During a recent trip to Thailand, Emily and I couldn't resist the opportunity to visit Hock Hoe Lee roasting in Phuket, which has been the island's coffee roaster for three generations. We discovered that they're doing great things in a country with very different attitudes towards coffee and in an industry miles away from ours.
When we showed up unannounced at Hock Hoe Lee's Rawai shop (one of two in Phuket), we were lucky enough to find Mr. Oh working behind the counter. The Bangkok native's engineering degree from USC gives him unusually good English skills for Phuket and an interesting insight into the contrast between Thai and American coffee cultures. This coupled with his warm heart and passion for his trade made him a real pleasure to talk to.
He explained that both the coffee industry and the customer base in Thailand are really different than in the States, and Hock Hoe Lee has had to adapt in many ways to accommodate this. The main difference is that Thai consumers have very little concept of specialty coffee. We saw evidence of this in the grocery stores, where you can't find anything but instant coffee. When we left Hock Hoe Lee, too, our taxi driver asked me how much I payed for the cup of espresso I had purchased there, and then laughingly told me i could find the same thing (by which he meant instant coffee) for 1/4 the price in 7-11!
Throughout their history, Hock Hoe Lee has been introducing Phuket to espresso drinks, too, and they've come a long way towards widening people's brew method horizons since coffee was brewed exclusively with the Indonesian "coffee sock" method.
Because of these attitudes, when the roastery was founded in 1958 it sold only Thai coffee, which is made by adding sugar to the roasting chamber just before the roast ends, resulting in an artificially sweet and caramelly flavor. In recent years, though, Hock Hoe Lee's commitment to quality has led them to begin sourcing higher quality green coffee from the northern Chiang Mai region of Thailand and roasting it without the sugar. This puts them on the forefront of the tiny specialty coffee culture in Thailand, and they've had to try to educate their Thai customer base and rely on expat customers because of this.
Hock Hoe Lee is up against more than just a customer base uneducated about specialty coffee, though. Finding green coffee from northern Thailand can be very difficult, too, and Hock Hoe Lee sources all of its coffee from this area. Mr. Oh explained that in Chiang Mai, to bring their coffee to market farmers traditionally go through agents who represent anything from a small cooperative of farmers to an entire network of coffee mills, and they can be tricky for a small roaster to deal with. The most problematic aspect is that they do not appreciate coffee roasters approaching farmers, as it cuts them out of their share of the profit. The result, as Mr. Oh laughingly put it, is that "a man from south Thailand coffee shop in Chiang Mai get shot." This makes it more difficult to ensure farmers are fairly compensated, decreases the transparency of the industry as a whole, and increases the price of the green coffee when the agent adds his cut.
Because the agents are paid commission, they're also not interested in selling the small quantities a local roastery needs, either. This puts roasters like Hock Hoe Lee in the awkward position of trying to purchase much more coffee than they really need simply to keep their supply lines open from agents who want money up front but may not deliver the coffee afterwards.
To add to the complexity of purchasing quality green coffee, recent years have seen a huge influx of lower quality coffee from Vietnam and Laos smuggled in and falsely labeled as Thai coffee to receive higher prices. Attempting to navigate this system, however, is far preferable to acquiring green coffee from international sources, because Thai customers are unwilling to pay the higher prices demanded by expensive shipping and customs fees.
Somehow, Hock Hoe Lee has found a way to navigate this tricky system, because these days they're producing high quality coffee for shops around the island on a 10 and a 15 kilo Toper roaster from Turkey. They're also serving amazing teas and great bakery items every day of the week, so if you ever find yourself in Phuket definitely look up Hock Hoe Lee!