A trip to Doi Chaang Coffee Farm
MD of Climpson & Sons, Danny Davies, journeyed to Chiang Rai in the far north of Thailand where he was shown the ropes and given a tiki tour of Doi Chaang Coffee Farm. In the first instalment he talks about visiting the operational side of the farm.
Doi Chaang fast facts
*The region is officially spelled Doi Chang (“elephant Mountain”) but Doi CHAANG is the proprietary name for the farm and roasting businesses. They trademarked it to distinguish themselves from the many other farms in the Doi Chang region.
** There are two official Doi Chaang businesses, the Thai side which grows the coffee and also roasts for around 400 cafes within Thailand (100% owned by a collective of famers), and the Canadian-based business which supplies roasted Doi Chaang coffee to the North American market, owned 50% by the Thai company and 50% by the Darch family. It can be slightly confusing as there are multiple social media accounts officially operating under the name but with different voices.
*** Mark Prendergrast, author of Coffee: Uncommon Grounds has written a full-length biography of the businesses, going to press very soon, highlighting the extraordinary life of Wichay Promyong. The fascinating development of the company owes much to Wichay who sadly passed away in early 2014. He and John M. Darch had a chance meeting in 2007 which led to the events that allowed the unique arrangements to evolve. John gifted 50% of the Canadian business to the Thais in exchange for first-offer rights on their coffee
MD of Climpson’s Danny Davies journeyed to Chiang Rai in the far north of Thailand where he was shown the ropes and given a tiki tour of Doi Chaang Coffee Farm. In the first instalment he talks about visiting the operational side of the farm.
I was collected by Doi Chaang Co-founder John M Darch (Canadian side) and senior partner Sandra (Thai side, her actual name is Pornprapa Bunmusik). The first stop was at Masoiera, where there is a cafe/visitor centre built on the site of a large concrete patio area specifically created by Doi Chaang to sun-dry the green coffee. The site takes advantage of significantly lower rainfall than the farm area (though only 2 hours away, but at a much lower altitude). I was struck by the foresight of Wichay, the co-founder of the farm, to purchase this land years before he needed it – though not a trained agronomist, he instinctively knew that this site would be of great use down the track if they were successful in commercializing the farm.
Continuing up some steep and windy roads, we climbed to 1130 metres above sea level. I was told to dress for cold but that must have been a Thai national that told me that as it was still 28 degrees up there, with a lovely mountain breeze. Another cafe/visitor centre provides the entrance to the heart of the farm business, the processing facility. More patio drying and warehousing and a bustling hub with trucks coming and going, staff busy raking the drying beans and a manic coffee washing operation. This was great to see and smell – fermenting beans in a concrete vat omit a lovely sweet grape-like aroma, mixed up with farm-yard vapours and enzymatic emissions. The staff were kept pretty busy pumping the batches of coffee in and out of vats, with the fully-washed and semi-washed (or “pulp-natural”) coffees receiving 12 and 24 hours fermentation time respectively. This removes the outer layers of the coffee cherry, and the pulpy bi-product gets pumped off to a giant mountain of pulp beside the facility to be turned into fertilizer and re-distributed around the farms. The de-pulped coffees then proceed onto the patios for drying, in their “parchment” state, ie with the mucilage still intact. The processing facility requires 24-hour attention during the harvest period and there were some cheerful bloodshot-eyed staff keeping vigil day and night throughout my visit. Plenty of coffee to drink of course ...
After a delicious cooked lunch in the communal dining area, we visited yet another patio area, attached to the hulling facility. Here the “parchment” coffee waits in bags until there are orders, thus maintaining a fresher tasting green bean. Once ordered, a large hulling machine de-hulls the parchment coffee, and the almost-ready green coffee is transferred across the patio to the hand-sorting department. As painstaking and indeed boring this job might seem (picking through 100+ kilos per day of green beans, removing black or damaged green coffee beans), this work provides essential year-round employment for the picking staff, outside of harvest. The atmosphere in the room was jovial, and the work is very important to quality control, so why displace human labour with high-tech machinery when it keeps the collective gainfully employed all year around? Once again, this is a conscious and collective decision that places long term social sustainability over short-term profits.
Last but not least in the operating chain, tucked away in a non-descript building is the roasting facility. Roasting their own beans gives a value-add to their self-grown beans that is crucial to keep up with the needs of a rapidly growing farming business. As an old coffee roaster myself, I must admit I was deeply jealous of their plant! Not only do they have a state-of-the-art 60kg Brambati roaster with all the add-ons (de-stoner, silos), they use a 70kg classic Barth re-purposed malt roaster that was built around 1940 and is a beauty to behold. Behind a glassed-off area the packing staff work together hand-bagging the beans with a neatness, finesse and set of matching uniforms that challenge most Western roasteries for efficiency.
Next stop on the tour was the coffee trees themselves! Rounding a corner, row upon row of large (2 metre plus tall) healthy caturra Arabica trees laden with red ripe coffee fruit trailed off down some very steep terrain. This is not your standard smooth, rolling vineyard-like layout though – the farm is spread over miles of rugged precipitous mountain range. We jumped back in the trusty 4WD and took a tour higher still into the mountains, up and down red-dirt roads surrounded by more and more coffee trees. We eventually stopped at the Doi Chang lookout from which you can see to the mountains in both Laos and Myanmar (yes its right in the apex of the infamous “golden triangle”). Coffee farms make up 10,000 hectares of land in this sub-region, a significant majority being part of the Doi Chaang operation but there also many coffee farmers doing they’re own thing there. Once proliferated with opium growers, the long path to convert to a more sustainable crop took about 20 years but thankfully the conditions are perfect for Arabica and this was identified early on by Wichay’s business partner Piko who was key in convincing their fellow Akhi hill tribe members to give coffee a try.
The pickers and tree maintainers have to deal with this landscape to extract their livelihood, and the farm is not neatly delineated at all. In fact, the very concept of western-style boundary-defined plots doesn’t exist here really – there are no land deeds, only interpersonal trust and deal-making. The farmers are true “small-holders”, and the whole farm of Doi Chaang as we see it is actually a conglomeration of hundreds of micro-lots, operating together as a collective. The co-operative arrangement is expertly managed by ... everyone. The democratic, committee-based business was explained to me at great length and I am still in awe of how they make it work. The end result is a smooth-flowing and happy company culture where the collective’s needs are more important than the individuals, and the profits are continuously re-invested in sustainable projects such as schools and fresh water for the surrounding community. The history and details of the co-operative structure are truly fascinating but you should wait for Mark Prendergrast’s book to really get the full picture.
The final stage of my tour took me back to the visitor centre, behind which is located the Education Centre. Here the senior staff hold court with the new farmers who are constantly welcomed into the collective, to be trained in farming best-practices. They also host conferences for interested parties and I was touched by the communal sleeping area upstairs – not the typical conference facilities I’ve stayed at! There is also a sample roasting and cupping lab which is used daily, as well as a another packing area for the diverse lines in farming by-products they produce, such as coffee-blossom honey, “blue” tea grown amongst the trees and bee pollen.
Behind this building is a run-down little shack that the team can’t bring themselves to destroy to be replaced with something more functional. It is the “house” that Wichay once lived in during the long years he spent growing this business. Legend has it that there was a python that would snuggle into his bed during the day whilst he was in the field, and he would have to be vigilant to check in and around this hut nightly to extract his visitor. I was lucky enough to spend some time with Wichay back in 2012 and I can understand how deeply this charismatic character is missed. The Doi Chaang staff are doing honour to their founding father by keeping his old hut around, probably forever.