JOHOR BARU, Nov 27 — Johoreans are no strangers to coffee. You can still find old-timers shooting the wind in ageing kopitiams while their children flock to franchise coffee shops such as Starbucks or Old Town White Coffee. Or at least, they used to.
There’s no escape, really: The Third Wave Coffee frenzy that has hit Kuala Lumpur and Singapore alike in recent years has landed in Johor Baru. Instead of Nanyang-style kopi-O, folks now crave their ristrettos and flat whites.
There are the usual hipster cafés with catchy names such as Monsta Café, Insomnia, Faculty of Caffeine, and The Coffee Loft. Others appear to be burgeoning empires; Just Want Coffee has five outlets around the city (not to mention a branch inEverton Park across the Causeway) and counting.
From comfortable neighbourhoods to bustling industrial estates, there’s a café for every taste (just as there’s a cup for every palate). Here are five of the most intriguing ones down South.
Art52 Coffee: Artisanal brews
The newest kid on the block is Art52 Coffee, a small studio café housed in an art gallery which only opened a couple of months ago. Penang-born owner-barista Ang Yeesiang and his Johorean partner Stella Teo have turned the formerly dishevelled second-floor loft into a minimalist wonder.
Imagine whitewashed walls with bursts of colour from paintings by local artists. The rustic-looking furniture and standing bar countertop are made from wood rescued from the premises during renovation.
Coffee is excellent, as one would expect from Ang, the first runner-up to the 2013 Battle of Baristas Championship. From cups of impeccable latte art cups to skilfully hand-brewed V60 drip coffee using seasonal beans, there’s a drink for everyone.
Given the café’s location in Art52 Gallery (Ang’s landlord are gallery owner Eric Tan and his artist wife Grace Lim) at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, there is plenty of heritage and history to go with your coffee. Backpackers and nostalgia seekers who are now flocking to Johor Baru’s cultural street know where they can enjoy their perfect cuppa.
My Liberica: From farm to cup
One of the first specialty cafés to open in Johor Baru, My Liberica is considered a stalwart in the local coffee scene. ATaipei-style coffee bar furnished with white walls, wood, and natural sunlight, its claim to fame isn’t its décor, which looks a bit dated given the influx of industrial chic cafés, but its philosophy.
Owner Jason Liew, who had studied agriculture at the Taiwan National University, was exposed to the serious coffee culture of Taipei. Upon returning to his hometown, Liew hit on the idea of transforming part of his family’s oil palm plantation into a coffee farm, specifically to cultivate local Liberica beans.
Liberica beans have been neglected in recent years given the popularity of the higher-yield Robusta beans and the finer-flavoured Arabica beans. However, Liberica beans are essential to the unique flavours of our favourite kopi-O and can also be brewed as a single-origin coffee.
All beans used at My Liberica come from Liew’s own 20-hectare coffee farm near Bukit Batu. There is even ethically harvested kopi luwak (civet cat coffee) available for the curious.
“W” by Espresso Sporting Club: Retro vibes
The 1960s are back! Or at least some sporty version of it can be found along the Johor Baru coastline. At “W” by Espresso Sporting Club in Danga Bay, the décor is the first thing that catches one’s eye.
Customers sit at table tennis tables with their classic green surfaces and white lines. The walls are adorned with croquet mallets and vintage racquets; there are even gym lockers doubling as shelves!
The brainchild of co-owner and award-winning barista Chye Yuan Feng, who also owns the aforementioned Monsta Café, “W” is a creation inspired by American sporting clubs in the 1960s. A nod to nature comes from different glass beakers that act as tiny terrariums filled with cacti and other sturdy plants.
Feng has combined the espresso and slow brew bar concept with Japanese-French fusion cuisine. Besides the espressos and single origin brews, do try the M Cold Brew, a bottled cold brewed coffee that’s their bestseller.
The Brew Orchestra: A fine symphony
Ever wondered what it would be like to enjoy your cappuccino inside a grand concert hall? Look no further than The Brew Orchestra in Taman Molek where the ceiling is lined with strings that mimic those of musical instruments used in a real orchestra.
Just as how an orchestra needs the contributions of different instruments, there are different brewing methods for different beans. There are the usual offerings from the espresso machine using the house blend. For specialty single origin coffees, hand-brewing techniques including drip, flannel, syphon, and Aeropress are employed.
The last method must be the most-sought-after after owner Isaac Loh was crowned the Malaysian Aeropress Champion this year, beating hordes of other barista hopefuls in the Klang Valley. The Johorean set up the café after quitting his tax consultant job and returning from Melbourne where he trained as a barista.
Loh is also one of only four licensed Q Grader professional cuppers in Malaysia (there are only about 1,000 in the world). He has recently organised several cupping sessions of Ninety Plus Geisha Estates beans, paving the way for serious coffee aficionados in Johor Baru.
Atlas Coffee Embassy: The champion returns
Perhaps the most highly anticipated café in the Johorean capital is the soon-to-be-opened Atlas Coffee Embassy. Why the buzz? Atlas is brought to the patriotic southerners by none other than prodigal son JH Yee, the 2012 Malaysian Barista Champion and TimeOut KL Food Personality.
The local hero had curious minds wondering what his next step would be after he closed down his popular Top Brew Coffee Bar in Kuala Lumpur. It seems Yee had been hard at work behind the scenes with his business partners to bring a world-class coffee experience to Johor Baru.
Expect top-tier coffee brewing equipment, a custom-designed Top Brew Blend roasted by the Singaporean-Australian collaboration Common Man Coffee Roasters, and a crew of baristas that the award-winning barista has personally selected and trained.
Delivering the best possible coffee consistently is at the top of Yee’s mind. Other attractions include coffee tasting sessions to educate fans, a cosy and bright Nordic-style café décor, and gourmet brunch offerings.
Atlas Coffee Embassy will have its soft launch this Friday and there are already folks coming from as far as Singapore and Penang to sample what Yee and his team have to offer. If his stellar track record is anything to judge by, these early birds will be enjoying cups made by champions.
52, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, Johor Bahru, Johor
Open Sun-Fri 9am-6pm; Sat 9am-9pm
73, Jalan Molek 3/10, Taman Molek, Johor Bahru, Johor
Open Mon-Wed 12:30pm-10:30pm; Thu-Sun 11:30am-11:30pm
“W” by Espresso Sporting Club
CS01-12, Country Garden Danga Bay, Jalan Skudai, Johor Bahru
Open Sun-Thu 10am-10pm; Fri-Sat 10am-11pm
The Brew Orchestra
5c, 19, Jalan Molek 1, Taman Molek, Johor Bahru, Johor
Open Mon-Fri 11am-11:30pm; Sat-Sun 10am-11:30pm
Tel: 012-716 6717
Atlas Coffee Embassy
[Soft launch Fri 28 Nov & official opening Sat 13 Dec]
32, Jalan Austin Heights 8/7, Taman Mount Austin, Johor Bahru, Johor
Open daily 8:30am-11pm (except soft launch: open at 9:30am)