‘Rosetta of the North’: The latte art and heady brews of Chiang Mai’s coffee scene

Ristr8to’s iconic dark décor draws the crowds in Chiang Mai’s Nimman district – Pictures by CK Lim
Ristr8to’s iconic dark décor draws the crowds in Chiang Mai’s Nimman district – Pictures by CK Lim

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CHIANG MAI, Dec 16 – Nimmanhaemin Road, to those in the know, is the centre of Chiang Mai’s growing specialty coffee scene.

Fondly called Nimman for short, this neighbourhood in Thailand’s “The Rose of the North” offers dozens of espresso and filter brew bars for those who need a pick-me-up after a long day of historical sightseeing.

But not all cafés are made equal.

Tucked away in a row of shophouses is Ristr8to, home to the World Latte Art Champion 2017 Arnon Thitiprasert. It’s inescapable, almost like a black hole with its dark exterior and interior. You can’t miss it; if not for the décor in all shades of midnight, then for the crowds that gather.

Inside it’s darker still, nearly pitch, but it fits the mood. A sprawling menu offers a litany of wittily named drinks such as their signature Cigar8to, a tiny 4-ounce cup of doppio ristretto rounded out with perfectly textured steamed milk, and the Shakerato from Hell, a “laboratory blend” of milk, Brazilian cacao syrup and a double shot of espresso served in four glass test tubes.

The baristas pour the sweet concoction over ice cubes and then shake vigorously until they create the refreshing coffee drink

Alcohol infused coffees span the globe from the Ethiopian Monkey (mocha with sweet, mint-flavoured crème de menthe) to the Mexican Latte (created in 2012, this latte is levelled up with crème de cacao and Kahlúa).

James Bond insists on his dry martini “shaken, not stirred”; you’d wonder what he’d make of Ristr8to’s Black Martini where a generous measure of Beefeater gin and Absolut vodka is shaken with a double shot of long ristretto.

With that much caffeine, the British superspy would be at it all night long, would be my guess. (At spy craft, I mean. Naturally.)

Exciting and strange options aside, it’s the latte art that draws the customers from far and wide.

Free pouring latte art, where no additional tools such as toothpicks are used to etch out designs, is the craft at its purest. There are 5-leaf tulips and 7-leaf tulips, reversed tulips, single rosettas and rosettas with hearts, swans and phoenixes.

The possibilities are endless.

Latte art is serious business at Ristr8to
Latte art is serious business at Ristr8to

Though the baristas are deadly serious about their craft, the good folks at Ristr8to don’t take themselves too seriously. We observe a long black and a glass of water offered in prayer to the deities at the foot of a tree outside the café.

Even gods and spirits need their caffeine fix, seems to be the message here.

Ristr8to’s baristas use their in-house espresso blend of Thai, Colombian and Mexican beans
Ristr8to’s baristas use their in-house espresso blend of Thai, Colombian and Mexican beans

Thitiprasert is a veteran of the coffee industry, beginning with a four-year stint in Australia before returning to Chiang Mai in 2011 to open Ristr8to. Beans are roasted in-house; their popular espresso blend is a smooth mix of Thai, Colombian and Mexican beans using a 4:3:3 ratio.

Suffice to say, this has been the golden ratio for Ristr8to, given the immaculate latte art it supports and the silky mouthfeel it delivers for every cup.

For a place that appears to be the very definition of black hipster chic, Ristr8to’s most stellar cups are of white or milk coffees. Which makes sense since their reputation is built on world class latte art.

Elsewhere in Nimman, another café is switching things up, flipping the black-white scheme on its head.

The Barisotel by The Baristro is founded by Chiang Mai coffee purveyor Thanit Suvanish, who is famed for his love of a minimalist design and palette. His other cafés, which include Transit Number 8 and The Baristro at Ping River, all share the same clean, desaturated look.

Entering Barisotel is like stepping through Alice’s Looking Glass, away from the colours, clamour and chaos of the soi outside and into an oasis of calm. The lack of noise, other than the growl of a coffee grinder and the hiss of the steam wand, is matched by the lack of colour.

The place is quite nearly all white.

The Barisotel by The Baristro doubles as both a boutique hotel and a specialty coffee bar
The Barisotel by The Baristro doubles as both a boutique hotel and a specialty coffee bar

Suvanish’s Barisotel doubles as both a boutique hotel and a specialty coffee bar. Such mixed properties are increasingly a trend in Thailand, where discerning travellers want a less run-of-the-mill accommodation as well as top-notch flat whites to go with their avocado toast.

Consider it a bed-and-brunch revolution.

Certainly there are lots on the menu: from buttery canelés and scones to their signature salted caramel cheesecake. Try their Charcoal Latte Cream Cheese, Green Coconut, Nitro Orange or Pink Panther for a touch of colour in an otherwise colourless café.

You’d be missing out on the real gem here though.

Bask in natural sunlight and a nearly all-white environment at Barisotel
Bask in natural sunlight and a nearly all-white environment at Barisotel

For a space that embraces everything white and sunlit, it is the plain, unadorned black coffees that shine. Though the café looks designed to be Instagram-ready (and it might well be), the baristas here are as serious about their craft as the latte artists at Ristr8to.

We spot single origin beans roasted by Collab, The Cupping Room and Craft Coffee. What drew our attention is Bang Khae roaster Koff & Bun’s Panama Ninety Plus Gesha “Perci” which is a rare marvel.

A Barisotel barista brewing filter coffee
A Barisotel barista brewing filter coffee

Lavender and orchid, with hints of ginger and sweet orange, this is a lively cup. One of the best we’ve had anywhere in the world. Brewed with passion and precision, we are sure.

Natural light flows in from the large French windows, lending a healthy glow to the arrangements of fresh flowers and wooden accents furnishing an otherwise blanket whiteness. Sipping on black coffee, now tasting notes of roasted cacao, we bask in the moment.

Black or white, Chiang Mai is clearly a coffee capital to reckon with – “the rosetta of the North”, if you will – and Nimman is its heart.

Ristr8to

15/3 Nimmanhaemin Road, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Open daily 7am-6pm

Tel: +66 53 215 278

facebook.com/Ristr8to/

The Barisotel by The Baristro

7/2 Soi 9 Nimmanhaemin Road, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Open daily 8am-6pm

Tel: +66 93 494 4599

facebook.com/thebarisotelbythebaristro/

For more coffee and slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.

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