July 20, 2015

Evolution of Thai Coffee Culture: Traditional vs Specialty


I had my first sip of coffee back in 1990 when Thailand was dominated by Kafae Boran: a rich, sweet, and cheap drink. Twenty-five years later, the coffee scene has transformed. Specialty coffee has emerged, and we’re looking to a future of sustainable, high-quality coffee farming.

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What Is Kafae Boran?

Think streetside cafés, warm weather, and a long history. Kafae Boran means ancient coffee, and while it might not be as old as some of our temples, it’s definitely traditional. Developed during WWII, it was the answer to scarce—and expensive—coffee. In order to reduce consumption, grains were added during the roasting process. The coffee typically contains dark roasted robusta with brown sugar, corn, brown rice, sesame, soy beans, salt, butter, or even tamarind seeds. Sound like Vietnamese coffee, doesn’t it? Well, it might seem similar, but the brewing method is what differentiates it. Ground coffee is put in a cotton bag filter or a ‘sock filter’ and steeped in boiling water. Sweetened, condensed, or evaporated milk is then added. Selling at 20 baht (US $0.60), it’s no surprise it’s been the affordable standard for decades.

Thai coffee

Kafae  Boran still plays a part the daily life of Thai people

From 20 to 150 Baht: Changing Coffee Culture in the ’90s

At the beginning of the 1990s, there were two options. Kafae Boran or instant coffee. Fast-forward a decade and that had changed: we saw a greater choice of coffee shops, a willingness to pay more, and a thirst for good but convenient coffee (pun intended).

The change began with coffee chain Ban-Rai Kafae’s (which appeared in gas stations in the late ‘90s) convenience-focused business model changed consumer behavior. Whereas before convenience had meant using instant coffee, now fresh espresso-based coffee was readily available. At the same time, consumers had to accustom themselves to paying two to three times as much as an espresso-based drink at Ban-Rai Kafae costs between 45-60 baht (US $1-2).

Kafae gas station

Ban-Rai Kafae gas station

Not long after, in 1998, Starbucks came to Thailand—and with it, prices of up to 150 baht (US $5). Suddenly, 45-60 baht for a coffee seemed cheap. Yet the purchasing power of Thai people had increased over the past decade and Starbucks, which combined the convenience of Ban-Rai Kafae with the café culture of Kafae Boran, thrived.

Still, Kafae Boran stalls remained a fixture of Thai culture; you have to suspect they’ll be around forever.

The Emergence of Thai Specialty Coffee

Specialty coffee began to emerge in Thailand about ten years ago. Coffee enthusiasts, many of whom had lived and worked overseas, have been the driving force behind its appearance. There’s been a rapid growth of interest in it, helped by the use social media platforms as forums for coffee lovers and professionals to share information.

Thai coffee culture

Pacamara Coffee Roastery Cafe, owned by Thailand’s 1st Q-Grader

For those looking for specialty coffee, Bangkok and Chiang Mai are the places to go. Here you’ll find cafés with quality coffee from all over the world. Quite a few of these cafés roast their own coffee and, unlike the Kafae Boran culture, they are staying true to the bean with a light roast.

Thai coffee culture

Coffee Gallery Drip offers filter coffee exclusively

The Next Step: Growing Quality Coffee in Thailand

Good coffee shops are important, but there’s a new generation of Thai coffee geeks on the scene who want to do more than own a café. They want to develop locally grown coffee, pushing it to the next level. As well as being baristas, they are learning about every step of the supply chain. Their influence has had a dramatic effect on Thai coffee culture. Thailand’s known for robusta, yet arabica farms have started to emerge in the north. The Specialty Coffee Association of Thailand (SCATH) was recently formed and, like the SCAA and SCAE, it aims to promote a culture of increasing quality and sustainability.

In the past twenty-five years, there’s been a dramatic change in Thailand’s coffee culture. Coffee has always been important to us, yet now we are seeing a growing interest in quality coffee. And our Thai coffee aficionados are dedicated to ensuring our own coffee improves year after year.

Edited by T.A. Jay

Perfect Daily Grind.