In spite of its popularity, Thailand’s northern capital still offers a blissfully peaceful escape from its more hectic southern rival. The beautiful scenery and laid-back often entices many travellers to stay a lot longer than planned. Our guest travel blogger and coffee connoisseur Alex Azoury from Home Grounds tells us about his favourite Chiang Mai hangouts…
With all the things to see and do in this small mountain-surrounded city, it only makes sense that you’d need to stop and grab a coffee to recharge now and then, right? There is one slight problem though, there are hundreds of coffee shops in Chiang Mai, and considering you can walk across the city in less than an hour, the high cafe density makes coffee shop choosing pretty difficult. To help you avoid cafe-choice-overwhelm, I’ve put together a list of my five favourite coffee shops in Chiang Mai based on a recent coffee pilgrimage I took through South-East Asia.
Graph Cafe – great for recharging your batteries
You’re feeling slow and lethargic, and it’s only midday. Shouldn’t you have more energy since you’re on holidays? It could be because of the scorching heat outside, or because you’ve just spent the morning sightseeing while nursing a hangover. You then come across Graph Cafe, a little coffee shop nestled in the core of the busy tourist hub of Chiang Mai’s old city. It get’s crowded, and it looks small. So small, in fact, that if you’d brought all of your friends along from last nights shenanigans, you’d have to form a line to get in.
Regarding aesthetics the cafe is beautiful but typical of any western, hipster-esqe cafe – a rustic steel and timber setting filled with art-deco furniture and littered with vintage accessories. So then, why would you enter this tiny coffee shop that looks much like a cafe in your hometown, when you’re tired, hungover or both? Because Graph Cafe holds the solution to your tourism-induced fatigue – no, it’s not that nasty Red Bull syrup you were downing last night, it’s something called ‘Nitro cold brew’ coffee.
‘Nitro’ is cold brew coffee, pressurized with Nitrous gas and served through an ice cold tap. The result is a creamy, crisp and refreshing Guinness-looking beverage that tastes like heaven and gives you a long-lasting (and much needed) caffeine pick me up – preparing you for the rest of the day’s activities. Graph was the only cafe in Chiang Mai where I found Nitro coffee on tap, so if the mercury’s rising and the energy’s dropping, recharge, refuel, and experience the hottest new craze in coffee – Nitro cold brew.
Akha Ama La Fattoria – a local, social enterprise
The first thing I noticed about the Akha Ama coffee shop was the meticulous detail of everything – from the upcycled furniture and trendy looking baristas, to the wide range of perfectly organized coffee beans and brewers on display. Based on aesthetics alone, this seemed like a place where coffee was more than a drink; it was a way of life. This attitude usually means one thing – darn good coffee. After sitting down with a local Thai blend of pour-over coffee (filter coffee) and a mango cheesecake – I had confirmed my assumptions; regarding coffee quality, Akha Ama could well be one of the top contenders in Chiang Mai.
There’s more than great coffee to be found here, however. As well as brewing excellent coffee, Akha Ama support the local community of coffee farmers. The owner, Lee Ayu, works with the people of the nearby Maejantai village (the ‘Akha’ people) to not only educate them on producing great coffee, but to help them process, and market their coffee to the rest of world. Everyone wins when you visit the Akha Ama coffee shop – you get excellent quality local coffee, and in the process you support local coffee farmers, who practice sustainable agriculture and coffee production.
Doppio Ristr8o – for lovers of all things espresso
Ristr8o was high on my list of coffee shops to visit in Chiang Mai, not because of their unique and catchy name, but because I’d heard or read about them so often leading up to my visit; anyone who knows anything about coffee in Thailand knows about Ristr8o.
A ristretto shot is created from the first 50% of a traditional espresso shot, and depending on whom you ask, is much smoother and more flavorsome than the latter. With that in mind, Ristr8o is the place to be if you’re a fan of ristretto or espresso based coffee as they are the masters of this blend. Regarding signature drinks, Ristr8o is way ahead of the competition. I don’t know exactly how to describe their custom, expertly crafted signature brews, but trying one will make your visit to Thailand alone worth it!
Their menu is huge, but what came first – the menu, or the coffee? I’m not quite sure but you’ll learn more about coffee in 10 minutes than you have in your whole life as you examine the menu that is chock-full of interesting and detailed coffee data – from the amount of caffeine in each brew to the origins of the beans and coffee brewers available.
The Nimmanian Club – where barman and barista skills unite!
If a passionate bartender and an equally as passionate barista were put in a room and forced to collaborate, I’m confident you’d end up with something like the Nimmanian club; a half cocktail bar, half coffee shop, dedicated to creating the perfect, caffeinated experience, with plenty of style. Think of a place where cocktail mixing skills and flare are used when brewing coffee to create caffeinated experiences like never before.
I was convinced that I was in a cocktail lounge as I took a seat at the room length, gorgeous timber bar and browsed the impressive looking menu. It was at this moment that I realized Nimmanian club is in fact a coffee shop that adopts a bartender’s approach to brewing coffee – so there is no alcohol involved. You can opt for a traditional espresso-based drink or go for something a little more fancy (as I did) and try one of their signature drinks. I went for the “Caramello” which was smooth, satisfying, and very novel.
Omnia Cafe – the great all rounder
They say that ‘A jack of all trades is a master of none’ however this is not true in the case of Omnia cafe who seem to do everything that a coffee shop can do, extremely well. The first thing you’ll notice upon entering this boutique and off-the-tourist-trail cafe is that they offer a huge range of coffee beans and they roast them right there in the cafe – which is always a good indicator that you’re about to drink excellent coffee.
Regarding brew styles your options are vast and exciting. If it’s hot, cool down with one of their in-house made cold brew blends. If that’s not your style play it safe with an espresso-based coffee. Or, if your love your filter coffee like me, there is just about every pour-over brewer at your disposal. I’m a sucker for signature drinks, however, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try the ‘Barista’s choice of the month.’
During your visit to Omnia Cafe, you can drink coffee, learn about coffee, or both! If you’re looking to level up your coffee knowledge and taste a huge range of local beans at the same time, drop in to one of their monthly tasting classes where you’ll learn how to truly taste and appreciate the coffee in Thailand. South East Asia is full of unique (and sometimes controversial) experiences, and this theme of variety seemed to be consistent in the coffee space of Chiang Mai as you’ve just witnessed.
You’ve just discovered my top five coffee shops in Chiang Mai but I urge you to visit a few more if you have the time. Coffee in Thailand is not just a beverage, it’s a way of life, and their passion for the brew shines through in the local coffee culture which is vibrant, full of variety and full of life!
All words and photos by Alex Azoury. Alex is a little too crazy about coffee, and travelling. He has a love for South East Asian culture, and slow, meticulous coffee, both of which he talks about over at Home Grounds