KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 3 — Located at The Waterfront in Desa ParkCity, this unassuming café overlooks a man-made lake and winding paths popular with joggers, cyclists and dog owners walking their beloved pooches.
Little do they know that Three Little Birds Coffee is but the latest stage of the evolution of Third Wave Coffee — an international movement to produce and appreciate high-quality coffee — in Kuala Lumpur that started with Artisan Roast Coffee four years ago.
Back in August 2010, Artisan Roast Coffee was a small alfresco café beneath a rambutan tree at Yayasan Seni Berdaftar Artisan Centre & Gallery. Prior to their opening, one hardly heard of flat whites or ristrettos, much less single origin beans. There were only ice-blended, sugar-filled coffee beverages or kopi-O kaw for local caffeine addicts.
It was at this pioneer coffee bar that Joey Mah, co-owner of Three Little Birds, first encountered specialty coffee, Third Wave style. He says, “I learned more about coffee from the proprietors, Michael Wilson and his wife Amirah Mohammad, and now they are my partners in Three Little Birds Coffee.”
For the latest Three Little Birds outlet, Mah decided to go for a refined look and finish. The marble countertop blends seamlessly with the grey-coloured panels. Oriented strand board (OSB) adds a variegated flake texture; it may appear rough but touch it and you’ll see that it’s smooth and sleek like the rest of the café.
Even the dishware is selected both for their function and aesthetic appeal. Mah points out the olive wood handle on his coffee pot. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asks.
No expense is spared. At Artisan Roastery, their central roasting facility in D7 Sentul, a SmartRoast Merlin coffee roaster (costing approximately RM450,000) by Californian-based manufacturer Loring is put to full use. Here at Three Little Birds Desa ParkCity, look out for the Alpha Dominche Steampunk, a handcrafted coffee brewer designed for exceptional single-cup coffees and teas.
The 30-year-old coffee professional chose Desa ParkCity because he likes the green environment. “It’s very peaceful here. Notice how the décor of the café has bright red and yellow accents which, when coupled with the green of the surroundings, make up the tri-colour palette of Three Little Birds logo,” he says.
Mah is very open to learning, even from those outside the coffee industry. One example is his friendship with Akira Hojo, owner of Hojo Tea, a fine tea purveyor. “Mr. Hojo taught me how to understand tea and this understanding translated to coffee appreciation as well. For example, how we smell and identify the aromatics? How do we tell if the body of the tea or coffee is acidic? We are not interested in intensity alone but the thousands of flavours possible.”
Thanks to his love of Japanese cuisine, Mah spent a lot of time observing experienced chefs working at sushi bars. “I learned how to alter the height of the countertop so the baristas are brought closer to the customers. These subtle improvements enhance the communication of what you are doing.”
By contrast, he laments the lack of direction of his peers, especially those who are opening cafés solely to jump on the Third Wave Coffee bandwagon. “A lot of folks starting new coffee businesses don’t know what their aim is. Some would excitedly go out and buy a roaster before they even know how to roast beans properly.”
For Mah, simply being able to serve a good cup of coffee consistently remains his ultimate goal. He explains, “The way we operate is by first introducing new things to the market and then move back to see how best to serve these cups. We don’t do according to what people like. It is not offensive because we are open to criticism. We are about moving forward.”
To prepare the next generation of baristas to take over, Mah invests heavily in human capital and training. Not an easy task considering the high rate of employee turnover in the F&B industry and baristas in Kuala Lumpur have a tendency to play musical chairs in changing employers. Mah says, “Most only stay long enough to learn the basics before running off to open their own cafés. For me, I like good people to be rewarded. This is why my baristas whom I had handpicked and trained tend to stay longer; I give them a career path.”
Two baristas who have stuck with Mah are his capable managers Season Chu and Cheong May Lee. Chu, who heads Three Little Birds Desa ParkCity, had initially studied baking in Taipei. It was while working part-time at a café that she learned to appreciate specialty coffee. She says, “Thanks to Joey, I got to meet and learn from different people from different industries. I love how there can be lots of surprises, flavour changes and ways of brewing with coffee. The beans have a life to them.”
Former piano teacher Cheong who manages the D7 Sentul café adds, “I find the learning process fast and intense. After six months of working with Joey, I realised there is no end to the things I can learn about coffee. It requires patience, consistency and determination to improve. Self-interest is essential as you have do research on your own too, and not just expect to be spoon-fed knowledge.”
Mah’s team aren’t the only ones sticking with him; regular customers have followed him since his days as a part-time barista at Artisan Roast TTDI.
Property developer Yap Jun Wei believes that Three Little Birds is different from the rest of the cafés mushrooming all over the city due to an “unpretentious ambience. There’s a feeling that quality is top on the list of their priorities.”
Properly roasted coffee beans also get two thumbs up from engineering manager Yuen-Chi Lian. He says, “They haves a good control over the quality of beans, their roasting profiles, and the preparation of the coffee. Their forward thinking and obsession over quality attracts a crowd that knows how to appreciate good coffee and drinks.”
Mah believes this hard-earned support and following was achieved in no small part due to his dedicated team. He says, “My dream is to see people grow, so that one day, I can just sit down at any of my cafés and enjoy a cup of coffee the way I like it. We are almost there.”
Three Little Birds Desa ParkCity opens on Tuesday, August 5 2014
Three Little Birds Coffee
# D7, Jalan Sentul, Sentul, Kuala Lumpur
# G18, The Waterfront, 5 Persiaran Residen, Desa ParkCity, Kuala Lumpur
Open Mon-Fri 8am-11pm; Sat-Sun 8am-12am