Will Frith
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» As it cools

Specialty coffee in Vietnam: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) coffee shops, roasters, and baristas, and Dalat green coffee farmers, processors, and evangelists.

Chiang Rai, Thailand

Being closer to the places where coffee is grown really does bring something special to a city’s coffeehouse scene. In addition to having easy access to origin for staff education and relationship management purposes, there’s something deeply personal about serving coffee grown where one lives. There’s also a palpable sense of pride, as it’s usually the region’s coffee being served - whether exclusively or not - and perhaps knowing that at any moment the growers themselves, or at least an acquaintance, could walk in and order something.

They also welcome a lot of “coffee people” traffic - buyers, industry folks, and enthusiasts who are passing through on their way to visit farms and mills in the area - contributing to a strong community vibe, and a well practiced type of personally-vested hospitality not usually present in cafes in the West.

Yours truly arriving at The Roastery by Roj to a familiar face (Dung Nguyen of Saigon’s The Workshop Specialty Coffee)

Yours truly arriving at The Roastery by Roj to a familiar face (Dung Nguyen of Saigon’s The Workshop Specialty Coffee)

This visit was a group trip with some of my best Vietnam coffee friendlies - Dung of The Workshop, Quang of La Viet, Charlie of Artisansmith, Dat of Phin and Bean, and more. We were hosted by longtime ally and friend Fuadi Pitsuwan of Beanspire Coffee, and new friend (and mega sweetheart) Korn Sanguankeaw of Roots Coffee Roasters in Bangkok.

Saroj “Roj” Inthep, founder of The Roastery, and Thai Specialty Coffee pioneer, is most at home behind the bar and behind the scenes.

Saroj “Roj” Inthep, founder of The Roastery, and Thai Specialty Coffee pioneer, is most at home behind the bar and behind the scenes.

Our rendezvous point was The Roastery by Roj, where we had delicious honey and natural process coffees from Doi Pangkhon, the region we’d be visiting a couple of hours later. 

The roastery at The Roastery. Roj has all the best toys and tools...

The roastery at The Roastery. Roj has all the best toys and tools...

Roj is the consummate host, welcoming us into his well-curated world complete with all the latest gadgets, toys, and types of coffees that any enthusiast or professional would be happy to inhabit. The regulars seemed really happy to have this space to do their coffeehouse thing, whether it’s geeking out over a gesha or natural process Ethiopian import, or the latest processing experiment from the farms just an hour away, or simply enjoying the atmosphere as a spot to set up and get some work done. This really is the spot to grab your hit of coffee before heading up the mountain. Roj is there, quietly doing his thing, and welcoming visitors as they file in. What isn’t immediately apparent, though, is the direct influence that he’s had on Thai specialty coffee, specifically the Pangkhon area production. More on him in another post.

Local, minimal, essential.

Local, minimal, essential.

Speaking of “next posts,” I’ll write separately about the Pangkhon visit - there are lots of photos to upload! So, here we continue with our Chiang Rai landing pad post-mountain visit.

We stopped in at Local Coffee, just on the outskirts of town on the highway. This place wins the award for dreamy, proudly-DIY escape.

Pongsakorn “Note” Areesiripaisal (right) and his wife/partner, Paew, preparing drinks for us.

Pongsakorn “Note” Areesiripaisal (right) and his wife/partner, Paew, preparing drinks for us.

Essentialist living at Local Coffee

Essentialist living at Local Coffee

Note is a professor in Bangkok, and an avid photographer and cycling enthusiast, artist, and passionate coffee lover. He and his wife, Paew, a specialist in Communication Arts, run the shop by themselves 6 days per week. Roasting, opening, closing, serving, cleaning - it’s all up to them, and they’re loving every minute. Note really loves the handmade aspect of pour over, going so far as to hand grind every filter coffee order (with an Orphan Espresso Lido 2). Espresso is produced with an electric espresso grinder and a La Marzocco Linea Mini.

“Falling in Love with a Girl from the North,” a drink comprised of (from bottom to top) coffee jelly, condensed milk, frozen milk sphere, delicious espresso.

“Falling in Love with a Girl from the North,” a drink comprised of (from bottom to top) coffee jelly, condensed milk, frozen milk sphere, delicious espresso.

Local has a fun, spontaneous side as well, with a signature drink menu that will capture the whimsy of even the most jaded coffee aficionado. I went for a drink called “Falling in Love with a Girl from the North” which consisted of coffee jelly, condensed milk, frozen sweet milk sphere, and a sidecar of espresso. Not only was it delicious and fun, but it was well balanced, a good representation of the coffee itself.

Note and Paew are excellent hosts as well, and I felt as if I were being welcomed into their home. Taking on so many parts of production and operations themselves is challenging enough, and for them to pull it off with such an easy-going, friendly vibe is superhuman. A must-see when in Chiang Rai.

Local Coffee’s roasting lab, with an air roaster designed by Note himself.

Local Coffee’s roasting lab, with an air roaster designed by Note himself.

Enjoyin’ my coffee experience…

Enjoyin’ my coffee experience…

Next, the Beanspire crew put together a cupping to give us a glimpse of the region’s offerings - some examples of coffees from Doi Pangkhon, Doi Saket, Khun Lao, and Nan - on the lovely patio at Saturday Cafe in Chiang Rai. Many thanks to Pen-tai for lending us your space!

Minh Nguyen, an independent consultant based in Dalat, Vietnam, concentrates on samples.

Minh Nguyen, an independent consultant based in Dalat, Vietnam, concentrates on samples.

sniff sniff

sniff sniff

I won’t elaborate too much about the cupping specifics, but overall I was super impressed with both the quality and variety of flavor profiles I experienced - everything from syrupy caramels to floral and fruit tones, brown sugar and baking spices. I do believe some purchasing decisions were made there, too…

Obligatory work boots shot

Obligatory work boots shot

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