The popular drink’s hold on Southeast Asia dates back much longer than the appearance of your favorite corner franchise, writes ANTHONY MECIR. Photographed by BRENT T. MADISON
Published on Apr 2, 2010Page : 1 2 3
In the rugged highlands of southern Laos, American entrepreneur Lee Thorn picks up his cup and takes a sip. “I’m telling you, it’s the best coffee in the world. I know I’m prejudiced, but I’m totally convinced. It’s unique, it’s different, it’s new,’’ says Thorn, a Vietnam War veteran who has pioneered coffee’s revival in Laos.
For the world’s average coffee drinker, Laos and Southeast Asia in general don’t immediately spring to mind when thinking of the drink. But Vietnam has emerged as the world’s second largest coffee exporter after Brazil, while Indonesia occupies the number four spot following Colombia.
Coffee culture has spread across the region in varied guises, with Southeast Asian consumption rocketing along at 20–30 percent growth a year—and it’s not all imported. Premium Arabica coffee from the highlands of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and even Cambodia’s remote Ratanakiri Province fetches top prices on international markets.
Take Thailand. Instant coffee with powdered milk used to be the dreaded staple at all but the top-class hotels not so long ago. Now, even many gasoline stations offer fine coffee at charming kiosks complete with espresso machines or at one of the proliferating locally owned chains like Café Amazon. Along country roads, it won’t be long before you spot a sign for kafae sot, literally “fresh coffee,” but meaning good quality stuff as opposed to the instant variety.
In Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern hub of culture and tourism, awaits world-class taste from the nearby mountains, savored in artsy hangouts, alfresco cafés or the award-winning Wawee Coffee chain started by young local Kraisit Foosuwan, where for every cup you drink, 1 baht goes to support hill-tribe children.
Thorn seeded a number of aid projects in Laos in areas once heavily bombed by U.S. warplanes. Along the way he hit upon forming a co-operative among dirt-poor farmers in the Bolaven Plateau where French colonials in the 1920’s had established a thriving coffee industry under well-nigh-perfect conditions for Arabica: cool temperatures and rich volcanic soil above 1,300 meters.
Also highly rated are brands coming out of the Thai mountains—Hilltribe Gourmet, Doi Chaang, Duang Dee Hill Tribe Coffee, Doi Tung and Lanna Coffee—which have been developing since the late 1960’s. There’s a co-operative of 250 families in 25 villages growing organic coffee, much of it sold under the Lanna Coffee brand. You can drink it at the co-operative’s own welcoming Chiang Mai Lanna Café. You can now ask the baristas at Starbucks for the muan jai, or “wholehearted happiness’’ brand.
While many of these developments are relatively recent, coffee’s history in Southeast Asia stretches back more than three centuries. The Dutch introduced the drink to Java in the 1690’s, from where it spread to other regions. Contemporary coffee culture got its start in the 1990’s, boosted by the advent of the internationals—“the Starbucks effect,” as some call it.
The now-ubiquitous American chain opened its first shop in Singapore in 1996, using the island republic as its “strategic gateway into Southeast Asia.” It arrived in Thailand two years later and in Indonesia by 2002; in Singapore and Bangkok, it’s now difficult to find a shopping mall that doesn’t have a Starbucks. But local competitors, both chains and chic, stand-alone cafés, were quick off the mark and often outpaced the outsiders in ambience and quality of their gourmet offerings. Some even expanded abroad: Thailand’s Black Canyon cafés are now found in seven other countries.
Home-grown cafés have also mushroomed in Singapore. Among the first and still the best, Coffee Club, was firmly rooted in Singapore’s history. It’s owned by Hiang Kie, which was founded in 1936 and is one of the biggest coffee traders in a nation that hosts one of the largest coffee exchanges in the world. Having expanded to more than 20 branches, it serves the whole gamut that modern Southeast Asian coffee lovers have come to expect.
Indeed, Southeast Asians are now increasingly drinking their own brews, rather than relying purely on imports. But one local variety you are unlikely to taste happens to be the world’s most expensive—commanding prices that run as high as US$1,320 a kilogram. It’s kopi luwak, found mostly in Indonesia but whisked away to lucrative markets in the United States and Japan. It’s described as being made from coffee berries eaten and passed through the digestive tract of the Asian Palm Civet, the end result reportedly being complex and heavenly flavors.
GUIDE TO ASIAN COFFEE
Doi Tung Coffee Embedded in a popular market, it serves its own brands from a royal development project.
Suan Lum Night Bazaar, Rama 4 Rd.
+ CHIANG MAI
Lanna Café Superb coffee straight from hill tribes found in the nearby mountains of northern Thailand.
81 Huay Kaew Rd.
Au Lac Café Sip it in the quiet courtyard of a French villa in the heart of Hanoi.
57 Pho Ly Thai To St.
+ HO CHI MINH CITY
Givral Café and Restaurant Hangout of spies and journalists during the Vietnam War.
169 Dong Khoi St.
Bakoel Koffie A 130-year-old institution.
25 Jln. Cikini Raya.
+ KUALA LUMPUR
Yut Kee This Chinese kopitiam has been around since 1928 and thankfully has fought off change. Its Hainanese food is also highly rated.
35 Jln. Dang Wangi
Talat Sao It’s a no-frills affair at the city’s morning market, but plenty of buzz and bustle as you sample Lao coffee in market stalls the way the Lao drink it.
Lan Xang Ave.