A cool breeze rustles through the bamboo slats of the quaint coffee-house, as the mid-afternoon sun begins its slow descent into dusk. Sitting quietly in the corner of the hut is Khun Kade, assiduously stitching an intricate Akha vestment. Upon seeing us, she stands and greets us warmly—animatedly sharing the unique features of her latest handiwork, before enthusiastically inviting us to take a seat.
We’re actually here to try the local Chiang Rai coffee but are soon encouraged to instead try the freshly roasted ‘coffee blossom tea’. Some minutes later, Khun Kade appears with a small tray holding a delicate Chinese teapot, a pair of ceramic cups—and a small mound of roasted coffee blossoms. We are suddenly captivated by this unexpected sight.
What is coffee blossom tea? Well, for starters, it contains neither coffee nor tea (obviously). Rather, it’s a tisane or herbal infusion. Tisanes are made from the fresh or dried leaves, bark, roots, seeds, fruits and flowers of various plants—other than the tea plant Camellia sinensis.
Coffee trees blossom only once a year, shortly before bearing fruit—at which time they fill the air with the heady aromas of honeyed jasmine. Harvesters have but a short window of just three to four days to quickly and carefully pick the flowers. It is supremely delicate work: pickers need to ensure that the removal of blossoms doesn’t affect the growth of the coffee beans by selecting only flowers in full bloom; one full day’s work can yield just half a kilogramme.
Collected blossoms are processed immediately. They’re dried in the sun for a day until they turn a light brown colour, and then wok-roasted very quickly over high heat to caramelise the natural fructose sugars in the blossoms. Steeping the flowers in hot water for five minutes results in a complex and flavourful tisane expressing the delicate aromatics of the coffee plant. Perfumed with notes of jasmine, orchid, oolong, bamboo and vanilla, the orange-gold-hued libation is surprisingly smooth and elegant, with a pleasing natural sweetness.
Research conducted by Mae Fah Luang University has also shown coffee blossom tea to have numerous health benefits—including antioxidant and cholesterol-lowering properties. Moreover, the absence of caffeine or theanine makes it suitable to be consumed by children and the elderly—and thus a beverage to be enjoyed by all.
Coffee blossom tea production is becoming increasingly popular in coffee-growing regions from Chiang Rai to Ranong, as coffee farmers work to find innovative sources of supplementary income. However, its full value as a healthful culinary and cocktail ingredient has yet to be explored (famous last words!). As we sip the last of our warm Arabica tisane on the terrace of this mountain coffee-hut, our minds boggle at the possibilities in the fading sunlight.