Thailand’s mountainous coffee journey
The Akha hill tribe has started organically growing and processing coffee beans in the mountains of northern Thailand. (Kevin Landwer-Johan/Getty)
If you have ever wondered where your morning cup of coffee comes from, consider a trip to the remote northern Thai village of Maejantai whose inhabitants produce some of the best coffee in the world.
The Akha Ama Coffee Journey is run by the young Ayu Chuepa, who is known simply as Lee and is a member of the Akha hill tribe, which is found in the mountains of northern Thailand, Laos, Burma and China’s Yunnan Province. Until 2010, the Akha traditionally subsisted by raising livestock and growing rice, vegetables and beans. But in the last two years, families in Maejantai have been organically growing and processing coffee beans. And after working for several years at a nonprofit in Chiang Mai, Lee received a grant to help his village cultivate, process and sell the coffee in a sustainable manner. As such, Lee opened the Akha Ama coffee shop in Chiang Mai and twice a year, as part of the Akha Ama Coffee Journey, he takes around 20 participants from around the world to Maejantai to see how the villagers live and work.
The journey is not easy. From Chiang Mai, visitors spend around four hours in a songtaew, a covered truck with two benches in the back, then two more hours in the back of a 4x4 driving up a primitive road. Add that to the early starts and intensive farm labouring, and Lee truly introduces participants to the true life of a coffee farmer. It is hard work, and that is how it is supposed to be.
In Maejantai, villagers pick coffee by hand – and so will participants. The day starts at dawn with a 6.4km walk along a winding dirt road to the coffee plants, continues with hours plucking coffee cherries from bushes planted along the steep hills, and ends with the return hike at dusk.
Ripe red or yellow cherries are twisted off the bush and dropped into wicker baskets. The baskets are then emptied into large hemp sacks, which hold between 50kg and 55kg of cherries. Full coffee sacks are driven by motorbike back to the village, where a machine removes the beans from the cherry skin. The skin is used as compost, while the beans are raked out to dry in the mountain air. After that, the beans are transported to Chiang Mai for roasting.
Maejantai farmers grow two strains of true Arabica, Catuai and Typica. Akha Ama coffee is distinct for its citrus notes and acidity, and has been selected out of 2,500 entries to be used in World Cup Tasters Championship by the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe.
Participants spend the night in villagers’ homes, usually on raised platforms in one- or two-room huts with dirt floors, with family members sleeping right alongside. Shower water is heated over the stove or on-demand by propane. Cooking is done over a fire, either in the house or in a separate hut. All the food is produced locally, with the exception of salt and vegetable oil.
“Ama” in Akha means “mother”, a tribute to Lee’s own. She is an integral part of the journey, cooking and serving all meals as well as hosting several participants in her home.
If you cannot make the coffee journey, which is held in November and January each year and tends to fill up as soon as it is announced on the website in early autumn, be sure to stop by Akha Ama Coffee to sample the brew. Not only will you be actively participating in the betterment of a village, but you will also treating your taste buds to an award-winning cup of coffee.