Artisanal coffee is booming in Bangkok, giving rise to an explosion of cafes and roasting houses that cater to customers who take their morning brew seriously.
Ekameth ‘Tay’ Witvasutti, of Brave Roasters, has been experimenting with different ways of toasting the seeds of the Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora plants for two years. Passionate about participating in Bangkok’s emerging artisan coffee culture, Tay moved to Thailand’s caffeine capital, Chiang Mai, where he apprenticed at Happy Espresso, a small roaster dedicated to a new trend that favours lighter roasts.
“Coffee roasting has been around in Bangkok for years,” says Tay, a 25-year-old in shorts and black-rimmed glasses who looks barely out of his teens. “But the process is becoming much more refined.”
Returning to Bangkok with detailed knowledge of both roasting and brewing, he continued his education by ordering beans from famous roasters in the US and UK and teaching himself more about flavour profiles.
“The general techniques involved in roasting the beans and making coffee are not so difficult to master,” Tay says. “But creating really excellent coffee requires an obsessive artisanal approach.”
Brave Roasters supplies a number of cafes in Bangkok, including Casa Lapin outlets, Gallery Drip Coffee and his own One Ounce for Onion, a shoebox-sized café next to Onion, his hipster fashion accessory boutique. A large black Has Garanti roasting machine, manufactured in Turkey, occupies a small room behind Onion. Many of his customers buy direct, ordering by phone or email. In the café, all beans are ground to order using a hand-cranked coffee mill. Tay does all the roasting himself, producing a modest 80 to 100 kilograms of coffee each month, including three single-origin coffees from Doi Saket and Chom Thong in Chiang Mai province, as well as imports from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya and Guatemala.
Import duties of 90 percent keep prices of imported beans high, hence Thai beans sell well because of the comparatively lower pricing.
Three years ago, Varatt Vichit-Vadakan started cooking beans in a large German-made Giesen to supply his new café, Roast Coffee & Eatery, one of the early occupants of SeenSpace in Thonglor. With its combination of excellent single-origin brews, gorgeous comfort food and free Wi-Fi, Roast was soon packed with laptop-toting regulars.
“We had to start roasting coffee there at midnight, after waiting for all the customers to leave,” Varatt says.
“It got to be too tiring for me and my roaster [Korn Sanguankeaw], so with demand on the rise, we moved the roasting machine to a shopfront in Ekamai where we could roast during the day.”
They also placed the bakery there and eventually decided to open their doors to the public on weekends under the name Roots Coffee Roasters.
“It was always my passion to have a coffee-centric spot, a place where people who are serious about coffee could meet and appreciate what we do up close,” Varatt insists.
At Roots, customers pay by leaving whatever cash they feel comfortable with in an “honesty box” (100 baht for coffee and 50 baht per pastry are recommended). Soon Roots began offering classes and workshops during the week, catering to customers interested in everything from barista art to roasting and cupping (tasting coffee).
Roots roasts around 700 kilograms a month, supplying not only Roast but also a number of other coffee retailers around town. At any given time, Roots offers six to eight single-origin beans, working directly with one farm in northern Thailand and another in Sumatra. Depending on the season, the company also imports beans from Africa, Central America and South America.
Varatt says he’s especially impressed with beans from northern Sumatra’s Wahana Estate, which specialises in all-natural methods, including pulped-natural processing (also known as ‘honey processing’), in which the skin is removed from the seed but the fruit flesh remains on the beans during drying.
“Thai beans are excellent and getting better,” he says. “In fact, Thailand is producing some of the best beans in the region these days. We found a supplier in Phrao that uses the honey process.”
We ask Varatt why he thinks Thais have become so obsessed with artisan and specialty coffees recently.
“Although the trend started in the States and Europe quite a few years ago, it didn’t really catch on here until it hit Singapore around two years ago. I suppose that’s because more Thais travel there than further afield.
“Singaporeans also offered useful training. I took classes and workshops there myself, and I found that roasting techniques are very advanced at such micro-roasters as Papa Palheta and Nylon.”
Roast Coffee & Eatery will soon open a second branch in the new Emporium II shopping mall.
“Roots will probably hit its roasting capacity of 1,000 kilos in February, as we begin creating special blends custom-tailored for specific local coffeeshops,” Varatt says.
One local business that is ordering a custom blend from Roots is Rocket Coffeebar in Sathon Soi 12. One of the city’s most talked-about new dining venues, Rocket serves the best-tasting espresso beverages we’ve yet sampled anywhere in Bangkok.
Thomas Anostam, who along with partners Dannie and Ben-David Sorum and Jared O’Brien has been responsible for Hyde & Seek Gastrobar and a number of other culinary ventures, explains what makes their espressos, lattes and cappuccinos stand out.
“The typical barista tamps seven to 10 grams of coffee, per cup of espresso, into the machine,” the tall Swede explains. “Here we use 18 grams to create a more intense and full-bodied coffee. This allows us to use a more medium roast compared to the more traditional dark espresso roast. You get to taste more of the coffee’s natural flavour rather than just the roast.”
Rocket’s Synesso Hydra, a semi-manual espresso machine hand-made in Seattle, allows the operator to introduce three bars of pressure at the beginning, so that water slowly infuses the coffee puck. After six seconds of saturation, the pressure is increased to a full nine bars. According to Rocket, this ensures that once the nine bars is going, the water will flow throughout the whole coffee puck rather than any crack in the coffee load created by too much pressure, too soon. The result is a noticeably richer, smoother and more flavourful espresso.
For single-origin beans, Rocket brews coffee using the pour-over method, which is regaining popularity all over the world. The coffeebar also offers cold-brewed Rocket Fuel, in which fresh-ground coffee is steeped in cold mineral water for 24 hrs, then filtered and bottled. In the cafe it’s served on ice with an orange slice.
You can also buy Rocket Fuel by the bottle to take home and serve warm or chilled according to preference. We found that the super-smooth brew, made from Thai, Indonesian, Brazilian and Guatemalan beans, has a surprisingly intense caffeine kick to help squeeze a little more out of the day.
Inspired by Australian cafes, Rocket Coffeebar strives to provide customers with ‘coffee-friendly’ dishes throughout the day, whether for breakfast, lunch, late-afternoon snacks or dinner. The building occupied by Rocket will soon include a New York-style tavern next door, entered via a narrow alley alongside the building.
Bean Hunter’s Guide
Brave Roasters/One Ounce for Onion
19/12 Ekamai Soi 12
Compete for a very limited number of seats to taste fruity Tekongo Ngeri from Kenya, Guatemala micro-lot and other superlative beans ground by hand before brewing.
Roots Coffee Roasters
Ekamai Terrace 2-4, between Ekamai Soi 15 and Soi 17
Try the Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Kochere cold brew or Roots’ own Bruna blend of honey-processed Thai beans from Phrao, Brazilian Carmo de Minas and Guatemala Huehuetenango. Open weekends only.
Rocket Coffeebar (pictured)
49 Sathon Soi 12
Choose a table or counter space in the airy, light-hued interior or at a streetside table to enjoy one of the city’s best lattes. For something different, try the cold-brew Rocket Fuel made from Thai, Indonesian, Brazilian, and Guatemalan beans. Original-recipe dishes on the coffeebar menu are partly inspired by the three S’s: Stockholm, Sydney and San Francisco.
Roast Coffee and Eatery
2/F SeenSpace, Thong Lor 13
Beans from Africa, the Americas and Asia are roasted twice a week to produce a wide variety of single-origin and blended coffees. Roast serves a menu of carefully reconstructed comfort American classics.
39 Sukhumvit Soi 16
The 15-year-old veteran on the scene, this was the first café in Bangkok to roast its own beans in the espresso style. Stand-out signature blends are served in a French press for a stalwart brew and the breakfast menu is superb.
Thong Lor Art Village, between Thong Lor Soi 17 and Soi 19
Like Tay at Brave Roasters, who roasts for Casa Lapin, owner-architect Surapan Tanta apprenticed in Chiang Mai and specialises in a lighter, more flavourful roast.
Ceresia Coffee Roasters
593/29-41 Sukhumvit Soi 33/1
Venezuelan sisters Marian and Lucia Aguilar work with Thai roaster Garin Asavaroengchai to craft their selection of African and Central and South American coffee, served in both filtered and espresso versions.