Drinking more than a dozen cups of coffee a day may seem strange to some, but for businessman Dale Lee it comes with the territory. His company CoffeeWorks is all about coffee—taking care of roasting, distribution, equipment supplies, and even offering barista lessons.
Adevout bachelor, unashamed workaholic, and jazz musician, Dale Lee is also the co-founder of CoffeeWorks (100/68 Sukhumvit Soi 26), one of Thailand’s first coffee roasters and equipment solution providers. After working for years in the coffee industry in the US, at a time when the coffee shop business model started to boom and companies like Starbucks were just developing, he and his best friend Andrew Stotz began their own start-up in Thailand, back in 1995. However, it was not an easy road. They experienced huge obstacles, and were nearly forced out of business, but now they are supplying over 500 coffee shops throughout the kingdom—helping customers choose the right beans, the right machines, and even offering top-notch barista training.
What brought you to Thailand, and why did you decide to stay?
My business partner Andrew moved here first, and when I came in the early 90s to visit him I saw a lot of Western influence, but the coffee market was still pretty much just instant coffee. That was the beginning of my idea to start a small roasting business. Now I’ve been here 21 years and I’ve really fallen in love with Thailand, Thai culture, Thai people and Thai food, and I love living in this part of the world.
Where do you like to drink coffee in the city?
I will say, for transparency, that my answers will be biased to customers that we supply, like Dean & Deluca for example. I love drinking my coffee there and I also like their ambiance and design. We have a new customer called Holey Artisan Bakery, who just opened a new branch on Sukhumvit Soi 31, and they have the most unbelievable and amazing baked goods.
What is important to you in a café, and what are some cafés doing better than others?
I like shops that are offering other things besides espresso. One of our friends is a place called Gallery Drip and, in fact, they don’t even offer espresso, they only offer hand-poured coffees—which is a really great way to experience a single origin coffee. Cold brew is another way. We are helping some of our customers do cold brew, and we are going to be launching some interesting cold brew related solutions for our B2B customers in the near future.
The coffee industry in Thailand has developed enormously in the last decade. Why do you think that is?
What we have observed over the last 2-3 years in particular is what is referred to as “3rd wave coffee”. This movement gained traction about 10 years ago in the US, represented by three key companies: Counter Culture, Intelligentsia and Stumptown. Typically, it talks a lot about the supply chain—sharing the details of the green coffee, talking about the origin of the coffee and the history of the farm, and talking in detail about the roast profile and sharing that with customers. Since that time there have been many others offering a 3rd wave coffee experience, and finally those kinds of operations are arriving in Thailand.
What do you think about Bangkok’s artisanal coffee scene?
It’s great, and I’d like to see it expand a 100 times more than it is now. In fact, just about three years ago some of my friends in the industry got together and formed the ‘Specialty Coffee Association of Thailand’. It will help educate more consumers that there’s also something way beyond than your standard cup of coffee.
Where does CoffeeWorks source its beans from? Do you source beans from Thailand?
We source coffee from all around the world, including Kenya and Tanzania, pretty much every coffee growing country in Central and South America, and Thailand. In fact, we were recognised last year by the American Chamber of Commerce in their CSR work ceremony for the funding development we’ve done with the hill tribe coffee growing in Northern Thailand. About ten years ago, we started funding better quality coffee, what we call natural pulped or honey processed coffee.
How do you drink your coffee and what coffee maker do you use?
Generally, I like espresso, or single origin drip coffee, or French press because then I can taste the coffee. I drink about 14 cups a day, as it’s one of the most antioxidant rich foods you can drink. But I never put in sugar, and rarely milk. When we are developing a new coffee I’ll try it in each different format and see what works best.