Around every corner, within throwing distance, gleaming with caffeine pleasures, abundant even by UK standards, oozing out of every lane are the coffee shops of Chiang Mai. With most of them being independent, coffee culture is as strong and as culturally significant as it is in London.
I am not a coffee snob. I do not suck my coffee through gritted teeth declaring it burnt if I detect a slight hint of bitterness. I do not exclaim proudly if I noticed the berry infusion so claimed in the description. And neither do I turn my nose up when watching street vendors pour unlabelled white-ish powders and syrups into my iced coffee. This openness to coffee I must give credit to my mother for. Her love of a button machine cappuccino is enough for her to brave the worst of the British weather for, daily dates with said coffee machine are her ‘one luxury in life’ and she will hear no word said against them. Choosing This coffee over any boutique cafe or Costa outlet has meant I appreciate a coffee in a different way to most, ie if I like it, I’ll go back, button machine or fancy home roasted.
Britain has been blinded in two ways. The first is the sheer volume of horrible coffee, sold to the masses at prices beyond their worth by teenagers who know as much about coffee as they do about the current political state of Papua New Guinea. Our insatiable desire to get our near hourly dose of caffeine has led to a rise in chains of coffee shops that offer formulated experiences that entertain our habitual nature and comfort in the known. Coffee shops in the late twentieth century was a move away from packaged coffee and meant the bitter coffee was prized, but potentially only because it was new and considered modern.
I would like to argue that we have been blinded another way. But perhaps in a nicer way. Independent coffee shops have found their chance and their market, selling said mentioned berry infused and chocolate infused coffees from around the world, picked by hand, roasted by master roasters, fair trade stamped, organically smothered and delivered to you in gold plated mugs. They claim to know their stuff. The guys and girls behind the counters are arty, have a light smattering of tattoos and piercings, wear just the right amount of vintage and have the potential, the look, to being interested in the coffee they are currently brewing.
We have successfully cultivated a coffee snob. A new subculture within society. The people that require their coffee to be an exact, yet wholly subjective, temperature. That bicker over the exact quantity of foam on the perfect cappuccino. These people are not aged connoisseurs, quite the opposite. To have the taste buds required to identify a fine coffee bean holds a massive amount of street cred and to turn to friends after taking a meagre sip, declaring ‘burnt’ causes swathes of people to nod in appreciation of their exceptional palate at the tender age of 22.
I do not agree with these two cultures. Coffee is not something to be produced in such massive quantities that quality and farmers well being is undermined for the sake of a profit. But neither is it something to become so snobby about. As soon as the burnt comment is raised the experience of drinking coffee becomes hurried, time is not as willing to be spent, the thought of having a cake to go with that coffee is not an option any more. The situation becomes mildly uncomfortable.
This is not the way coffee should be. Coffee should be enjoyed as a medium, a small part of an experience, made up of many other factors. Such as, the ambience, the people, the book you have been dying to sit down with, the inspiration to write that report, the conversation with the person on the table next to you you didn’t know, the cups that are made just down the road, the odd combination of flavours in a cake that just work! the abundance of language classes, yoga classes, need-your-bike-fixed flyers that adorn the bulletin board.
Let’s move away from this desire to know a gazillion milk pouring techniques and the perfect size for a macchiato towards the development of spaces that allow people to experience and to give. To enhance the experience and not nitpick and criticise it. To enjoy and revel in the differences between the make up of each coffee shop and not just abide by the cultural magnetic pull of a Starbucks just because you know you kind of like their gingerbread lattes.
And so to conclude, Chiang Mai I salute you for not (yet) being influenced by Starbucks coffee as much as the West has and for providing experience alongside your coffee, not just a biscotti and a declaration of ‘fair trade’.