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Full Steam Ahead

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Thailand’s coffee culture is so sophisticated and sustainable, Veronica Inveen says, that it could teach her hometown of Seattle a thing of two about the brew life.

Thailand is a funny place when it comes to coffee. I’ve started my morning with an iced latte in a plastic bag from a streetside cart and later on in the day was served a cup brewed from a siphon-turned-glass-pipe-organ by a barista wearing gloves in a painfully hip cafe. Both hit the spot (though I’m pretty sure the generous dollop of condensed milk in the former gave it an unfair advantage).

Back home in Seattle, the center of the caffeine universe, there isn’t too much to the way people imbibe—aside from in abundance and definitely sans condensed milk—despite the city’s snooty reputation when it comes coffee. As long as the beans are fresh and the cup is hot, a quick stop at the Starbucks drive through or the coffee shop inside the grocery store will usually do. So when I first came to Thailand, I was taken back by the more careful approach to the drink. People don’t seem to depend on the beverage like the frantic, raccoon-eyed folks back home, rather they appreciate its curing properties with grace and patience.

It’s not just the long leisurely coffee breaks in cool cafes or baristas with the hospitable personalities of bartenders that led me to this conclusion. After befriending a few of the guys behind the well-loved cafe Roots, a new world of coffee opened up to me. Sitting at the counter of their bar, a note card was passed to me with my pour over. It showed a friendly-faced man with a toothy smile surrounded by skinny coffee bean plants. The note indicated that the beans that my coffee was brewed from came from his humble farm in Chiang Mai.

I realize a lot of companies add the faces of their producers to their products for a compelling effect, but this man was familiar. I had seen him on the Instagram of my friend Ake, one of the company’s founders, a few days earlier when he was in the north of the country. Ake and other members of the team visit the smiling man’s plantation often, along with a few other farms that dot the remote area of Chiang Mai’s highlands. It’s all part of their “Cup to Farm” concept. To ensure bean quality is up to standard and taste is at its utmost level of deliciousness, Roots’ head roaster, baristas, and founders check in on the farming process a few times a month. They teach the farmers about what they can do to refine the taste of the beans and help them build infrastructure, like drying racks.

Though the serious coffee (read: coffee anything more sophisticated than instant coffee) scene is nascent, the Thai population already consumes more of the local coffee than anywhere else, unlike, say, Panamanians, who mostly export their products. This means that the system is highly sustainable so far, for which we can thank Roots and other shops with local coffee enthusiasm. Forward-thinking Kaizen in Ekkamai or Phra Kanong’s Karo Coffee Roasters, for example, aim to educate both their customers and producers–and of course draw them in with photo-bait ambience. The industry is growing fast, and the population’s pride for their product shows in the number of roasters, Instagram-friendly cafes, and artisanal brews that have surfaced in recent years. I’m not snooty, though; I’ll still line up for the sugar-loaded Nescafe concoction from the aunty down the street.