Inside the Coffee Pot
by Margaret Bhadungzong, Editor
“After 20 years of continuous cultivation, the Phahi Coffee Estate surrounded by a community of over 80 families enjoy a sustainable quality of life and they receive steady income from arabica coffee. Generations of these highland people have lived in the area since 1970’s when they existed on a meager income from growing cabbage and opium. In the early 1990’s, the villagers came together to learn the best coffee growing techniques to produce a high standard of coffee. Today’s harvest easily meets the criteria gauged by the standards International Coffee Organization (ICO). At present the farmers earn annually up to Baht 250,000 per family for two tons of coffee beans. The families have other benefits such as an asphalt road for easy access to and from the city, and an established government public health station serving the community. The mortality rate of jungle mosquito borne diseases have greatly decreased.
The 800-rai coffee plantation was purposely selected to benefit from the sun’s optimum exposure. Another important selection was the choice of Catimor type beans. The Catimor is a rust (or mould) resistant variety, A big plus is this area does not have the coffee berry borer, a small beetle recognized as the most harmful pest to coffee crops worldwide. The beetle thrives in rainy season but in Chiang Rai, the harvest season is in the dry season from December to February. Relying on exceptional working knowledge of all sectors of coffee growing, the coffee estate operates efficiently.
Mr. Damrongsak created a comprehensive presentation of the history and the settling of Doi Phahi. He has traveled to a variety of coffee plantations around the world, bringing back with him applicable common sense knowledge. In the presentation, were sessions with Master Tasters who are responsible for setting taste standards in the selection, purchase and ongoing quality for all coffee throughout the world. The “cuppers” traveled to Chiang Rai to evaluate the Phahi Estate coffee for themselves. After recent sales, it’s very likely the first couple in the USA enjoy drinking morning coffee originating in Phahi, Chiang Rai.
After viewing the fascinating power point presentation, we drove from the city production center to the plantation on Doi Phahi. It was the most perfect day to view the coffee plantation at the altitude of 1,200 meters. About eight days before our visit, a heavy rain fell saturating the area reviving the bushes from the dormant stage. When we arrived in the late afternoon, the villagers were gathering at the rustic community center for a ceremony. After greeting them, we followed a concrete block paved one lane road through the coffee trees. The sight of the trees covered with white blossoms was beautiful. This natural event occurs only once per year lasting for two consecutive days. After the two day period, the blossoms fall off the plants. But on this day, the hills appeared to be covered with thousands of blooms about the size of dawg mali jasmine blooms.
The coffee trees start giving berries after the third year of growth. It’s possible for the trees to produce beans for 115 years with careful pruning through the years as Mr. Damrongsak had explained in the presentation.
The factory near Mae Sai, the north most district of Thailand, employs fifteen full time workers who select by hand the most perfect beans for both pale gray green translucent color and large size to be roasted at the optimum temperature determined by the coffee specialist. Because roasting requires careful control, this step is a task not performed by the growers on the estate. Of the utmost importance is ensuring the low moisture content of the beans before roasting takes place at the factory. Throughout Thailand, the majority of coffee growers pack and sell the beans in 50 kilogram bags and the roasting is done by outside roasters but not so for the Phahi Coffee Estate.
In March 2010, Mr. Damrongsak was selected by the Thai Tea and Coffee Association to receive the award for producing the “Best Arabica coffee in Thailand”. He was pleased to be in the company of other award winners especially his former Chiang Mai University agriculture professor of many years ago, Dr. Pongsak Angasith, the current President of Chiang Mai University who was recognized by the TTCA for founding the Highlands Coffee Development group.
There are many reasons for coffee aficionados attraction such as the delightful fragrance, the mouth feel of the essence on the palette, and the rush of caffeine lift. Whatever your reason, the associated pleasures are all in the growing reputation of the Phahi Coffee Estate in the mountains of Chiang Rai.
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