On a perch two hours up a washed-out dirt track from Chiang Rai sits Maejantai, one of the most remote villages in Northern Thailand. This village, set high in the region’s densely forested mountains, also produces some of Thailand’s best fair-trade coffee, which is gaining international attention (most notably by the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe, or SCAE) for its smooth, sweet and sour notes.
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Maejantai is home to 32 families of Akha, whose people make up one of just 10 hill tribes officially recognized by the Thai government. Mountain people who are spread across the forested hills of northern Burma, Laos and China’s southern Yunnan province, the Akha speak their own language and are originally from Tibet. Historically, they have been meagerly self-sufficient: They grow or gather almost all of their own food but typically purchase salt and cooking oil. Each home has one solar panel to power a couple of light bulbs. However, as the world around them modernizes, Akha parents want to send their children to school beyond the primary level, and to do so requires economic stability.
Enter coffee. Coffee was first introduced to Maejantai and other hill tribe villages in the 1990s by Thailand’s Royal Agricultural Project as a means to stop opium production. The villagers of Maejantai did grow coffee, but didn’t see their standard of living improve. Though coffee is a cash crop, it is traded as a commodity: middle men buy the coffee at low prices and sell it for a large profit. Because the Akha spoke only limited Thai and had no knowledge of coffee markets, they were often underpaid for their crop. Then the village’s sole college graduate walked back into town.
Creating the Akha Ama brand
Ayu Chuepa, who goes simply by “Lee,” decided in 2007 that he wanted to improve the lives of his hometown’s residents. Coffee was the natural focus. “It keeps well, has a shelf life, is a growing market in Thailand, and is known around the world,” Lee said. Plus, villagers already knew how to cultivate it. In 2010 the Akha Ama brand was born.
But Lee wanted to remove the middle man, as well as produce high-quality coffee, in a model that was sustainable both environmentally and economically. And that required changes to the way Maejantai did things, changes that were not always welcomed. Lee understood the villagers’ reluctance. “They have always lived their lives with practice, not theory,” he said. “I was gone for 10 years, so why should they believe me?”
Lee, who is 28, speaks Akha, Thai and English and has a fit-but-relaxed build reminiscent of an athlete at rest. His wavy black hair is trimmed in a trendy bowl cut. He was born in Maejantai, but had to walk 4 kilometers to another village to attend primary school. With no secondary school in the area, Lee spent six years in a Buddhist temple until he finished high school. He then attended Chiang Rai Rajabhat University, where he studied English with the help of scholarships and government loans. Today he is in the often awkward and difficult position of ushering change into a community that isn’t yet sure how, or if, to accept it.
Starting Akha Ama was not easy, and not just because he needed to persuade villagers to change the way they grow and sell their beans. Lee, who only drank instant coffee at the time, had to study coffee cultivation from seed to finished product, and learn how to be a barista as well as market a product and manage a business. The year he created Akha Ama, only his immediate family participated, producing 2 tons of beans, half of which Lee distributed as free samples. Three years later, 14 of the 32 families of Maejantai cultivate beans under the Akha Ama brand. In 2010, Lee opened the Akha Ama coffee shop in Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand, to sell his village’s coffee directly.
A unique strategy for success
What makes Akha Ama coffee excellent is a combination of prime growing conditions and careful attention to processing. All coffee cherries are handpicked when they are ripe, twisted off of branches and deposited into wicker baskets. The daily harvest is taken by motorbike out of the hills and back into the village, where the cherries are soaked in clean water and separated from the beans. Villagers spread the beans out on wide bamboo platforms, letting them dry overnight in the high mountain air.
Once dried, the beans go through one more separation process, this time to remove a thin skin, or husk. They are then trucked to Chiang Mai, where Lee has carefully selected a small, private roaster.
The beans are 100% Arabica Catuai, grown in soil fertilized with cast-off cherry skins. Farmers do not use chemical fertilizers or herbicides, instead relying on other plants for pest control: sesame and lemongrass have unappealing scents, while cabbage draws insects in (and away from coffee plants). Apricots, peaches and persimmon also reduce risks while adding value as other cash crops. Young avocado trees will soon provide shade. The product is a finely balanced coffee that is both sweet and sour.
Lee refuses a mono-culture model, both because it’s not good for the soil and it’s not good for villagers to rely on a single income source. Standing among the mountains of Maejantai, Lee points to the forest, noting that thousands of species live together, and that this diversity buffers the forest against seasonal ups and downs. He hopes that one day Maejantai’s coffee farms will achieve the same balance, environmentally and economically.
Coffee growing in Maejantai, Thailand. Credit: Catherine Bodry