KUALA LUMPUR, July 20 -- Joey Mah has the enviable distinction of working at some of KL’s best cafés, not to mention designing some of them. From first learning to pull a shot at the now legendary Artisan Roast TTDI to launching the pop-up coffee kiosk Nowhereman in Bangsar, this enterprising barista and roaster has seen it all.
Which is why it says something that Mah’s newest shop might well be the most beautiful he has had a hand in to date. Located at the soon-to-be fashionable D7 Sentul, Three Little Birds (the name refers to Mah and his Artisan Roast partners, Michael Wilson and Amirah Mohammad) is a sleek café complete with a brew bar as its centrepiece.
Enjoy the warm sunlight through the glass walls, sit outside in their green “aviary” or satisfy your curiosity on the transparent “behind-the-scenes” process of coffee roasting at Artisan Roastery just next door. Crave investigates what makes this place so special.
1. Brewing equipment
Though there are various brewing instruments carefully arranged on the brew bar, Mah insists that he has no particular preference. He explains, “Malaysian baristas tend to be all about form rather than function. If you have all the equipment available but do not know how to fully utilise them, then it’s a waste.”
Strong declarations aside, Mah admits that one coffee brewer he is fond of lately is the Kalita Wave as he feels that the extraction is more even and he can manipulate more flavours out of the beans. He adds, “Of course, I like its aesthetics too. Don’t you think the shape of the filter paper looks like a cupcake?”
Mah uses a Hario VST-2000 Digital Scale to measure the exact weight of coffee for brewing. He says, “Without consistency, you cannot replicate coffee that you like. The busier baristas are, the more they should use the scale so they can strategise how to produce the same type of coffee, over and over.”
Mah’s grinder, a Mahlkönig EK47, is the first of its kind in Malaysia. Previously he had used a grinder with a horizontal burr which always produced leftover debris. As the EK47 uses a vertical burr and strong motors, the coffee grounds are consistent in size.
He says, “This is especially important for filter coffee; uneven grounds prevent us from achieving a clean taste. A ‘clean’ cup isn’t tasteless; in fact, it actually highlights flavours such as the coffee’s acidity and sweetness.”
4. Kettles and water filter
Mah uses two kettles for brewing coffee. The first is a variable-temperature kettle so he can get the exact temperature he needs for brewing without using a temperature probe. The second kettle is made from copper for better heat retention.
He says, “I will use both, usually transferring from the variable-temperature kettle to the copper kettle. Higher temperatures reduce acidity and sweetness in the coffee while lower temperatures increase its complexity.”
Mah also has a dedicated water filter for the water he uses to brew coffee, which is balanced at 120ppm (parts per million). The more total dissolved solids (TDS) in the water, the more metallic it tastes. He notes that if the water is too soft, the coffee tastes sterile while using hard water means the resultant brew is harsh on the tongue and sticky.
To assist him in calibration, Mah also uses a VST Lab Coffee II Digital Refractometer. He says, “Calibration helps me to test the coffee. To calibrate my palate, I keep trying and tasting until I find what I enjoy and then calibrate future cups to this.”
6. Brew bar
Observe that the espresso machine at Three Little Birds is back-facing while the brew bar is up front and centre. Mah explains, “We want customers to be able to see whether the bar is clean or dirty. This way there is nothing to hide; our processes are transparent.”
A properly organised and designed brew bar means that everything, whether it is the grinder or kettle, is within reach when needed. Mah says, “Previously, our sink area was made of wood, which is pretty but not that functional. This new sink is made of stainless steel and has a perforated surface, so it’s hygienic and easy to clean.”
Even the height of the bar matters. Mah made sure it was measured and built just right for reaching out to customers, serving cup after cup of good coffee and engaging in great conversation.
7. Tea cups
Tea cups may be the last things you expect to see on a dedicated coffee bar but these are no ordinary cups. Mah says, “They are made from different types of clays. Thanks to the minerals in the clays, liquids poured into different cups will have subtly different flavours.”
For example, the blue and red cup is made from Sado clay, a type of volcanic red clay from Japan, with Shigaraki glazing. The body and sweetness of coffee drunk from this cup will be heightened. The emerald cup is made from green clay which accentuates the aroma and first taste of the coffee, especially its acidity. Lastly, the brown cup is made from purple clay and highlights the coffee’s aftertaste.
Even during the busiest periods when customers are waiting for their lattes to go, Mah finds time for Zen-like contemplation. Pots of flowers and plants are scattered all over the café. He says, “The flowers are a great focal point for making coffee. I prefer orchids because I can see everything; there are fewer flowers and leaves and more points to focus on.”
9. Café décor
These days, the décor of hipster cafés run the gamut from industrial chic to cleverly recycled clutter. Mah has opted for a shiny, minimalist look at Three Little Birds. He says, “The glossy surface of the epoxy flooring makes it easier to maintain, besides being more aesthetically pleasing. We had tried a matte surface before but it was hard to clean as the dust won’t settle.”
This attention to detail extends to the furniture as well. The custom-made chairs made from sturdy iron and export-quality hardwood had to look “cool” yet remain comfortable. Mah says, “We tried different sizes and shapes for the seats before deciding on a triangular shape with the sharp corners smoothened out. It’s like our very own Superman logo!”
(Indeed, it’s not a plane nor Superman that’s taking off, but three little birds...)
Three Little Birds Coffee
D7, Jalan Sentul, 51000 Kuala Lumpur
Open Mon-Thu 8am-11pm; Fri-Sat 8am-12am; Sun 9am-10pm