Brewed with Heart

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Between rows raw meat hanging on hooks and mounds of fresh vegetables, Khlong Toey Market is probably the last place that comes to mind when it comes to areas in Bangkok likely to boast a solid cup of single-origin coffee. The bustling, 24/hour wet market is notoriously unrefined, meaning there is little room for shiny Italian-made espresso machines and meticulously brewed cups of coffee.However, Mark, Yuttapong Sanprasertsri saw the area that he grew up in as a charming setting for a cafe and decided to use the absence of quality coffee as an opportunity to educate the neighbourhood on something he sees everyone worthy of. 

Tucked in between shophouses amidst a flurry of passing market goers and vendors selling snacks like pungent dried squid, Phu Chai Kai Cafe is a quiet haven where discerning coffee drinkers can take refuge. The space is simple, just like owner Mark’s concept of serious coffee without the arrogance. Cozy with a decidedly relaxed air to it, the single-unit shophouse is warmed by grey walls, and hardy wooden furniture that stand in contrast to a macho fire engine espresso machine, which is somewhat symbolic to the forward thinking shop’s unexpected location in a soi that hasn’t seen anything new for years.

Quality coffee has somehow become synonymous with pretension, but Mark dares to challenge this idea. Here, unlike most swanky cafe’s around the city, you won’t find stylishly branded bags of overpriced beans for sale. In fact, you won’t even find more than two choices of variety in beans. Mark purposefully chooses to keep things simple at Phu Chai Kai Cafe, as part of his effort in making his cafe approachable to even the most novice coffee drinkers.

Remarkably, the world’s most loved drink wasn’t something Mark had always been a fan of ,

“It started somewhere seven years ago when my girlfriend asked me to learn to make  coffee, even though I didn’t even enjoy the drink.. I was clueless to the fact that there was so much to making   a proper cup of coffee”

“I had thought it was just about grinding beans then brewing them with hot water. But once I had my hands on the materials and the motivation to make a good cup, my perspective on the craft was changed forever.. The more I know about it, the more complicated it gets!”

said Mark.

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But it wasn't easy opening a coffee shop back then during a time where it was easier— and more comfortable— to go to chain shops like Amazon as opposed to a small specialty cafe. Especially in Khlong Toey, where a community of Thai-Chinese families had been living for generations without the existence of Mark’s ambitious cafe.   But he was determined to expose his community to coffee beyond the store-bought instant-brewed stuff that most people had been drinking and see the change in them in which he had seen in himself when he first discovered the joys of a good cup. 

“People in this area are willing to pay if it’s reasonable and tastes great to them. So, my challenge was to  make coffee that these people would be gladly ready to spend on.  Most of these people know exactly where the good food and drinks are. They are the ones venturing to Yaowarat for guay-chub or queueing up for an hour just to have good khao-mun-gai.” 

The long withstanding foodie culture of the neighbourhood gave Mark an edge in his venture, but also meant he was dealing with some serious critics.

If these people aren’t wowed, there’s no chance. That’s why I needed to find a strong selling point to ensure that my shop was the first place they’d think of when they wanted a cup of coffee.”

But getting people to want his coffee was only half of Mark’s goal. He wanted to instill a new respect for coffee as a craft and help people understand the sophisticated senses of coffee beyond the addictive kick it provides to perk you up.

“During first few months we sold seven cups a day and they weren’t even all coffee. We tried to find out why our product wasn’t catching on so, like scientists,  we adjusted all the little elements that matter to our coffee, from changing the brand of milk to adjusting temperature, noting down all the feedback we could.”

Ultimately, it was the heart of the cip that changed how his customers perceived his product: the beans.  

“I decided to change the beans I was using when I happened to meet Mr. Lees, a coffee farmer from Khon Kaen. His beans provide the taste for coffee that people can drink  everyday.” Today, Phu Chai Kai Cafe sells more than  50 cups a day.

“After all the experiments, I realized that it’s all about sourcing beans that have been carefully roasted from a roaster you trust. By brewing those beans with intention, I am able to showcase a tasty cup just as the maker had intended.. But here’s the thing: you need to remember that there’s no such thing as perfection in this world. People are going to  like it or hate it, so let go of the pressure. Just that.”

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While pouring a latte with impressive latte art (which, for the record, he learned himself) for a patient customer keen for a caffeine fix, Mark reflex on how far his education efforts have gone, 

“My dad is the one who gives me more feedback than anyone else— even more than my wife! The other day he told me that Kenyan coffee is his favorite because of its level of acidity. A proud moment for me!”

At almost any point during opening hours, Monday through Sunday, Phu Chai Kai Cafe is teeming with customers from all walks of life.

“I particularly enjoy when my elderly regulars come  with groups of friends and spend hours chatting. I  always learn something from their nostalgia-driven conversations.”

“I think my customers have learned a great deal about coffee and see my shop as a qualified establishment. Someone who recently came in from Ratchaburi told me, ‘I like Kenya coffee because of its mouthfeel that bulges with a mild tanginess and satisfying smokiness, which overwhelmes my mouth leaving  a refreshing fragrance of the coffee that I  dreamed of.’ ’ Five-or-six years ago, this same guy used to just ask for a dark roast coffee! Little by little, my customers are discovering the joy of coffee, and building a knowledge base for it. That’s has been my only goal with this cafe.”

We see how this unremarkable-looking coffee shop affects to him believe that all his enthusiastic answers can give a go to any coffee lovers with no doubt

“Good coffee makes my customers happy, and that makes me happy. It’s just like making art, every detail has a adds to the overall experience. It is fascinating and keeps me inspired and driven in my mission. ”

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