CHIANG MAI, Thailand – Most Italians would say that making a good espresso coffee outside of Italy is impossible. They will say that it has something to do with the quality of the water – and, for some, even of the air – which, they’re firmly convinced, grants Italian coffee its distinctive fragrance and aroma.
But in the remote Northwestern region of Thailand, in the mountains of Chaehom in the Lampang province, Italian Father Bruno Rossi may have cracked the code. Facing a country road, right next to the entrance to the Mary Queen of Peace Children Center mission, lies a small coffee shop serving the unique “Caffè Bruno.”
Cars line up to buy this “little miracle” of Lampang. For those who choose to sit at the quaint little tables outside, it only takes one sip of Bruno’s blend to be transported from the watery rice fields of Thailand to the sun-beaten cobblestones of Italy.
“Most people did not even know about this place up until we created the coffee shop,” Rossi told Crux while sipping the espresso that shares his name. “I am glad we get to have this small window toward the outside.”
For the many locals and secluded tribes in the region, at the beginning Rossi was a ‘farang,’ a foreigner, a generic Thai term used to describe anyone of European ancestry. But after the widespread success of his coffee, the Italian missionary slowly began to be accepted as a member of the community.
Today public officials, police commissioners and governors often sit in the patio of Rossi’s shop, drinking the mixture of Thai coffee and Italian artistry. Needless to say, entertaining good relations with Thai police can be a helpful business asset in a country plagued by “endemic corruption,” as Transparency International puts it in their 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Rossi, a fidei donum priest, meaning a member of the diocesan clergy serving abroad with the permission of his bishop, has been living in Thailand as a missionary since 1998. He was born in a small mountain town in the Northern Veneto region of Italy where he obtained his stakhanovite approach to work, and the fast-paced Italian dialect that he still carries around with him today.
“I come from a very strong working culture. Before going to the seminary, I used to work as a carpenter with my father,” Rossi said, remembering how his father never allowed him to be idle, always urging him to Lavorare! Lavorare! (“Work! Work!”).
Already at the age of 14, Rossi wished to become a missionary.
“I wanted to place my manual abilities at the service of something,” he said. “Even if you don’t know the language, you can always do something with your hands.”
When Rossi was sent to the isolated mission surrounded by mountains, jungle and rice fields, only one other priest was already there, overwhelmed by the amount of work necessary to keep a school going and the difficult task of bringing the Gospel to a Thai culture drenched in Buddhist and animist beliefs.
“‘Learn quickly!’ he used to tell us,” Rossi said, and eventually he did, by taking on the responsibility of fixing the finances of the mission. Today, the Mary Queen of Peace Children Center has expanded to include two more small missions in the area.
The missionaries in the Lampang province work closely with the mountain tribes of Thailand, known for their traditional garb and attitude. “One day I realized that the coffee they gave us was burned,” Rossi said, referring to the Thai preference for overly roasted coffee beans. From this small detail, the missionary began devising the plan for a coffee shop, which could kill two birds with one stone – or better yet, coffee bean.
“My dream was to see this help parishes in two aspects – first of all, the economic one. [I thought] it might be a drop [in the bucket], but a consistent one. Second, that it become a way to open up parishes to meet and encounter new people.”
The coffee plant grows bountiful on these highlands, and the elevated humidity levels offer the best environment for its little red seeds, the coffee bean, to develop its characteristic sweetness. Unlike rice, the coffee plant prefers the shade of the trees, and therefore can easily grow in the jungle without need of deforestation.
Rossi came up with the plan of buying the Thai coffee beans from the tribes, and applying the fine Italian science of espresso making to create the blend. He bought a 22-pound Italian made machine to roast the beans after the fermentation process was completed, and learned the exact temperature that would allow its unique flavor to emerge.
He discovered that a well within the mission also had a low mineral content, and that its earthy taste complemented the flavors of the bean.
He then placed the coffee shop in front of the mission. This system not only allowed for the locals to have a new form of livelihood, but it also opened up the doors of the mission to the outside, creating a bridge with the people and new opportunities for evangelization.
Rossi’s coffee is truly wonderful, with just the right amount of acidity; its taste is full, creamy, with a dense aroma reminiscent of chocolate and a rich caramel-colored foam to cover its top. People from far and wide drink from the small espresso cups marked with ‘Caffè Bruno.’
A little more than three months ago, Rossi coroneted his coffee savoir faire by becoming the first priest with a coffee-tasting patent.
“It’s useless to keep building Churches behind walls,” Rossi said. “Buddhist monks build their temples up in the mountains, where they can be visible to all.”
The year 2017 marks the 350th anniversary of Catholicism’s entry into Thailand, yet the number of Thai Catholics and conversions remains staggeringly low. Only 0.46 percent of Thais are Catholic and Rossi counts a maximum of 40 conversions a year throughout the vast province.
“I believe in this small evangelization that goes hand-in-hand with this coffee shop,” Rossi said looking out at the five square mile property. “Think of the Italian coffee culture: it’s not an alcoholic beverage, and when drunk moderately it helps digestion. But most of all, it helps to socialize.”
Some don’t agree with Rossi’s approach to missionary work. An anthropologist who came to visit the mission a few months ago accused him of destroying the culture of the mountain tribes by introducing changes and spreading the Gospel, leading them away from their homes and traditions.
“I am a mountain man,” Rossi said in his defense. “I know what it’s like to leave a town of 1,000 inhabitants and return to find only 100. When you knock on a familiar door and only an 80-year-old woman answers. When the children don’t chase you down the street anymore.”
But he also added, “What comes first? The Sabbath, or the poor cripple in need of help?”
Rossi is convinced that his input is helping the tribes transition during the fast-paced changes currently sweeping through Thailand. He has adopted the dual role of parish priest and boss, employing about 25 workmen from the tribes to help in the preparation of their local coffee.
“All the things that I know how to do were first stolen with my eyes,” Rossi said, adding that that knowledge he shares with the women and men of the tribes who now run the shop and machines without need of supervision.
“What does the pope mean when he tells us about an ‘outgoing church,’ or that we must ‘have the smell of sheep’?” Rossi asked. “I know what it means. I have sheep. and I know that I have the smell of sheep when I pick them up. After I might stink a little, but it’s fine.”
Sheep are very present in the Gospel but they don’t really exist in Thailand’s highland, so Rossi purchased them so that his students would know what they were.
There are about 800 middle and high school students that the mission follows and helps, 200 of whom stay at the Mary Queen of Peace Children Center. Rossi follows their personal development closely, with the same meticulous attention he gives his coffee beans.
“Teaching these kids means understanding what a person has inside, just like a connoisseur looks at the coffee grain by trying to understand what it can offer,” Rossi said. “By roasting it at the correct temperature, with the right milling, one can express a coffee that can truly allow you to say: ‘the best was extracted from the grain’.”
He said the same thing happens with the kids.
“Every grain has the best potential within but it is often extracted badly, or roasted badly, or burned,” he continued. “We get some kids as children, and like coffee, you watch them mature, you must pluck them at the right moment and you must also tell them things that might hurt them, but afterward the fire increases the aroma, the greatness of the grain. As the Bible says, God tries us by fire to let the gold within us emerge. You need fire to let the gold shine through.”
Rossi has already struck gold with his coffee, which was awarded the gold medal for foreign blend by the International Institute of Coffee Tasters in 2014. The next goal is to continue to promote the values of the Gospel in Northern Thailand and to reach the kids at the mission in order to unlock their full human potential.
Rossi is up for the challenge.
“I am here because I love this land,” he said over the bleat of the sheep. “I’m here, not thinking about when I shall return.”
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