled chicken), and sai ua (lemongrass-scented sausage) at Pok Pok PDX. Seeing potential in the small venture, Ricker asked Lee if he'd like to learn more and where he would go to do so. Without hesitation, Lee said he'd like to visit Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon.
"For me, they're really badass, because they work directly with the farmers. I believed that they could help with the real situations that the farmers here were facing," says Lee. Ricker stared at him, dumbfounded, and just laughed. "He was like, 'You're kidding. Damn, those guys are my friends.'"
Not long after, Stumptown invited Lee to pick up a few tricks of the trade. Ricker sponsored his flight, offered him meals at his restaurant, and gave him a couch to crash on. "I thought they'd be like, 'Who is this Asian boy?' But when I flew into Portland, every single person lined up to say hello and welcome me," he says. It was the beginning of a long-lasting friendship with both Ricker and the Stumptown crew that continues to this day. "I felt so privileged. They said to me, 'Hey, Lee, this is the first time that someone like you came to visit us in our headquarters. The privilege is ours.'"
Armed with some sound advice and advanced techniques, Lee returned home. Much of his business, which is 60 percent wholesale and 40 percent retail, is based on the Stumptown model. With no budget for professional PR, he promoted his operation through social media and leading Coffee Journeys, in which participants go out to the jungle to help local farmers for a few days and understand the process. Only six participants signed up for the inaugural trip; today, the biannual excursions often sell out weeks or even months in advance.
All that outside interest finally made its way back to the local community. "Thais were curious why international people were always visiting Akha Ama," he says. He takes a long, slow sip and then adds with a wink, "Now, after all this time, they've started to be proud of the fact that the coffee from the local communities is… drinkable."