Little known fact: Thailand produces far more Robusta beans than it does Arabica. While roughly800 tonnes of Arabica are harvested annually in the North, over 80000 tonnes of Robusta are plucked from the South, in particular from Chumphon. While Arabica is prized for its velvety texture on the palate and blueberry-like taste, Robusta offers potency—nearly twice the level of caffeine—rich flavour, and ideal crema. Plus, it’s cheaper than Arabica. It is no wonder the bean is making a comeback in Thailand.
About 130 coffee farmers ply their trade in Chumphon, many of whom came from Isaan, having arrived in the late1970s in search of better living conditions. All grow and gather the durable Robusta beans, which can be cultivated at lower altitudes, and in harsher climates, than the finicky Arabica. Yet while northern plantations draw camera-wielding crowds, few visitors pay attention to southern farms. This is due, in part, to a lack of promotion, something that Apichai Aranyik, Director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand in Chumphon, acknowledges as a point of concern. “We want to create a kind of coffee trail where all our outlets and plantations are indicated on a map,” he says, offering snippets from campaign brainstorming sessions held with designs of drawing tourists to southern plantations.
“Tourism has long been neglected in Chumphon,” he continues. “It represents only 10 to 12 per cent of the local GDP, far behind fishery and agriculture. However, with rising interest in coffee, we can finally link agriculture and tourism, and also help local communities reap the benefits of tourism.”
The lack of awareness of Chumphon as a coffee centre also results from the terrain in which Robusta grows. The landscape looks less spectacular— less mist-shrouded and vivid—compared to the mountain slopes of Chiang Rai. However, for fans of Thai coffee, Chumphon is a true destination.
The province is home to some of the most renowned coffee brands in the Kingdom. The mere mention of Kao Thalu elicits inexhaustible praise from locals. With good reason: not only is it one of the most famous varieties in Thailand, it has also received numerous awards for its quality, including a few OTOP gold medals. In the factory, opened to the public by request, a few employees fill bags with aromatic coffee powder. Every year, the small unit roasts about 500 tonnes of coffee from local farmers. Kao Thalu has long been sought after for its freeze-dried coffee, mostly from international brands, but now, explains the factory manager, it will be available in Thai supermarkets under its own name.
As Chumphon wakes up to the idea of turning coffee into a tourist commodity, Thailand’s largest plantation is now being promoted to visitors. It takes an hour in a car, snaking along sinuous roads, cutting through mountains, to reach Ban Panwal village in Tha Sae district. Just a few metres from the border with Myanmar, the domain stretches over soft hills, embracing villages and farms and even a small temple where Buddhist rituals are practiced in the purest Isaan traditions. One particularly interesting production in Tha Sae is Thamsing Coffee, a co-operative involving nearly 400 farmers not only from Chumphon, but also from provinces such as Surat Thani, Songkhla, Samut Songkran, and Petchaburi. Plantation owners provide tours of the grounds, offering coffee- and fruit-tasting, too.
For families with children, the most interesting producer to visit is Chinnawat Coffee, known for its curious, and very exotic-sounding, civet coffee. “The idea came to me by chance,” says Chinnawat Monthiprasart, owner of Chinnawat Coffee and Goat Coffee, a name steeped in irony, considering its fame for producing civet coffee. “I had become aware that Thai civets were either being killed by hunters or dying in captivity after eating fish. So I asked a specialist at Kasetsart University what civets eat, and he told me mostly bananas and coffee beans. Then I heard about civet coffee production as part of the Royal Project in the North and decided to do the same with Robusta coffee in Chumphon.”
Monthiprasart’s farm has about four dozen civets. The lithe creatures select their preferred coffee beans, swallow them, and let digestion run its course. The coffee beans are then carefully washed and dried for nine months before being roasted. “It’s a long process and the yield is meagre. Each civet only produces five kilos of ‘Kopi Luwak,’ which is what civet coffee is called in Indonesia. This is why it’s among the most expensive in the world: around B20000per kilo,” adds the amiable owner, who is generally pleased to introduce guests to his furry coffee workers. Coffee production in the South has seen its share of controversy, partly for its use of pesticides. More and more farms are now turning to organic production. The trend has received the fervent support of Supot Kornprasitwat, who is also known as “Billy the Gong.” The laid-back, soft-spoken entrepreneur has travelled across the world, living at times in European villages. He is just beginning his small coffee production, which he runs out of his Gong Valley Resort in Kraburi, a district in Ranong, just a few kilometres from Chumphon’s official boundaries.
After Billy realized that Robusta beans could develop their full flavour when roasted on a wok, a common tool in Thai households, he decided to teach farmers how to select and roast their best beans. Now, at his resort, he gives free lessons to any and all on producing and roasting excellent coffee. “I receive 100,000 visitors each year,” he says with pride. Since opening three years ago, he has already produced 200 tonnes of coffee picked by 40 local farming families.
Ever generous, Billy carries on the spirit of Flower Power utopians from the late sixties. “My purpose is to educate farmers so that they can make the best possible coffee and generate more individual income, because big coffee companies drag prices down,” he says.
A cup of coffee at Gong is indeed unique. The beans are roasted, out in the open, to the perfect taste, balancing acidity with deep, earthy flavours. “Robusta is as good as Arabica,” says Billy. “There are so many flavours to explore.” Such a fitting line for Thailand’s lesser-known coffee growing region.