PETALING JAYA, Aug 24 — Kuala Lumpur is a seriously caffeinated city. Early on weekday mornings, there are queues of barely-awake corporate types at various Starbucks and San Francisco Coffee outlets. In the suburbs, senior citizens shoot the wind over cups (and saucers) of kopi O at their favourite kopitiams.
Come the weekend, yuppies flock to cafés inspired by the Antipodes for brunch and flat whites. And nightfall is no reason to stop drinking coffee as more and more espresso bars open till midnight or later.
The capital’s specialty coffee and café scene is buzzing. Discover what’s brewing (if you’d pardon the pun) in the city…
The barista effect
Baristas are the new chefs; pseudo-celebrities in this growing segment of the F&B industry. From latte art masters to barista competition winners, some coffee professionals find themselves drawing the attention of loyal customers-turned-fans.
These “groupies” follow their favourite baristas faithfully from café to café as they advance in career. JH Yee, head barista of Top Brew Coffee Bar and 2012 Malaysian Barista Champion, shares, “Some of my regulars have been with me since I started at Departure Lounge. They followed me when I moved to EspressoLab and later when I opened my own café last year.”
Such recognition from barista competitions also show how increasingly serious cafés that back contestants are about their coffee. Certainly newbies such as Jason Loo of The Red Beanbag (this year’s Malaysian Barista Champion) and Ang Yeesiang of Coffee Stain by Joseph (first runner-up at The Battle of Baristas Championship 2013) benefited from the support of their employers and mentors.
Other baristas, however, are content to focus on brewing and serving the best cup of coffee they can without chasing the limelight.
Hiew Kuei Yin and Jeffrey Ng of The Brew Culture charm regulars with their attentive precision in making coffee, balanced by their jovial nature and whimsical sense of décor. Who needs medals and trophies on the walls
Specialty coffee used to be limited to tiny shoplots hidden away in some odd neighbourhood. These days, it’s not uncommon to see more so-called “indie” cafés springing up in shopping malls, office buildings or even coming directly to you in a coffee truck!
One early entrant has certainly capitalised on the demand for specialty coffee in KL. EspressoLab has gone from distributing coffee equipment and organising Coffee 101 classes at its modest Solaris Dutamas headquarters to multiple outlets in the Klang Valley and Singapore.
Their expansion includes EspressoLab Coffee Pit Stops at some Shell Select petrol stations and cafés inside a couple of Times Bookstores. Starbucks might want to watch out.
While specialty coffee is proving to be big business, is there a danger of growing too big, too fast? Another veteran of KL’s indie café scene, Artisan Roast Coffee, has eschewed speedy development in favour of a more calculated evolution.
Artisan head honcho Michael Wilson explains, “I would prefer not to keep expanding, but it’s important to help our staff grow and improve. In fact, I’ll be happy if they learn their craft well and go on to open their own cafés.”
Wilson’s influence is definitely spreading, albeit slowly and subtly. Barista Adam Azriff trained at Artisan before moving to Butter + Beans at Seventeen. He now heads newly-opened café Podgy & the Banker with his partner Neil Ng, another Butter + Beans alum.
Meanwhile former Artisan manager Sam Lai has started KL’s first mobile café. Lai enthuses, “Royal Post is basically coffee on wheels!” Moving around Damansara Heights (for now), the Royal Post truck fixes the caffeine cravings of grateful office workers in that neighbourhood.
Coffee doesn’t always have to be such a rushed affair though. Instead of takeaway cappuccinos sipped nervously during a meeting, customers are learning to slow down and enjoy their cuppa.
Part of this shift is due to the introduction of drip or brewed coffee, as opposed to the conventional espresso-based beverages most are used to. At Artisan Roast HQ, barista Joey Mah mans a specially-designed brew bar aimed at educating and sharing with curious coffee aficionados.
“Consider this a coffee ritual where we can learn about coffee together. For example, maybe this bean is more suitably brewed using one method rather than others,” says Mah.
There is a dazzling array of coffee-brewing equipment that goes beyond the espresso machine. Chemex, Aeropress, Kalita Wave, Clever Dripper – the names alone promise another side to coffee.
One such device is the syphon, which admittedly, looks more like a science experiment contraption. Brewing siphon coffee requires skill and patience – attributes the baristas at Typica Café, one of the earliest cafés to offer specialty coffee, have in spades.
Owner Sum Leong explains, “Our philosophy is to showcase the coffee’s original flavours, and this begins with the bean itself. As such, we sort and roast our coffee by hand. Even brewing with the siphon is an intimate labour of love. No quick pressing of a button here.”
This slow coffee culture goes beyond the beverage. Seasoned siphon brewer Jane Lee of Await Café says, “What we do is share our sanctuary with others who seek the same things as we do – a slower pace and time to appreciate life.”
All coffee snobs really want
At the end of the day, it is clear that specialty coffee is here to stay. Will it become more commercialised or will coffee connoisseurs (or “coffee snobs”, depending on whom you ask) demand baristas who are more knowledgeable and beans that are sourced sustainably and roasted with skill?
Only the future will tell. For now, all this humble coffee drinker – yours truly – desires is a good cup of coffee. Today I’m drinking a Honduras Santa Marta at RAWcoffee, brewed by barista Michael Tan.
He asks me how I find my coffee. Perhaps it’s his barista training (Tan was a supervisor at Starbucks for several years before joining RAWcoffee) or perhaps it’s his genuine desire to make sure each and every one of his customers enjoy their coffee.
Either way, I appreciate his concern and tell him the truth: This is good. This is very, very good. Thank you.
Artisan Roast Coffee
4 Lorong Rahim Kajai 14, Taman Tun Dr Ismail
UG, Bangsar Village 2, Bangsar
Chery Building, Jalan 13/2 PJ
9-1-5, Jalan 3/109F, Taman Danau Desa, KL
The Brew Culture
B-01-06 Plaza Damas 3, Jalan Sri Hartamas 1, KL
Butter + Beans at Seventeen
BG-1a, Happy Mansion, Jalan 17/13, PJ
Coffee Stain by Joseph
D4-G3-01, Solaris Dutamas, KL
Level 3, Fahrenheit88, Bukit Bintang, KL
10 Jalan Solaris 4, Solaris Mont Kiara, KL
HQ: D1-G4-6, Solaris Dutamas, KL
Other outlets: The Gardens Mall KL, e@Curve PJ, and more.
Podgy & the Banker
2, Jalan Sri Hartamas 8, Taman Sri Hartamas, KL
Wisma Equity, 150 Jalan Ampang, KL
The Red Beanbag
A4-1-08, Solaris Dutamas, KL
Visit https://www.facebook.com/royalpostcafe for the coffee truck’s location.
Top Brew Coffee Bar
C-0-7 Plaza Damas 3, Jalan Sri Hartamas 1, KL
GL-08, Shaw Parade, Jalan Changkat Thambi Dollah, KL
This story was first published in the print edition of The Malay Mail, August 23, 2013.