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Island View: Wherefore art thou coffee?



PHUKET: A great part of my excitement upon learning I’d be moving to Phuket was due to the island’s proximity to Sumatra and Java, arguably the world’s most renowned coffee-growing regions. Imagine my dread at realizing that here, like much of the world, the market is dominated by instant coffee.

Thailand’s consumption of instant coffee is so ubiquitous that the International Trade Centre estimates 95 per cent of coffee consumed within the country to be of the instant variety.

This paradox – the closer you get to the source of excellent quality coffee, the less available it becomes – is not unique to Thailand. International demand has incentivized the export of coffee in much of Africa, Central and South America to such an extent that the very product these regions are renown for is virtually unavailable for retail purchase.

To be sure, fine coffee is available in Phuket’s myriad of cafes, but the price and lack of prevalence of its bagged cousin is somewhat of a raincloud over my otherwise sunny experience here. I had dreams of bougainvillea and a French press in the mornings, instead I’m saddled with a cup of Dow Chemical grog and a waft of sooty exhaust.

All of this, of course, sounds like a very First World problem. But before you wipe away a mocking tear for this author, know that this problem, in fact, is precisely one facet of this ‘globalized economy’ we keep hearing so much about.

The highly decentralized, cottage industry production of coffee beans in Vietnam and Indonesia, the second and fourth largest producers of coffee beans in the world respectively, export primarily Robusta varieties of beans to international buyers. Those companies – you can guess who – then process and sell back those beans as instant coffee, while selling whole bean coffee blends of the highest quality to Western markets for a substantial markup.

Here then, we have not only a market that actively dissuades the consumption of whole-bean coffee within growing regions, it effectively embargoes it by reinforcing price barriers.

The irony of being within a few hundred miles from some of world’s greatest coffee and not being able to drink it, is indicative of the primacy of the West, even in the East’s backyard.

— John Washington


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Archiving articles from the Phuket Gazette circa 1998 - 2017. View the Phuket Gazette online archive and Digital Gazette PDF Prints.

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