JOHOR BARU, Nov 30 — I have fallen in love. With a coffee shop, that is.
I don’t say this lightly. This past year alone, I have visited hundreds of cafés around the world, from Melbourne to Munich. I’m quite willing to go the distance to enjoy a good cup of coffee. The ambience of the café helps; the charm and sincerity of the baristas more so.
Yet I have never had an “A-ha!” moment till I stepped into Art52 Coffee, a cosy studio café located in an art gallery in Johor Baru. Sparse whitewashed walls are adorned with paintings by local artists. Tables and chairs are made from recycled wood from the premises itself.
And the coffee! Owner-barista Ang Yeesiang and his partner Stella Teo serve delicious cups of espresso-based coffee and hand-brewed V60 using seasonal beans. My single origin El Salvador Red Bourbon espresso was winey with hints of apple. One of the best cups I’ve had in ages. Perhaps the lesson here is to look closer to home.
Art52 Coffee is barely a month old but the 21-year-old Ang is already wowing Johoreans (and some Singaporeans) with his attention to detail, whether it’s pulling a shot of espresso or pouring perfectly formed latte art. True, the space is small, but this is in its favour; if there is an ideal of what a specialty coffee bar should be like, this is it.
Penang-born Ang may be young but he’s already a veteran at brewing coffee. He entered the café business at the tender age of 17 after finishing secondary school. He says, “I’ve always been interested in coffee since young. At the time, however, there wasn’t much of a specialty coffee culture in Penang yet. But I had to start somewhere.”
Somewhere turned out to be Who’s Bryan Coffee & Cuisine, a café cum bistro in Butterworth. Ang helped out at the bar, mixing drinks, and soon was enticed by a colleague’s creative latte art.
“Initially I was learning about coffee randomly, not as a professional would,” he says. “I would finish a night shift and when I got home, instead of sleeping, I went online to research more about coffee. I would then try to experiment with different styles of pouring latte art. Before I knew it, it would be time for the morning shift. Often, I would go straight to work without sleeping!”
The young barista was hungry to learn more and found other coffee professionals to learn from. He says, “I really admired Lin Tong Yuan, the Taiwanese barista champion and founder of the popular GABEE Café in Taipei. Slowly, I shifted from latte art to experimenting with improving my espresso shots.”
As a result of his unrelenting quest to develop himself, Ang raised his game in a matter of months. He was only 18 years old when his employer asked him to train other colleagues and to become the assistant manager for a new outlet. But by then Ang had set his sights on a bigger challenge: Kuala Lumpur.
“For a small town boy, Kuala Lumpur seemed like a scary place. But I felt I needed to expose myself to more demanding customers and a more vibrant specialty coffee scene. Whenever I was free, I would visit different cafés and equipment distributors in the Klang Valley to learn more about the industry,” he says.
In the end, Ang chose to work at Coffee Stain by Joseph. He recalls, “They just opened a branch at Fahrenheit 88. I wanted this opportunity to manage an outlet in the capital and put my prior experience to use. There were also more beans to experiment with.”
During this period, Ang was mentored by Japanese barista trainer Masahiro Aoki (who now oversees Wa Café in Pavilion Kuala Lumpur). After a year of hard work and training, Ang headed Coffee Stain’s Fahrenheit 88 outlet and was the first runner-up at the Battle of Baristas Championship 2013.
He was only 19 years old.
Ask Ang and he will likely tell you his biggest achievement in the capital wasn’t a barista award. Instead, his biggest triumph was meeting Teo, his girlfriend and future business partner. Naturally his method of courtship was none other than his beautiful latte art (though his charming smile may have helped).
“I started as a customer. In fact, I remember dropping by for cake, not coffee,” says Teo. “When I got to know him better and got interested in coffee, I began with latte art. I would help pour foamed milk into the cups of espresso he pulled. I was surprised by the notes and flavours possible in coffee without adding syrups or flavourings.”
Eventually Ang decided he wanted to strike out on his own. He knew he would open his own café but was unsure how to go about it.
He says, “I wanted a small space to serve my style of coffee so I could have intimate conversations with my customers. Instead of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore where cafés are everywhere, I thought of coming down to Johor Baru. Here the specialty coffee scene is still new but growing.”
However most places Ang looked at were far too large for the café he had envisioned. Typical cafés in Johor Bahru followed the Starbucks model where owners tried serving as many customers as possible; business is business after all.
Fortunately for Ang, luck was on his side as he stumbled upon Art52 Gallery at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, the city’s new cultural hub. The area is being developed as Johor Baru’s response to Malacca’s Jonker Street; picture old shophouses being refurbished to attract history buffs, backpacking tourists, and the hipster crowd.
“The art gallery is owned by Eric Tan and his artist wife Grace Lim,” says Ang. “They opened early this year but had only occupied the space downstairs. We clicked immediately and they invited us to use the upstairs space for our café.”
Initially Ang wanted to keep the original façade of the space to retain much of its old-time charm but this proved impossible as the structure was too rundown. He says, “Ultimately we decided to renovate but change as little as possible. For example the wood used for the furniture and flooring in the café was rescued from the front of the shophouse. We did most of the construction work ourselves as we didn’t have a large budget to play with.”
Local suppliers were used, from the unusual Plumen lamps by DJ & Co to the paintings on the wall featuring various Johorean artists. The name of the gallery and café comes from its address, which is 52 Jalan Tan Hiok Nee. The original shophouse had previously sold salted fish during its heydays but now art and coffee lovers congregate here instead.
By serving carefully crafted espresso-based coffees and slow brews using a V60, Ang has set Art52 Coffee apart from the more commercially run cafés representing the Johor Bahru’s Third Wave Coffee movement.
“I don’t believe in being intentionally different from the rest. The existing coffee culture in JB just happens to be faster and more hectic than what we are building here — artisanal coffee at a slower pace. We want our customers to enjoy every cup,” he says, with a big grin on his face.
Art52 Coffee is an easy coffee shop to fall in love with; it’s a real labour of love, after all.
52, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, Johor Bahru, Johor
Open Sun-Fri 9am-6pm; Sat 9am-9pm