MALACCA, Aug 28 — I have just discovered my favourite café — the best place for great coffee — in my hometown of Malacca. Given the number of new coffee shops (especially of the “artisanal” or “specialty” variety) mushrooming here, this requires some explaining. The Coffee Jar in the heritage alley of Lorong Hang Jebat is small but full of passion, just like its petite owner-barista, Chong Joe Yee.
Hailing originally from Seremban, Chong had studied journalism in Guangzhou, China. She recalls, “I soon realised that journalism wasn’t my passion, however. During my free time whilst studying there I would visit cafés. The ambience, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, the craft and the art — that was when I decided that I wanted to learn about coffee.”
When Chong graduated, she immediately flew to Taiwan where the coffee culture was more vibrant. There, in Taipei, the heart of the Taiwanese café scene, she spent one month working in 4Mano Caffé which was run by Ho Kuo-Chuan, one of the most respected Taiwanese barista champions (he won in 2005, 2007 and 2009).
“It was a dream come true,” she says. “I learned so much about coffee, in particular specialty coffee — a new concept back then. Still, my heart belonged to my homeland so I decided to go back to Malaysia and seek out opportunities in Kuala Lumpur, despite not knowing if there was any similar cafés there.”
Fortunately for Chong, upon her return to Kuala Lumpur in 2012, she discovered Typica Café in Pudu (now closed), one of the earliest cafés in the capital serving specialty coffee. She says, “I was 23 years old and while I had learned some things about coffee in Taiwan, here I appreciated the importance of being very detail-oriented. A good barista has to watch out for every aspect of the process of brewing coffee — a single misstep can make or break the taste of the cuppa you serve your customer.”
The ever-curious barista decided she should next get exposure to espresso-based coffee as she believed in continuous learning. Chong then moved to Malacca next as she always loved historical places. She explains, “I was considering both Penang and Malacca since both towns are rich in cultural heritage. Ultimately I decided on Malacca as it was closer to my hometown which meant I could visit my family in Seremban more easily.”
Chong joined Mods Café, a retro-themed coffee shop near Jonker Walk in 2013. Run by A-bert Khow, Mods Café drew crowds of tourists thanks to the Volkswagen Bus inside the shop from which baristas would brew and serve coffee. Beyond this gimmick, Chong observed that Khow was very willing to experiment with different single origin beans and micro-roasting in-house.
“In the next three years, I continued to learn more about coffee, especially espresso-based coffee and milk coffee too, from a classic cappuccino to making a balanced ristretto. Previously my experience was limited to brewing filtered coffee, mainly black coffee.”
What really made a difference in Chong’s career was additional responsibilities including shop management and dealing with customers. She says, “A-bert had a lot of confidence in me and would have me man the entire café by myself. This forced me to adapt quickly, going from shy to independent and strong.”
The expanded freedom, which included helping Khow to roast beans gave Chong the confidence to move to the next stage: starting her own café. She says, “I realised that I wouldn’t likely join another café; as an employee, it was unlikely to get better than my then situation at Mods. My only choices were to either stay at Mods for good or start my own place. Making this decision was terrifying, to say the least.”
Chong was inspired to take the plunge and attempt the latter after a trip to Kyoto, Japan, last autumn. She recalls, “Seeing how the Japanese run their cafés and how they didn’t need to make endless amounts of money, only to make enough for a living and be filled with passion for what they did on a daily basis — well, that gave the determination to start my own.”
Coming home, Chong quit her job at Mods Café and then looked for a suitable location for about five months. She says, “I finally found the perfect spot at the end of April this year, in Lorong Hang Jebat. This small alley running perpendicular to Jonker Street still has the same historical charm without being smack in the centre of the Jonker Walk chaos.”
After a month of no-frills renovations, Chong and her boyfriend Ivan Teh (a homegrown Malaccan boy) opened The Coffee Jar in June and run it together. The café is neither overly minimalist nor is it a cluttered retro nightmare. The bar and stools are made from rescued wood; there are old-school music cassettes and well-read books, but there’s a sense of calm here too. It’s a family affair: she takes care of the coffee and other beverages; he is in charge of the food, being the better cook and baker.
A serious foodie, Teh likes experimenting with new recipes all the time. He says, “For the café, a Canadian Chinese friend of ours taught me to bake pies. He advised us to focus on just one specialty dish. The pie we came up with is just like a shepherd’s pie, in that it uses mashed potato as a crust instead of pastry, but we don’t call it that since we don’t use lamb as the filling. So, as a nod to our café’s name, we decided to call it Jar of Pie.”
According to Teh, their customers’ favourite pie flavours are chicken or mushroom. He also bakes cheesecakes and makes an excellent butter kaya toast, using healthier wholemeal bread and his mother’s homemade kaya, which is more fragrant and flavourful compared to the commercial variety.
Besides serving coffee (both espresso-based and filtered), Chong also roasts their own coffee beans using a small coffee roaster she bought from Taiwan. Due to the roaster’s limited volume, she can roast in smaller batches and experiment.
She says, “Even for espresso-based coffees, I can play with blends or single origin beans. Currently I’m using beans from Colombia, Guatemala and Ethiopia. I tweak my roasting profile according to my customers’ preferences. Some enjoy bolder roasts while others like something more balanced.”
While The Coffee Jar is still relatively new, it is already attracting a steady flow of customers, a mix of locals and tourists. The duo’s focus is on improving their labour of love, one tiny bit at a time. I’m feeling it — this tiny café is full of heart; is it any wonder, now, why I adore it and the people behind it so much?
Chong notes, “Now that I’m my own boss, I have some pressure to make enough to pay rent and utilities. It’s part and parcel of having your own business. However, I told myself I can’t be afraid. I just have to do my best. I believe my customers can feel our sincerity in serving them good coffee.”
She pauses, before smiling and adding, “I quite enjoy myself right now, to be honest. That’s the way to brew coffee and to live life, too, no?”
The Coffee Jar
38 Lorong Hang Jebat, Malacca
Open Sun-Wed 10:30am-6pm; Fri-Sat 10:30am-10pm; Thu closed
Tel: 012-281 5100