The 8 Best Cafes in Chiang Mai, Thailand
You’re about to join me on a journey through the best coffee shops in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which is apparently 'the unofficial coffee capital of Northern Thailand'. With this title, one can only expect that the coffee in this part of the world is better than anything they have ever had, right?
But first, why is Chiang Mai 'the coffee capital'? To be completely honest with you I heard that expression thrown around so many times on my trip, without much explanation. It became a bit of a cliche.
Here's my take on it: it's the coffee capital because of the high density of coffee shops in the small city; there are hundreds of places to get caffeinated, and I didn't even get through a 3rd of them during my tour.
I did, however, have some inside help for a local coffee shop owner who, as expected, knows the local coffee shop scene better than any traveler ever could.
Are There are TOO MANY Coffee Shops in Chiang Mai?
Shortly after touching down, full of excitement and still apparently a little jet-lagged, I had one thought pulsing through my mind: It's time to find me some caffeine, Thai style.
'I’ll just look up a few nearby cafe’s and choose one based on the online reviews', I thought to myself, foolishly.
It was at this time when the overwhelm began to set it.
There are literally hundreds of cafes in Chiang Mai (and I'm not including the street stalls that serve Thai-style coffee), and bear in mind that you can walk from one side of the city to the other in less than an hour.
Having choices in life is great - however having TOO many choices can lead to overwhelm and decision fatigue. In this case, I was experiencing both.
It was at this moment that I asked myself: "Is there such a thing as too many coffee shops?"
Maybe you’re thinking; ‘Just go online and make a shortlist, you wimp’ which is exactly what I tried to do until I started finding articles titled: ‘The 50 best coffee shops in CM."
A 'best list' loses its authenticity when it has 50 items, all claiming to be the best. Are you sure that coffee shops number 48, 49 and 50 are still considered the best? I wouldn't think so. In this case, 'best' starts to lose its meaning.
And if these were the 50 BEST coffee shops in the city, how many more 'good' and 'average' coffee shops could there be???
There IS a point to this rant of mine: If you find yourself in Chiang Mai but you don't have months to spare, plan the coffee shops you want to visit ahead of time because there is an overwhelming list options for the coffee lover!
Lucky for me my buddy Joseph over at Extracted magazine hooked me up with a local coffee producer who have me the inside scoop on the eight coffee shops that I needed to visit in Chiang Mai;
The 8 Best Coffee Shops in Chiang Mai
The cafe's that i'm about to cover get talked about, a lot. The reason you’ll keep hearing about the same handful of coffee shops, in my opinion, is that each has a strong point of differentiation, and hence, stand out in the super crowded space.
The 8 cafes below made my shortlist because:
- They either had some unique concept which warranted a visit, or;
- Coffee is a way of life; an art form, rather than a business to them. These cafes are dedicated to the brewing incredibly great coffee, and nothing else.
#1 - Akha Ama Coffee - La Fattoria
First on my list was The Akha Ama coffee shop and it did a great job of setting my expectations of coffee in Chiang Mai extremely high.
As I selected a local bean and watched my barista meticulously whip up a smooth v60 pour over, I pondered over one of the treats on display that seemed to be calling my name - mango cheesecake, or cold brew jelly?
I had high expectations that the coffee would be superb, and who could blame me?
After meeting with Lee Ayu (the owner) and discussing the local coffee scene, local farming/production, his relationship to Stumptown coffee roasters (he often travels to expand and improve his plethora of knowledge about coffee) - it was evident that coffee is more than a morning drink to him; it's a way of life.
Not surprisingly my expectations were surpassed - I say not surprisingly because what do you expect when the owner of a cafe is so dedicated to mastering the art of coffee?
Akha Ama is more than just great darn coffee shop in a trendy setting, however; they actively practice sustainable agriculture and support the local coffee farming community.
The coffee shop, much like a social enterprise, exists to empower the local tribe community living in northern Thailand (the ‘Akha’ people) as they focus on farming/producing coffee for the coffee shop's connected.
THE NOT SO GOOD
#2 Graph Cafe - Thae Pae Gate
Big things come in small packages so when you arrive at graph cafe don’t be turned off by the fact that it can only accommodate a handful of people because the experience alone is worth it. (but you better get there early)
Small on space, yes, but big on aesthetics. Whoever was in charge of kitting out Graph Cafe surely kept design-critical coffee hipsters in mind; beautiful timber and steel furniture, vintage accessories scattered throughout and the perfect combination of colors and artwork.
The small space is a bonus in my opinion, as it forces you to socialize with your fellow coffee lover at the table next to you.
I don’t usually judge a book by it's cover, but in this case it would have been safe to do so because just like the aesthetics of the place, the coffee was all about quality.
I was (un)lucky enough to visit Thailand during a ridiculous heat wave where the average daily temperature sat around 45 degrees, and during one of these scorchingly hot days I beelined it straight to Graph Cafe to cool down with a pint of their much anticipated ice-cold Nitro cold brew coffee:
Other highlights were the in-house brewed cold drip coffee and the homemade cookies that pair perfectly with anything containing caffeine.
THE NOT SO GOOD
#3 - Impresso Bar
This place is sure to Impresso the online working crowd who’d like to have excellent coffee within arms reach (see what I did there?)
All silly puns aside, this mid-sized espresso bar nestled in one the very Europe-Esq streets of the Nimmanhaemin area solidified its place on this list for a few reasons.
Firstly, as someone who works online I found that it was almost set up in mind for coffee drinkers who needed a place to work; large comfortable tables, and plenty of room to move.
The absence of your traditional 'staff-on-one-side, customers-on-the-other' style counter means that the baristas hang around in the cafe, rather than waiting behind the bar to take your order, giving the whole place a more relaxed and friendly vibe. To me, it felt like a co work space that happened to have a few commercial espresso machines lying around, and people who knew how to use them (extremely well).
The second and perhaps most obvious reason I'd recommend you check out Impresso bar is for the espresso - If you're an espresso snob you’ll have to come here and try it for yourself, as my word won't do it justice.
Just take a look at all of the serious espresso machine artillery:
And finally, my advice to you is that you sample at least a few of their daily baked sweet treats and pastries, that will not disappoint.
THE NOT SO GOOD
#4 - Ristr8to
Ristr8o is the most gossip-worthy coffee shop in Chiang Mai (and possibly Thailand) and I had high expectations on arrival since it was the 4th stop on my tour; and coffee shops 1-3 has just impressed the pants off me.
The first thing you’ll notice at Ristr8o is the meticulous detail of everything: from the origins of your bean to the history of your chosen method of brewing, to the amount of caffeine in each drink! With so much detail present, one can only assume they are about to experience some of the finest coffee in the world.
I’m a sucker for filtered coffee so on my first visit to Ristr8o I was lured to the sexiness of the pour-over bar and ended up with a Thai-bean Woodneck brew. It was nice, but nothing to write home about given the high expectation I had after hearing so much about the place.
That was where I went wrong - this place was famous for its ristretto based coffee and I’d foolishly ordered the opposite.
During my second visit, my opinion went from 'meh' to 'wow' as I sampled a few of their in-house espresso based specials.
After trying two of their signature drinks - the Ciggar8o and the Ristr8o (custom designed and brewed cappuccino like drinks) - I'd come to realise what all the fuss was about.
It's Difficult to explain with words, but it had me coming back multiple times during my trip, and that says a lot for someone who does not drink cappuccino based drinks!
Yes, it gets crowded (quickly), and regarding food, your options are limited, but this is the place you come for one thing, and one thing only - damn fine coffee.
THE NOT SO GOOD
#5 The Nimmanian Club
You love coffee - I can safely make that assumption at this point (why else would you be reading this), but, if you’re also a fan of the bartender scene, this cafe will get you extra excited.
The Nimmanian club is where the skills of the best baristas and bartenders come together in unison, and the result is a very unique experience: a coffee bar where you can enjoy the love child of a mocktail and a coffee.
You’ll feel like you've stepped into an uptown cocktail bar with the stylish decor, and the half-bartender, half-barista looking staff mixing up what seem to be cocktails behind the room length, gorgeous timber bar.
As we sat at one of the many bar stools and dissected the menu in awe, we watched the baristas whipping up concoctions with cocktail shakers, blowtorches, and of course, freshly brewed espresso.
We chose to try a signature drink; 'the Caramello', and a standard latte (they can make regular coffee quite well, too) both which were smooth and satisfying.
The coffee was decent, however, come here for the experience alone and make sure you indulge in one of their signature drinks!
THE NOT SO GOOD
#6 Ponganes Espresso
Ponganes was another espresso bar that came up in plenty of street talk (the good type) and is a strong contender for best espresso bar in Chiang Mai along with Ristr8o and Impresso bar.
Like Ristr8o, Ponganes focuses on the essential - making the finest coffee, over everything else. So don’t expect to come here for the Wifi or the food menu, both of which are almost nonexistent.
They roast their beans in the shop and clearly dedicate time, effort and concentration to creating the perfect coffee. As you walk up to the counter, don't miss the opportunity to sample each of the beans on offer, and ask the friendly Baristas for a few recommendations.
We went for an Aeropress thai blend and an espresso or course, which was super strong, very smooth and a very strange-but-beautiful bright orange color.
THE NOT SO GOOD
#7 The Cotton Tree Cafe
Another contender for great places to work from that serve damn fine coffee is the Cotton Tree Cafe which is located (a little awkwardly) behind the Maya mall, 10 minutes out of the Chiang Mai town center.
Your options are vast when it comes to seating; sit inside at one of the many spacious and relaxed tables, or head outside into the courtyard-garden and enjoy the sunshine. The space, design and vibe of the cafe makes it the type of place you could sit for hours without feeling like you are 'overstaying your welcome'.
All bases are covered when it comes to caffeine. Cotton Tree serves both espresso based and pour over coffee - both of which were brewed perfectly by passionate, smiling baristas. Make sure you try their signature coffee blend (called the 'Cottontree’) which consists of a combination of the right Thai, Indonesian, and Brazilian beans.
THE NOT SO GOOD
#8 Omnia Cafe
Omnia Cafe is a little 'out of the way' in relation to the other coffee shops on this list, but the quality of coffee, combined with friendly vibes and a relaxed atmosphere definitely makes it worth the trip.
The first pleasantry I noticed on arrival is that they have a colossal selection of beans from all around the world on offer, and they roasted right there in the cafe (always a good sign). It seems like the owners get a little over-excited offering new coffee beans, as they were almost running out of storage space for each blend:
Scanning over the menu, you’ll notice that they serve the norm that you'd find at any great coffee shop; espresso based drinks and filter coffee, BUT, they also had a few exciting sounding signature coffee concoctions on offer which sounded too good to pass up.
We tried the 'Cascada', an incredibly strong shot of espresso floated perfectly atop chilled milk, and the 'Barista's choice of the month', which was a cold brew concoction shaken with ice, poured over soda and garnished with cinnamon and organic honey.
Every so often they host coffee cupping classes where the cafe owners (whom have traveled throughout Central America to learn more about their craft) will teach how to taste and appreciate coffee like a true connoisseur.
Make sure you check out some of the very local and delicious food in this area before heading back into the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai
THE NOT SO GOOD
I'm guessing that the coffee shop turnover rate in Chiang Mai is high, and there seems to be new shops closing, and opening, almost weekly. As you can see through my tour, there is lots to see and yet, I still only got through a fraction of what's on offer.
Do you have any coffee shops you’d like to add yourself?
If I missed a coffee joint that you believe is worthy, leave a comment below!