KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 18 — These days speciality coffee bars are a dime a dozen in Malaysia, not only in the capital but as far north as Penang and as far south as Johor Baru. Even East Malaysia hasn’t escaped the Third Wave Coffee invasion, with hipster cafés popping up in Kuching and Kota Kinabalu.
Most of these are influenced by the coffee scenes in Melbourne and Wellington but this Antipodean influence stretches back only five to six years. Did you know, long before that, over a decade ago, there was already a café serving high-quality Third Wave style espresso-based beverages in Kuala Lumpur?
Those in advertising and media may remember the name Café Olé, a true pioneer of speciality coffee that was, perhaps unfortunately, a little ahead of its time. Based in Changkat Bukit Bintang, the now defunct café was founded in 2006 by the wittily named Bear Lee. Hailing from Taipei, Lee brought a decidedly Taiwanese brand of coffee-making and style of serving to Kuala Lumpur.
“Before I started Café Olé in Malaysia, I was working at the original Café Olé in Taipei,” says Lee. “One of my regular customers was a Malaysian. He persuaded me to join him in opening a Taiwanese-style café in Kuala Lumpur. What we provided was a better quality of espresso-based coffees, such as well-frothed caffè lattes, compared to what customers were served at franchise coffee shops.”
Lee’s pioneer status in Malaysia was aided by the growing number of young graduates and professionals returning from Taiwan, Japan and Australia who were looking for a coffee shop experience closer to what they enjoyed in their host countries.
He recalls, “We had a long bar where everyone could sit at and chat. It had the air of salons in the past, where intellectuals gathered to drink coffee and exchange ideas. Café Olé was a second home for them, like the bar from Cheers. Everyone came for the coffee but returned for the friendships they made.”
After three years, Lee decided to return to Taipei, to be closer to his family. He started another coffee shop called Caldo Café, albeit with a dessert theme. He explains, “I was returning to my roots, to my passion for desserts during my college days. Taipei had many dessert cafés already, mostly serving chilled slices of cake, so I decided to serve made-to-order warm desserts to stand out.”
Caldo Café’s signature dessert is the soufflé as Lee was inspired by one he had enjoyed in Japan. He says, “I felt I had to create a ‘flower’ to draw customers to come for ‘nectar’, which is the coffee. Our soufflés turned out to be the ‘flower’ that pulled many to enjoy our coffee as well. That’s a more delicate way of educating our customers about coffee, you see.”
Lee’s beans are supplied by his former colleague Jy-chi Yu of Aura Coffee, who is a Q Grader (a professional who is certified to grade and score specialty coffees). Having worked together since the early days of the original Café Olé, Yu’s emphasis is more on coffee than desserts. He shares, “My idea of a perfect place to have coffee is where you can enjoy your cuppa while engaging in conversation with your barista or other customers.”
To this end, Aura Coffee is located in a quiet alley, where the main coffee bar enables an easy interaction between barista and customers. An ice-drip coffee tower is nestled within a library of books; jazz music helps create a classy ambience.
Visiting Malaysia — and tasting local dishes, with all their multicultural flavours — has strengthened Yu’s belief that a uniquely Asian palate requires an equally Asian “palette” to educate consumers about coffee flavour profiles.
He explains, “While a Western-based Q grader may use ‘blackcurrant’ or ‘raspberry’ to denote a certain flavour, an Asian may taste ‘bitter gourd’ or ‘durian’ instead. It’s all about our backgrounds; there’s no right or wrong.”
Thus Yu created The Colours of Coffee project, aimed at helping coffee drinkers distinguish between subtle differences in flavour profiles through visualisation. He says, “Take ‘lemon’, for example. Geographically in the West, they may identify lemon as yellow but in Asia, this could be green as we are used to using limes in our cooking.”
Yu learned roasting from veteran coffee roaster Hugo Guo of Caffè Italiano Cavaralli. The master roaster has over 20 years of experience in the coffee business and this is reflected in his café in Yongkang Street, Taipei’s food mecca.
Brewing filter coffee is treated as an art-form here at Caffè Italiano Cavaralli, one of the earliest cafés in Taipei to serve high-quality espresso-based coffee with latte art. Guo’s team of baristas, despite their jovial demeanour, are serious about their craft.
“Taiwan certainly has decades of coffee history,” says Guo. “Before we became more discerning about the taste and background of what we drank though, we had first created a culture of service standards that you’d expect in any café in Taiwan. Roasting, for instance, is more mature in Taiwan than in Malaysia.”
However, he feels that the current coffee culture in both countries are more similar than different. “Nowadays cafés, whether in Taipei or in Kuala Lumpur, tend to focus more on the coffee-making technique. Perhaps this is in part due to the growing popularity of barista competitions.”
Another old hand at coffee roasting is Jie-he Luguo, the eponymous founder of Luguo Café. His flagship café at ArtYard, a vibrant cultural collective in the historical Dihua Street, marries slow-brewed coffee with an eclectic, retro-influenced atmosphere. Antique lamps and worn typewriters jostle for space with vinyl records and vintage rattan chairs.
“I started brewing coffee since my student days,” says Luguo. “So I’ve seen a lot, where coffee is concerned. Even then, now that I have experienced the coffee culture in Malaysia, I’m astonished by the wide spectrum available here — from kopi O in the morning to Third Wave Coffee in cafés in the afternoon to Nescafe tarik at mamak stalls at night. And it’s the same people drinking all these different styles of coffee!”
Luguo believes the trend in Kuala Lumpur focuses more on creativity, such as coming up with fancy drinks, than on technique alone. He says, “This makes sense; it’s a business after all. You have to sell cups of coffee to continue operating. A deeper understanding of the ingredients – the beans being used — wouldn’t hurt though.”
Luguo recalls how they used to sort beans by hand, to remove the damaged or defective ones. “This was before we learned how to source directly from trustworthy farms. In Malaysia, I think you’ve benefited from skipping this step; many coffee roasters here have access to farms and are able to control what they’re buying. This saves time and money — I certainly learned it the hard way.”
The four coffee masters all agree on one point, something most born-and-bred Malaysians already know: Malaysian coffee, whether it’s a flannel-brewed kopi O served in a cracked China cup and saucer or a shot of single origin bean espresso pulled inside a former Bangsar paper mill, tastes awesome!
No. 16-1, Lane 190, Section 1, Dunhua South Road, Da’an District, Taipei City, Taiwan
Open Mon-Fri 11am-10pm; Sat & Sun 10am-10pm
No. 9, Lane 269, Section 3, Luosifu Road, Da’an District, Taipei City, Taiwan
Open daily 12pm-11pm
Caffè Italiano Cavaralli
No. 5, Lane 2, Yongkang Street, Da’an District, Taipei City, Taiwan
Open Sun-Thu 11:30am-11pm; Fri & Sat 11:30am-11:30pm
Luguo Café @ ArtYard
No. 1, Lane 32, Section 1, Dihua Street, Datong District, Taipei City, Taiwan
Open daily 11am-7pm