Halfway down the three-mile dirt road to the Nine-One Coffee farm we had to turn back. As the canopy of Thai forest grew denser and the road less hospitable, the four-wheel-drive on Wullop "Mr. One" Pasananon's old Suzuki truck failed, stalling us in a low trench of road.
We drove back to his home, just a few minutes away. One of the most influential figures in the burgeoning Thai coffee community, Mr. One lives in private quarters at a four-cabin resort that he built to help fund his coffee operation. The compound also includes a roasting workshop and a cafe, making it a closed loop of farm-to-cup coffee. I spent 24 hours there drinking coffee, sleeping in king-like lodgings, and weathering a hypochondriac's case of early onset malaria (a.k.a. a minor fever).
My guide from the Specialty Coffee Association of Thailand, NutRada "Noon" Kunavivattananon, assured me that this trip would require patience. For starters, the journey to the the farm from the northern city of Chiang Mai took two hours in an overcrowded taxi truck. Once we arrived, Mr. One was nowhere to be found. He operated on a zen-like timetable, rebuking my attempts to set an itinerary, but proved to be a warm and generous host.
In his mid-fifties with a week's worth of white stubble and well-worn glasses, he wouldn't have looked out of place in a Steve Jobs turtleneck. It's a stretch to compare his operation to Apple, but in some ways they follow the same philosophy: vertical integration of every step of the supply chain to produce a product unlike their contemporaries.
Despite the increased cultivation of high-quality arabica beans by farmers like Mr. One, you won't find Thai coffee in many American coffee shops. Coffee is a relatively young industry in Thailand, kickstarted in the late 1960s by an effort from the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej to discourage the farming of opium. Production has since grown slowly and steadily. According to the International Coffee Organization, the country now produces 500,000 60-kilogram bags per year, only 7 percent of which are exported. Nearly half of that is processed coffee, bringing the total of green beans down to 21,177 bags. By comparison, neighboring Vietnam exports 20 million bags. The exports typically become part of commodity-grade blends, so it's nearly impossible to find single-origin Thai beans outside of their homeland.
The lack of a strong export market means the small and scrappy industry is fueled by a high domestic demand. There's a coffee shop on nearly every block in major cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, most trading in robusta beans used in sweeter drinks like "iced espressos," which are actually closer to Starbucks-style iced lattes. But there's still a booming specialty coffee scene, supplied with beans meticulously grown and roasted by obsessives like Mr. One.
After returning to the Nine-One resort for a more capable vehicle, we were back on the dirt trail to the farm, swatting away low-hanging branches. The boundaries of the land are ambiguous, but it measures somewhere between 50 to 100 acres and sits 1,200 meters above sea level, an ideal altitude for coffee growth. The heavy shade means plants take longer to mature, but also encourages stronger flavors. The drawback? A relentless cloud of mosquitos that seemed amused by my 40-percent DEET.
We arrived at the processing station where three cheerful middle-aged Thai women sorted recently picked beans, running them through a wet processing mill powered by water piped from a nearby stream. A faint smell of manure wafted over the area, the primary form of fertilization for the fully organic operation. During harvest, five full-time workers pick 25 kilos per hour to earn a generous wage of 400 baht per day (roughly $12 US). For comparison, that's the same cost as one night in an ant-infested hostel.
But thanks to my host's generosity, I wouldn't be ant bait tonight. After a quick stroll through the coffee field, we drove back to the main compound of eco-chic cabins. There were few guests during the rainy season, so Noon and I each had our own rooms. We unpacked and sat down with Mr. One for a family-style dinner and coffee.
One of the thing that sets Thai coffee apart from its American counterparts is an emphasis on hand-grinding. Whereas American baristas wouldn't be caught dead breaking a sweat grinding beans, operations like Gallery Drip in Bangkok serve beans cracked entirely by elbow grease. Mr. One used a vintage hand-grinder and V60 pour-over to brew a batch of his Fruity Flora, one of the four varieties offered at his shops.
Using a few words of English and Thai translated by Noon, he explained his entry into the coffee world from a previous job as a government official in Bangkok. City life just wasn't for him.
"I love it here, so I needed to find a job that would let me stay. A coffee farm was a good fit for me. It's a slow life, not like in Bangkok. There it's early to wake up, early breakfast, early to work. You earn less here, but it's comfortable," says Mr. One.
Although a love of nature was his gateway to the industry, Mr. One soon immersed himself in a deep study of the product from seed to cup. His roasting room is adorned with framed training certificates from various international specialty coffee associations. On a fire-engine-red five-kilo roaster, he browns the beans that supplies his shops. As more wholesale clients join the fold, he plans to expand to a 15-kilo roaster, tripling capacity.
After another carafe of late-night coffee, we retired for the evening. I woke to a late breakfast that never would have fit into the schedule of a busy Bangkok bureaucrat, and an even later lunch, before Mr. One drove us back to Chiang Mai to visit the retail outpost of his operation.
Tucked away on quiet side street just a block away from a Starbucks, Nine One Coffee has all the trimmings of a trendy third-wave American shop. Brew methods range from Aeropress to V60 pour-over, served on wooden coasters laser-cut with the shop's logo. Older Thai patrons take their coffee to go and hip expats work on MacBooks. I ordered a cup of the Fruity Floral, the same coffee I'd tried just the day before. The barista took care to explain that the beans were roasted only a few hours away, and that the entire operation was organic. I nodded and thanked him in broken Thai, completing the journey from farm to cup.