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Thailand: 70 years of traditional brew

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Tibor Krausz

(Read caption) ‘Grandpa’ Lee in his shop.

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A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

CHACHOENGSAO, THAILAND – “Grandpa” Lee scoops ground coffee into a long sock and slowly pours boiling water through it into a pan. He then decants the rich brew through another stockinglike filter into a tumbler.

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He takes an appraising sip and nods. Another cup of kafe boran, or traditional Thai-style coffee, is ready. Customers can drink it straight or syrupy-sweet with lashings of caramel and condensed milk.

Lee Sata, or “Pae” (“grandpa”) Lee, brews coffee the same way he’s done it for 72 years – and in the same cramped plywood shop where he began serving it in 1937.

Back then he was 14, and coffee was a novelty drink in Thailand. Today, Bangkok alone has 89 Starbucks. Yet thanks to its old-world charm, the elderly Chinese-Thai man’s brew is a popular curiosity.

Coffee lovers from Bangkok, including the rich and famous, flock to Pae Lee’s coffee shop with its six round tables ringed by wooden stools at Klong Suan Market, a century-old riverside bazaar in neighboring Chachoengsao Province.

Wearing a white singlet, the diminutive coffeemaker greets visitors with a thumbs up and a boyish grin before disappearing into the tiny partitioned-off kitchen with its blackened walls to tend to his coffee-making tools: saucepans, cooking pots, and sock filters.

Other customer favorites include oliang iced coffee: It’s a blend of coffee, corn, and soybeans that’s liberally sweetened before being poured into a plastic bag of shaved ice to be slurped with a straw on the go.

“I didn’t plan to make coffee all my life,” Pae Lee says. “But my shop became popular as a meeting place for the local community.” He was born in the shop, sleeps upstairs, and still starts work at 5 a.m. He never takes a day off.

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“I love making it,” he says.