A Brief Tour of Chiang Mai’s Coffee Scene

I like coffee with a like that borders on love. I wouldn’t want to get into a fight with someone who roasts their own beans or cashes in a full paycheck towards an espresso maker, so I wouldn’t claim to be a full-on coffee lover, but I lived in Seattle for years and worked through enough americanos and cortados to consider myself a fan. 

Some cities are known for their coffee scene — There’s Seattle and it’s Pacific Northwest friend Portland that ooze hipster charm and $8 pour overs. Stockholm with its fika lifestyle and Rome’s slap-you-awake espresso counters. Researching Thailand’s Chiang Mai, it became apparent this was a sleeper caffeine haven. An almost never ending number of cafes dot the city, wedged between temples and cocktail bars, featuring everything from world winning latte art to charcoal concoctions. 

Overall I’d consider the scene to be more novel. That is, less focused on pouring the best latte than it is on creating the latest and greatest coffee trend, but I spent only days in Chiang Mai and could easily spend a month here going to a new spot each day. 

Having hit up some of the more popular destinations I can provide a summary of the experience and set expectations for future travellers. For any fans of the bean touring Southeast Asia, I regret no stop and want only more. 

Akha Ama Coffee: Cool

Akha Ama brews coffee harvested in the jungles of Northern Thailand, from the remote village its founder Lee Ayu grew up in. With a background in social work, Ayu turned to coffee as a way to bring an income into his home village. The company was founded in 2010, just when the coffee scene in Chiang Mai began to explode, and has since opened a second location in the heart of the old city. Over 25 tons of beans are harvested each year under the Akha Ama name. 

The cafe looks like something out of Portland. Fitting, since Ayu is a lover of Stumptown coffee. The interior walls are a combination of concrete, exposed brick and sheet metal. I ordered a chilled bottle of coffee dubbed “black juice” from a chalkboard menu divided into “Black” and “White” beverages (americanos and ristrettos on one end and cafe lattes and flat whites on the other) then took a seat at a reclaimed wood table. 

The coffee was potent and with a caffeine buzz I spent my time people-watching. The clientele were clanging away on laptops, chatting with friends or lost in novels. I plopped down at one of the last available tables and it was clear this was the kind of cafe where people go to spend an afternoon. To be seen. Akha Ama isn’t just a great origin story or a great cup of coffee, it manages to create an aesthetic that never seems like it’s trying to be cool, as only the truly cool places can. 

Graph Cafe: Hipster

Graph is tiny. Three tables tiny. But into that small area it manages to pack quite an impression. A massive window spans the width of the white walled cafe, creating an incredibly light-filled space.  Its clipboard menu contains Instagram-worthy photos, descriptions and ingredients of their craft caffeinations. There’s the chilled “Demon” made of espresso, tomato, passionfruit and chili, its ice cubes topped with a strategically placed pepper, and “Graph No. 6 (Boy With Girlfriend)” with lime, raw sugar, craft soda and espresso, presented with a sugared rim. 

I’m most tempted by the “Monochrome”: espresso and activated charcoal poured over milk and vanilla, creating a two-tone black and white color palette. The drink is presented to me on a small tray featuring an index card with a photo of the drink I’m about to consume, along with a description stating that “coffee and charcoal are soft and perfect together”. 

I sipped the beverage next to a glass case filled with straw boater hats. A single typewriter on the top shelf. It all felt a bit much, but I’ll admit it was an experience. My monochrome was incredibly good and I’d bet that their other beverages would not disappoint. 

Barisotel: Goopy 

I consider Barisotel in Chiang Mai’s trendy Nimman neighborhood to be more of a lifestyle cafe, hence my designation of “Goopy”. While this cafe isn’t mentioned on Gweneth’s blog (that privilege goes to Ristr8to) it does strike me as the kind of place that’s really gunning for a write-up. 

I order from a menu printed onto pages so thick it feels like I’m holding a zine, and given the issues of Kinfolk that are strategically placed throughout the cafe I don’t think this likeness is an accident. Perfectly filtered photos are paired with beverage descriptions, but unlike Graph, there’s an entire section devoted to cake — Matcha crepe cakes, Japanese cheesecake, even something dubbed “Cookie Monster Cake”. It being an evening visit, I order a milo drink and a cheesecake with an oozing caramel core topped with a sprig of rosemary then grab a seat. 

The entire cafe is white. White walls. White tabletops. White lamps. White seat cushions. The only things that aren’t white are the wooden legs on chairs and the wood floors, but even the floors have an unnatural bleached look to them that borders on white. 

Behind the counter stands a clothing rack with a single pink button down shirt and two magazines hanging from wire hangers and I wonder if anyone would scold me for attempting to read them. The atmosphere is a bit sterile and not what I’d seek out for coffee, but I would consider Barisotel to be a desert destination and left curious about a few more of their cakes. 

Nine One Coffee: Cozy

Nine One is the cafe where I’d feel most comfortable spending an afternoon — At Akha I’d feel seen and obligated to wear high waisted skinnies or a chic midi dress, and Graph specifically requests patrons do not work due to the limited seating. Nine One makes me feel at ease. 

Christmas lights are strung from the ceiling and the wall behind the counter is painted lipstick red in a welcome dash of color. Fresh flowers adorn the tables and the courtyard outside is shared with a neighboring bar. It’s quiet and unpretentious, with a fuss-free menu of classic espresso drinks. It’s also the only cafe that posted a wifi password, an invitation to get comfy and spend some time. 

At home in Pittsburgh I have the cafes I go to when I want to people-watch or order signature drinks, and then I have the cafe across the street where I go makeup free on Saturday mornings after I roll out of bed, where I spend an hour sipping away at a cortado. In short, the me who’s interested in novelty who’s prepared to be looked at and the real me who knows what they like and will wear stained jeans to sit and enjoy it. 

I’d venture to say the ideal coffee shop exists somewhere between these two poles, but I have yet to meet the ideal coffee shop. What I can say is that I do appreciate places that make me feel at ease and at home, and in a place as foreign as Chiang Mai, coziness is much appreciated. 

Ristr8to Coffee Lab: Renowned 

Two blocks away from Barisotel lies Ristr8to whose claim to fame is their owner Arnon Thitiprasert being an esteemed barista and revered latte artist, winning the 2017 World Latte Art Championship in Budapest.  

Thitiprasert opened Ristr8to coffee in 2011 prior to Chiang Mai’s coffee scene blowing up and has expanded to three locations in the city since, including Ristr8to lab where we visit. The brown paper menu features careful illustrations of its offerings, the birth year of each signature drink, and the strength of each beverage, eight the highest marking that can be achieved (the inclusion of “eight” being a recurring theme throughout Ristr8to).

There’s an entire page dedicated to coffee cocktails — Think espresso with grand marnier, rum and peach ice cubes or gin and gomme syrup mixed with an iced ristretto. But let’s face it, my basic self is here for the latte art. 

For 180 Thai Baht (roughly $5.75 USD) you can order a classic latte topped off with the world winning latte art of your choosing. Choices include 2015 5th place options of a fire breathing dragon and an owl in a tree, as well as the 2017 top prize winners of a unicorn in the woods, a walking fox or a jumping rabbit. 

I land on the owl, squee when it’s delivered to me then quickly lap it up and wonder if I can have a second without going into caffeine overdrive where it feels like my heart might explode. I nearly risk it for the unicorn, but decide dinner is the better option. After all, Chiang Mai’s food scene is just as noteworthy as its coffee. 

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