The mountainous coffee growing regions of Chiang Rai, Doi Chang and Doi Tung are few hours’ drive from the city. Not only is Chiang Mai close to the origins of much of the Arabica (and specialty) coffee grown in Thailand, it also embraces a culture of experimentation.
Unlike Bangkok, we found that many of Chiang Mai’s cafés offered coffee concoctions beyond the usual espresso-based milk drinks and filter coffees. Pretty much every café we visited used Thai beans, but other origins were almost always represented. While certainly not exhaustive, we tried a lot of cafés during our visit.
Nimmanian Club exudes a cocktail bar vibe more than a coffee shop, and it is, but a coffee-focused cocktail bar — there is no alcohol here, just really good coffee-based concoctions alongside the usual suspects. We noticed several people drinking elaborate cocktails, while watching the “bartenders” craft them behind the long bar.
We stuck with espresso-based milk drinks. They don’t serve pourovers here, but their flat whites (65 baht each or just under $2) were made very well, using beans from Bangkok’s Roots Coffee. There is plenty of seating indoors and covered patio seating, including a couple of tables out front. The combination of free wifi means a lot of customers on laptops.
9th Street Cafe
UPDATE: 9th Street Cafe is permanently closed as of January 2017.
9th Street Cafe, named after the soi it’s on, has a ton of seating amenable to working from here. We shared a well-made pourover using beans from Chiang Mai (120 baht or around $3). Most days you’ll find Panda, the owners’ adorable dog, hanging around the café.
I’m not quite sure how I feel about Roxpresso. Everything here is done by hand: the espresso is pulled using a ROK Presso, coffee is ground using a ROK Coffee Grinder, and milk is steamed using a contraption that sits atop a gas stove (it may have been a Bellman.) I ordered a Piccolo (120 baht; Roxpresso offers several choices of beans, so depending on what you get, your coffee could cost much more), which meant my coffee went through each of those manual stages. The result was a cup of coffee that was much better than I had expected. The serving is also a tad elaborate: my tray came with tea, crackers and a vase of fake flowers.
The upside of all of this fussiness is that they operate completely normally without any electricity (not that this is a common concern around here). The downside, of course, is that this makes it one of the most expensive coffees in Chiang Mai.
That said, while I’m writing this, the stark contrast in process makes me appreciative of vicariously experiencing all the human agency that goes into producing a single cup of coffee. The Roxpresso space is also relatively minimal and easy on the eyes — only appropriate.
Ristr8to has a few locations in Chiang Mai. The “original” location on Nimmanhemin road was a short walk from our apartment, and they seem to be one of the few places open early (7am). They are big on espresso drinks here and have several milk drink options, based on strength of the espresso flavor that is brought out: the usuals — cappuccino, cortado, flat white; “cult” favorites — Melbourne’s Magic, San Francisco’s Gibraltar; and their own takes — Ficardie (strength 5/8), and my favorite, Cigar8to (strength 6/8).
This space is perpetually busy with expats and locals alike. There’s a large outdoor space looking out on Nimmanhemin, and there’s also a small lookout upstairs that you can access from outside.
The shutters open up to reveal a large space with several seats and tables, looking out on quiet soi 3, off Nimmanhemin. The Lab has a more relaxed vibe than their original location looking out on the main road. This is also where the coffee is roasted.
I did notice a certain smugness pervaded both Ristr8to locations. I suppose they know the coffee here, like in the original location, is exceptional. We often ended up drinking a cortado or a Cigar8to (88 baht, or about $2.50, each). The beans used in our drinks, on one occasion, was an organic blend from Thailand, Mexico and Colombia.
Located on a quiet alley in old town, Graph Cafe is a minimally designed tight little space, decked with thoughtfully placed old cameras, scales, watches and hats; the walls adorned by beautiful black and white photographs. A custom ledge outside seats three.
They roast their own beans, and espresso drinks are pulled using a manual piston-based espresso machine. It was a particularly warm afternoon when we visited, and we cooled down with a delicious bottled cold brew (200 baht or about $5).
Be sure to check their gorgeous Instagram feed.
Located east of old town, Khagee, which in Thai (ขจี) means “lively” or “fresh”, is a husband-and-wife (he Thai, she Japanese — they communicate with each other in English) run café and bakery. They serve espresso drinks using beans roasted for them by Happy Espresso of Bangkok, and bake bread using wild yeast.
We had an expertly made Gibraltar (75 baht or just over $2) while enjoying the peaceful environment of the cafe, soaked in a soft glow from the setting evening sun.
Located in a courtyard on a quiet alley off the main road, Nimmanahaeminda, Nine-one serves excellent pourovers and espresso based drinks. The staff is very courteous and friendly. I enjoyed a well-crafted piccolo (70 baht or $2) one evening in the outdoor space that overlooks the soi.
Cottontree Coffee & Cafe
Tucked away down a residential street within an old apartment complex north of Nimmanhaemin’s Maya mall, you wouldn’t expect to find a bright, airy, and modern specialty coffee shop. But here it stands, Cottontree, serving espresso-based drinks and pourovers using beans roasted in-house on their 2 kilo Has Garanti roaster.
I enjoyed an excellent Thai pourover (90 baht) one morning, while admiring the photographs on the wall taken by the owner, of his crew making Chemexes with coffee farmers they source beans from. Very cool.
Omnia Cafe & Roastery
North of old town, on the outskirts, Omnia cafe’s plant-filled front porch leads you into a white brick-walled tight but comfortable space indoors that leads you to a small backyard that also has some seating. We had an excellent piccolo (65 baht or just under $2) made using beans roasted in-house.
Tirawot’s family is in the jasmine rice business, but that was not his thing, so he opened a specialty coffee shop within the warehouse where the jasmine rice is processed. The modern glass-paneled store stands in stark contrast to the relatively bare rest of the warehouse.
The cabin-like space is small, but comfortable. We enjoyed a Thai Doi Chang on Aeropress (60 baht or just under $2) and a piccolo (55 baht), both made using beans roasted by local roasters Fieow Coffee Room, whose owner happened to be here that evening.
Flour Flour Bread x Hippo the Dripper
When you’re in Chiang Mai, you’re probably eating a lot of incredible local northern Thai food, but now and then a break is warranted — what you’re used to eating back home becomes the new exotic. We ate fantastic charcoal bread (which, we learned, is inspiration by way of Japan) with homemade almond butter and whole wheat toast with homemade peanut butter and honey (65 baht each), while sharing a pourover (70 baht or $2) using beans from Bangkok’s Brave Roasters.
With their flagship roastery in Bangkok’s Thonglor, Pacamara is located in the heart of old town in Chiang Mai. The chain-store vibe is a bummer, but the coffee is on point. They take their coffee seriously and have a sign that says they embrace their mistakes and will remake the coffee if it doesn’t live up to your expectations. We had an excellent pourover (80 baht or a little over $2), while we chatted with the Thai owner of Khagee, who we ran into here.
Akha Ama Coffee La Fattoria
Founded by Lee Ayu Chuepa as a way to help his Akha village, Akha Ama bills itself a “socially empowered enterprise”. Located on a main road in old town, the La Fattoria location serves excellent espresso-based drinks and filter coffee. We had an excellent piccolo (50 baht) pulled on their newly-arrived Spirit, while chatting with fellow coffee enthusiast Wong Ho Wan, a founder at coffee-focussed ListCup.
Northwest of Nimman, located in an enclave of a cluster of what looks like abandoned stores, off route 121, in what is called Penguin Village, is Penguin Ghetto. Their neighbors include another café, a co-op and a workspace.
The tiny two-level store has plenty of outdoor space and several cats. I enjoyed a good piccolo (70 baht or $2), while chatting with couple of cyclists who ended their rides here.
Nowhere Coffee Brewers
Trakool Roikaew, an aspiring photographer who studied archaeology, leads a caffeine-fueled semi-nomadic life. When we visited, he ran Nowhere Coffee (which gets its name from a Japanese clothing brand) in an outdoor space that led up to his home, at the eastern edge of old town. If you use the bathroom upstairs, you might run into his roommate getting out of the shower.
We enjoyed a pretty solid pourover (80 baht) using beans from Suthep he roasts in batches of 250g using a stovetop roaster, followed by one from “Teener”, a Pwo Karen village in Chiang Mai province.
Impresso Espresso Bar
In the heart of Nimman, Impresso Espresso Bar has a large, covered outdoor space. Inside, bar stools line the narrow coffee bar. We enjoyed a piccolo (70 baht or $2), made using beans from Bangkok’s P&F Coffee.