Arnon shuts out the noise of cafe customers and orders, slightly tilting the metal pitcher and sending curves of thick foam in arcs across the surface of the cup. The foam lands into the latte, forming a leaf and then settling into the shape of a unicorn. He ignores the buzz of cafe life around him. Carefully, he rotates the cup to draw the shapes before placing it on a wooden slab to be served. Next comes a foam cobra. Arnon fixes the fine details of the drawing with the end of a metal candy thermometer.
Arnon opened Chiang Mai’s Ristr8to in 2011 and after years of taking his latte art to national and international competitions. He won the World Latte Art Championships in 2017. Ristr8to is now a small world-class attraction that uses cutesy latte art to draw crowds of visitors into the world of Chiang Mai coffee and third-wave coffee culture as a whole. Even tourists from China, where coffee consumption sits at only 3 cups per-capita per-year, 120 times less than in the U.S., have decided Ristr8to deserves a place on their itineraries. As Chiang Mai approaches peak coffee culture, it’s making a name for itself and Ristr8to is firmly on top.
The flagship Ristr8to shop sits in the hip, walkable Nimmanheimin neighbourhood. A standard modern, compact design with a chalkboard menu that proclaims their philosophy on coffee. Then guides tourists through a flow chart to their perfect cup of coffee. It also gives visitors a quick primer on each of the steps that brought their coffee from farm to cup.
The menu at Ristr8to is more detailed than one at a wine bar: statistics, profiles, and stories for each drink as well as the details on the process and lore behind coffee. It also totes their signature drinks including the Satan Latte and the Nikka Macchiato, served in a skull-shaped demitasse.
A signpost outside the cafe points arrows to other coffee-producing regions of the world – unlike their competitors in Chiang Mai, Ristr8to isn’t interested in focusing on Thai micro-lots. In 2014, they opened their Ristr8to Lab location, a short walk away, where they roast speciality coffees from around the world and showcase a rotating menu at their tasting bar. Ristr8to introduces Thais and foreigners to imported beans, roasted to bring out the characteristics of their specific origin. Their house Ristr8to Blend takes beans from Ethiopia, Papa New Guinea, and Brazil. They’ve built this and their other house blends especially to cut through milk-based drinks.
What's in a Name?
It doesn’t make total sense for a cafe that has made a name for itself on latte art to be named Ristr8to. The namesake of the cafe, a “ristretto” is an espresso shot made using only half the water of a standard espresso shot. It also uses a finer grind of coffee. Because the first portion of an espresso is the most concentrated, a ristretto produces a stronger drink that emphasizes the flavours from the beginning of the espresso extraction process.
But the fact that you can’t make latte art out of a ristretto may be the point. Ristr8to is about all of it – the full breadth of third-wave coffee. They’ve helped build a coffee culture in Chiang Mai that supports third-wave coffee shops, as Thais and foreigners in the city seek out better beans and better barista talent. The city has developed an entire social class of baristas far beyond that of most small cities. This cohort approaches the barista legions of larger coffee capitals – the Melbournes, San Francisco's and Berlins where Arnon and the team at Ristr8to say they get their inspiration. Ristr8to may still be at the top for latte art, but now they’re leading a pack.
For other cafes in the area why not check out Birds Nest!