Samui Wining & Dining

The story of Boncafé, Thailand’s premier coffee producer.

10-11Even today, you’ll still find it in Malaysia although a lot of people don’t like it and it’s not really changed for more a century. It’s an acquired taste. It’s fine for the locals but the ‘real coffee’ drinkers hate it. No, I’m most certainly not talking about the superb range of coffee produced by the subject of this story, Boncafé. What I’m on about is the very same thing that gave Werner Ernst Huber his spark of inspiration back in the early ‘60s – the ‘local coffee’.

    You see, there are two main types of coffee bean, the better-quality and more expensive Arabica and the hardier and more-common Robusta, and together these two make up 90% of the world’s coffee bean production. But there is a third type, only grown in those few regions where the better-quality beans won’t grow. It’s known as Liberica or ‘Liberian coffee’ and produced in some parts of Africa and also in Malaysia and Indonesia. It has a harsh flavour and so this ‘local coffee’ is usually roasted mixed together with sugar, palm oil or butter and sometimes even sesame seeds. And this was the only coffee that was available in 1961, when a journalist friend kept on complaining to his Swiss friend, Werner Huber, that it was impossible to get a decent cup of coffee in Singapore.

    This got Mr. Huber thinking. He made a few enquiries, did some research, and began to import Arabica and Robusta beans into Singapore. And so it came about that, in 1962, he formed the company that he named ‘Boncafé’; humbly housed within a small zinc-roofed building which contained the roasting plant and just four staff.

      The venture was successful. Boncafé took on more employees and moved to larger premises. But it took another ten years before the company was able to ‘go public’ and issue shares and, in 1978, it opened another factory, this time in Malaysia. The newly-entitled Boncafé Pte. Ltd. Incorporated subsequently expanded into Hong Kong and Australia before eventually establishing a factory in Thailand in 1993 (trading as Boncafé (Thailand) Ltd.) south-east of Bangkok in the province of Chonburi.


Currently, the company has
105 outlets throughout
Thailand, with 22 of these
being in Bangkok alone.


      It might surprise you to know that Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer in the world (with Brazil being the number one). Although Thailand’s coffee production is much less, Arabica is grown extensively in the cooler northern regions and Robusta in the south, and both of these beans are used by Boncafé for its blends. But the company now does much more than merely make coffee! It stocks a range of teas from Sri Lanka, as well as the well-known Earl Grey and Darjeeling. Plus there’s a wide selection of fruit and flower or herb-infused teas, such as Mango or Camomile. These are tinned and ready to go and they’re just perfect for making iced drinks.

      Then there are the sauces and syrups which are so much a part of today’s designer-coffee scene, as well as also being formulated for ‘beverage menu concepts’, such as shakes, sodas, mochas and specialty ice-cream cocktails. There are fruit and fudge toppings in ten different flavours, with a special-order service if a big customer wants something more exotic. And don’t forget the chocolate drinks, the smoothies and the frappes; all ‘accessories’ that dedicated coffee-shop fans everywhere have come to love and expect.

      And for those who’re seeking their daily vitamin hit, there are also tinned juices. Bonjuice currently runs to Orange, Pineapple, Apple, Cranberry, Mango, Passion Fruit, Pink Guava, Fruit Punch and Lime, and there are even more additions being planned.

      But note that the emphasis throughout has been on the words ‘produces’ and ‘makes’. Boncafé isn’t to be seen selling drinks in Thailand’s malls and superstores, as it’s most definitely not a ‘coffee-shop’ (although you can walk into any of its outlets and buy the above products off the shelf). It’s a supplier of products and services. And to go with all the things so far outlined, it imports, distributes and maintains a large range of coffee machines, grinders and coffee accessories, from Italy, Switzerland and America, and provides training courses, too.

      At the Boncafé Coffee Academy, its professional training courses are comprehensive and run from a one-day ‘Basic Coffee Knowledge Course’ through to different levels of training for restaurant and coffee-shop owners, a range of courses for baristas and even engineering courses for coffee machine installation, maintenance and servicing.

      Currently, the company has 105 outlets throughout Thailand, with 22 of these being in Bangkok alone. There’s a branch on each of our neighbouring islands, Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Tao, and you’ll come across the Samui outlet on the ring-road, about 500 metres on the left past the traffic lights in Bo Phut, heading towards Mae Nam.

      Yes, Boncafé has certainly grown and expanded on a grand scale in the last 40 years or so. And, as with so many successful companies, it has continued to diversify as it’s done so. There are travelling workshops, mobile coffee vans, dramatically-painted double-decker Boncafé buses, monthly newsletters, an internet e-zine, a significant and active presence on Facebook and even (appropriately) a prestigious fine-art coffee table publication.

      And the latest brainchild of the current CEO of Boncafé, Urs Brunner, is a full-scale Hollywood-style movie entitled ‘Bitter/Sweet’. It’s based around an international love affair between two executives from contrasting backgrounds, with a lot of footage being shot in the company’s plantations in Krabi and their outlets in Bangkok. Made entirely in Thailand in 2009, on a $5 million budget and with a big American and Thai cast, the movie also features Thai pop idol, Tata Young.

      If you’re reading this whilst on holiday on Samui then you might be thinking that it’s all very interesting but it’s not really got a lot to do with your general ‘Thai experience’. Well, you know, that’s probably not quite true. Boncafé is the only ‘European coffee producer’ in Thailand and sells over 1,000 tons of coffee a year, nearly all of it to hotels, resorts and restaurants. So the next time you’re sipping your morning coffee, pause and reflect – there’s a very good chance that it’s been made by Boncafé!


Rob De Wet


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