Chiang Mai Coffee Update 1

By Stuart Grant

Howdy from Chiang Mai. Despite the attempts of some silly-season travellers along the way, I made it to Chiang Mai last night (4am Australian time - it was a long day of travel).
I was met at the airport by Mike Mann, who is the director of ITDP (Integrated Tribal Development Program) which manages the coffee projects that we're a part of. Mike has plans for me! I'm happy about that, because I had made no plans other than "be useful"... ITDP runs a café & roastery in Chiang Mai which compliments their coffee projects amongst the hill tribe villages in the region. They call it Lanna Café. They have a large roaster (I'm guessing 25-30kg capacity) where they roast and blend coffees from different villages for use in Lanna and some other cafés around Chiang Mai. One of my first tasks will be to offer some roasting advice to the team here. This will be interesting because, as well as the language barrier, most Thais prefer their coffee a lot darker than we roast. I've spent the morning setting up some new lab equipment here at Lanna. They have a laboratory standard moisture analyser, and a couple of field moisture meters too. That means we can calibrate the field units at the lab, then take them to the villages to make sure the coffee is being dried adequately. If you under- or over-dry green coffee, the results are not good - they'll either taste mouldy or woody. This equipment will be a real benefit to the project. The coffee harvest has started, and apparently a lot of coffee has been coming in very quickly. This can be a problem if there aren't enough drying beds to hold all the coffee. What ITDP have done for now is set up lots more drying beds here in Chiang Mai, where the weather is more conducive to drying coffee. It means that the coffee is surface-dried at the processing stations, before being trucked to Chiang Mai (2-4 hours away) to finish the drying process. Tomorrow I will be visiting one of these processing stations - Mike said it's one of the best villages they work with, so it could potentially be the coffee that we end up buying (we won't get to taste samples for another couple of months). Later in the week I will be visiting the region where ITDP are doing some honey processing - rather than the usual fully washed processing. This will be exciting, but also challenging. We know exactly what needs to happen for the process to be successful:
  • perfect picking by the farmers
  • early delivery of cherry (so that it can be laid out to dry the same day)
  • good weather for drying
  • frequent raking of the coffee (so that it dries evenly)
  • enough room to dry all the coffee adequately.
But not all of these are controllable, and some of them are a massive logistical challenge - particularly because ITDP (to their credit) insist on keeping each village's coffee separate, so that growing/processing differences can be linked to quality/flavour. Hopefully we can work out the best way to handle all of these requirements. Looking forward to the next week or so!