JOHOR BARU, Feb 1 — Once upon a time, when you wanted to enjoy consistently well-prepared espressos and cappuccinos in Kuala Lumpur, you knew just where to go: Top Brew Coffee Bar, the one-man-show run by Malaysian Barista Champion JH Yee.
So when the 27-year-old closed Top Brew Coffee Bar in April last year, everyone wondered where he would turn up next. More importantly, everyone wondered where they could get their next champion cuppa.
Turns out the prodigal son had returned to his hometown, Johor Baru. After months of planning with his business partners, Yee’s latest venture, Atlas Coffee Embassy, opened in the up-and-coming new phase of Taman Mount Austin to great fanfare last December. Over 400 cups of coffee were served to hundreds of customers on the first day alone.
“I was initially concerned whether folks in Johor Baru can accept specialty coffee when they are used to local Nanyang-style kopi O,” says Yee. “I’m very happy and more than a little relieved that the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Indeed, everyone seems eager to taste a true champion-brewed cuppa. Thanks to word-of-mouth, Yee was already a local celebrity before Atlas Coffee Embassy even opened its doors. This was a far cry from his humble beginnings nine years ago when he first graduated from Foon Yew High School.
“Back then I had no inkling what career I should pursue,” says Yee. “All I knew was that I wanted to work for myself one day. That was my dream and it kept me going.”
The young Johorean could have crossed the Causeway seeking greener pastures like many of his compatriots. Instead he chose to set his sights higher up north. Yee arrived in Kuala Lumpur and worked his way up at Departure Lounge, one of the earliest cafés in town. In rapid order, he went from being a fresh trainee to becoming the head barista in charge of training others.
However, it was his winning the Malaysian Barista Championship 2012 that caught everyone’s attention. The entrepreneurial barista finally had the clout to open his first café — Top Brew Coffee Bar — fulfilling a lifelong dream. He was also named the Time Out Kuala Lumpur food personality of the year in 2013.
During his time in the capital, Yee had brought a greater understanding of specialty coffee to the public in his straightforward, approachable way. If hipster baristas put you off with their sullen facial expressions and barely comprehensible coffee jargon, Yee would always put you at ease. This is a barista whom you could talk to (and who would really listen); a barista who could help you choose the perfect beans for your cuppa without making you feel overwhelmed.
Along the way Yee has trained some of the best baristas in town (and beyond) including Eve Von, owner of the popular Sevencups café in Empire Damansara, and Evon Tan who was awarded the best signature drink at the Malaysian Barista Championship 2013.
Brewing the best cuppas may not be hereditary but Yee is making a good case for it by mentoring his younger brothers: 26-year-old Keith Yee is the head barista at Jimmy Monkey Café and Bar in Singapore while 17-year-old JQ Yee now mans the espresso machine at Atlas Coffee Embassy. Whether it’s nature or nurture, the elder Yee has the Midas touch where it comes to beans and brews.
That brand of magic extends to the look of Atlas Coffee Embassy too. Walking in, you may wonder if you had entered a café in the fashionable back alleys of Omotesando in Tokyo. The pale wooden floors and white brick walls lend a subtle Japanese-Scandinavian ambiance to the space. This Zen-like décor is courtesy of Jeff Ong, a Malaysian designer based in Japan.
“Ong designed everything including the overall café concept and certain pieces of furniture,” says Yee. “We told him we wanted clean lines rather than the typical cluttered café furnishings or Starbucks rip-offs.”
The Japanese connection goes even further: you can spot Japanese editions of magazines such as Kinfolk, Brutus, and Huge. There is lots of natural sunlight at Atlas Coffee Embassy, a far cry from the dark shadows that plagued Yee’s previous café.
“I definitely listened to the feedback my customers gave me about Top Brew’s décor and made sure I didn’t repeat the same mistakes with Atlas,” he laughs.
Yee also made sure not to go at it alone this time. His business partner, Lim Chuan Hao, is also his high school friend. Lim shares, “When I found out that Yee became a barista, I started to learn more about coffee from him. I bought an espresso machine to play with at home and soon wanted to learn more.”
Lim’s passion proved infectious as he persuaded his wife, Cathy Chong, to join Atlas Coffee Embassy as their outlet manager. The effervescent Chong had worked in the hospitality industry when she lived in the US and Japan. An accomplished Japanese speaker, she brings a touch of grace and calm to the café operations.
Coffee-wise, Atlas Coffee Embassy serves their very own Atlas Signature Blend, a mix of Brazil Santo Antonio, Sumatra Tiga Raja Simalungun, and Costa Rica La Trinidad. Yee formulated this blend with Andrew Kent, the general manager of Singapore’s Common Man Coffee Roasters. There are also seasonal single origin beans for their V60 drip coffee and cold brewed coffee.
Service is prompt, polite and comes with a genuine smile, not unlike trendy yet traditional Taipei cafés. The 24-year-old Chef Ming, formerly from Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur, heads the kitchen. He has developed a menu perfect for those seeking something to nibble.
Try the Atlas Signature Sandwich, a generously-sized panini of bacon, roast ham, tomato, lettuce, and mozzarella. Yee’s trademark waffles from his Top Brew days make a comeback; have these with chocolate and banana, homemade blueberry compote, or the classic butter and maple syrup pairing. Our favourite dish is Ming’s deceptively simple but well-executed French toast with caramelised bananas.
So what can coffee aficionados expect next from Yee? He says, “Currently I still travel to Kuala Lumpur to conduct workshops and train baristas. We will also launch the Atlas Specialty Coffee Academy sometime this year, which will offer courses for home brewers too, and not only professional baristas.”
Sounds like the barista champion will be kept busy in the coming months. Johor Baru looks to be the next coffee capital. The wait thus begins in Kuala Lumpur for Atlas Coffee Embassy to open a branch there. Lucky Johoreans — may we have Yee back now, please?
Atlas Coffee Embassy
32, Jalan Austin Heights 8/7, Taman Mount Austin, Johor Baru, Johore
Open daily 8:30am-11pm