Tua Jangaroon and his wife Mhee, a Hmong Catholic couple who grow and sell high-quality coffee, pose for a picture dressed in traditional garb. (Photo: UCA News)
Among the myriad trendy coffee brands on sale from around the world at a designer boutique at Bangkok’s swanky Icon Siam megamall are packets of roasted beans with the stenciled image of a mirthful hilltribe couple in their traditional garb from northern Thailand.
The image is no mere advertising gimmick. Tua Jangaroon and his wife Mhee, a Hmong couple who are devout Catholics, have been growing high-quality beans in their hillside village in Lampang, a province in northern Thailand that is home to several ethnic minority communities of Catholics and other Christians.
Many villagers who eke out a living through subsistence farming have started cultivating coffee plants in local forests as demand for the inky-black beverage has been rising steadily in Thailand.
Yet few of them have been as successful at it as Tua and Mhee, a jovial grandpa and grandma who appear inseparable. Their roasted beans are becoming popular even in Bangkok, several hundred kilometers distant and a world away from their village where cockerels strut, dogs laze and piglets scurry in a community of simple homes.
The Catholic couple now have more than 5,000 coffee trees on wooded land near their village where they and other locals also grow vegetables, fruits, nuts and various herbs. Back in the day, locals grew opium poppies too in order to supplement their meager income by selling the milky sap of the plants.
“We grow coffee where we used to grow opium,” says Tua, 60, adding that opium grew best in good soil, which is also ideal for coffee plants that thrive in the shade of taller trees on hillsides at higher altitudes with a moderate climate.
Organic coffee cherries grown in Thailand's mountainous northern region yield high-quality beans. (Photo: UCA News)
Better off cultivating coffee plants
The couple’s village lies in the storied Golden Triangle, a triangular confluence of the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, which was once the epicenter of the global opium trade.
Many of the villagers, including Christians who were converted in times past by foreign missionaries, grew opium for medicinal and recreational uses. These days, though, they are much better off cultivating coffee plants — not least because doing so isn’t illegal, unlike the cultivation of opium.
“In almost all the hilltribe villages, people grow coffee,” explains Thirach Rungruang, director of the Bangkok-based Agricultural and Food Marketing Association for Asia and the Pacific. “Coffee plants are a good cash crop for them because coffee is easy to cultivate and the beans can be sold easily.”
Yet villagers need to be on their guard in selling their produce. Unscrupulous wholesalers from out of town often short change unwitting local coffee growers by paying only a fraction of the going rate for high-quality beans. Enterprising villagers like Tua and Mhee have wised up to this and started not only growing their beans but also roasting and selling them on their own.
The couple market their roasted and ground beans under their own brand “Tua ka Mhee,” which translates as “Tua and Mhee.” Their wholesome image as hilltribe farmers, displayed on packets in the form of their stenciled visages against a backdrop of jagged mountaintops, only adds to their coffee’s appeal.
Tua and Mhee have even begun taking orders online and via phone with the aid of local helpers and shipping packets of their fine Arabica coffee to customers all over Thailand.
“Our lives have become much better since we started growing coffee,” observes Mhee, 61, a short, plump woman with a toothy smile and a pleasant disposition. “Coffee has become very popular in Thailand and more and more people want to buy our beans.”
Coffee was once largely consumed in iced and sugared forms for a kick of caffeine and calories in Thailand. In recent years, however, the beverage has become highly popular as a social drink. Starbucks outlets have become ubiquitous around Bangkok and other cities while thousands of locally run cafes, too, play their trade across the country.
High-quality coffee, often consumed piping hot, is becoming especially popular with hip young urbanites who prize fine Arabica brews. Among the increasingly popular beans at specialty and boutique cafes are those from the country’s scenic northern mountainous region, which is populated by various hilltribes famed for their eye-catching ethnic garb and equally colorful traditions.
Some Thai baristas even specialize in coffee grown organically by ethnic minority farmers in the North. Yet despite growing demand for their coffee, Tua and Mhee continue to favor tea.
“I don’t like to drink coffee much,” the Hmong woman concedes. “Whenever I drink a bit, I always get heart palpitations,” she adds with a laugh.