KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 28 — What does a coffee specialist do after reaching the peak of his industry? Not only is Joey Mah, co-owner of Three Little Birds Coffee and Artisan Roastery, an accomplished barista and coffee roaster, he has also trained both of the recent Malaysian Barista Champions — VCR’s Keith Koay (2016) and The Red Beanbag’s Jason Loo (2015).
If you’re Mah, the obvious answer is to open a tea café, of course.
Obvious because the budding tea sommelier (though he would modestly only refer to himself as a tea lover) has always been passionate about tea. He says, “I’m not switching to tea so much as I’m adding tea to my repertoire. For me, tea is about the pursuit of flavours and taste, as with coffee. I wanted a beautiful place in which to share my love for tea.”
Located next door to Three Little Birds Coffee at D7 Sentul, Someplace Beautiful earns its name and then some. The walls and floor are tiled in minimalist white, with patterns of tiny black blossoms on the latter. A hollowed-out structure made from particle board is shaped like a house; the paintings by Malaysian fashion designer Man Chien lends the ambience of an art gallery to the space.
The most striking feature may well be the expansive bar at one end of the café. Clean and sleek, the laboratory-like counter is largely uncluttered save for a tray of tea paraphernalia (from a cast iron tetsubin kettle to a bamboo matcha whisk) and a long slab of stone upon which Mah brews tea.
Teas at Someplace Beautiful are sourced and supplied by Mah’s friend, Akira Hojo of Hojo Tea, a Japanese specialty tea company. Their friendship has enabled Mah to lean on Hojo’s years of expertise in tea: “He guides me, for example, on which teas to bring out the aromatics and which are for the body or colour. I’m not a tea specialist like him; my role here is to showcase the best teas.”
Mah starts our tea tasting experience with Rose Damascena tea from the desert of Xinjiang. Firstly he pours hot water — about 95 to 98°C — onto the rose tea then pours the first brew away, a step called rinsing that “cleans” the tea leaves of any detritus. Only then does he add white tea to the pot for the actual brew.
He explains, “This helps to ‘open up’ the rose buds to release their aromatics before I add the white tea. I use three parts rose tea to one part white tea. This way the rose supplies the front of the tea, enhancing the sweetness, while the white tea — I’m using Gu Shu Yin Zhen or Old Tree Silver Needle here — provides more body to the brew.”
The resulting cup is light-tasting with none of the harsh astringency one associates with Chinese tea served at the local daichow. Instead, there are notes of sweet fruits and honey dancing on our taste buds, followed by a lingering floral finish. Clearly, this isn’t my grandfather’s tea (nor my father’s, for that matter.)
Someplace Beautiful has an extensive range of pu’er, a type of fermented and aged dark tea that is predominantly produced in the Chinese province of Yunnan. Interestingly, three of the four pu’er teas that Mah has on the menu are “raw” or non-fermented.
“Raw pu’er has an earthier flavour that develops over time due to oxidation. Therefore, tea brewed from raw pu’er can have that soil-like or leafy taste while remaining very smooth. Notice how pu’er tea is formed into ‘cakes’? This is for easier transportation. There’s even a special pu’er knife to pry flakes of tea from the cake.”
The Da Xue Shan Wild Tea he serves us next is a classic example of a raw pu’er. This particular variety grows in the wild at 2000 MASL (metres above sea level). According to Mah, tea grows more slowly at higher altitudes, which allows the plants time to develop more complex flavours.
This cup proves to be truly delightful — subtly astringent with a fruity aroma not unlike grapes. The aftertaste is sweet, like thick honey. It’s as complex as our guide to the world of fine teas promises it to be.
The last brew is an Oolong tea: the grand-sounding Phoenix Mi Lan Xiang, a slow-baked tea from Wu Dong Mountain (1200 MASL). Mah says, “This is an organic garden tea. You can look forward to notes of lychee, sweetness of mango and a short, fruity finish.”
For Japanese flavours, Someplace Beautiful serves green tea such as Karigane (a bold, honey-like sencha), Uji Jubuzan (a subtly floral hojicha) and the renowned Uji matcha. Milk tea lovers will enjoy Mah’s ultra-smooth rendition of his favourite nai cha (the ubiquitous milk tea found in Hong Kong’s char chan teng) that requires a 24-hour infusion of his rose tea in milk.
Looking for something to cool down with after all those cups of hot tea? Someplace Beautiful also makes soft serve ice cream, though given Mah’s appreciation of the finer things in life, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill soft serve.
Currently there are two flavours available — one made with Panama Kotowa Mandarina Geisha, one of the most highly sought after coffee beans in the world, and the other using Seniman Kakao’s 70% Papua New Guinea dark chocolate. Both are creamy and intense in flavour. Trust Mah to introduce single origin bean soft serve ice cream to Malaysia.
Acknowledging it can be a challenge selling the concept of high-quality teas to customers in Malaysia, he says, “Some of the teas we serve can be found elsewhere but they could be processed differently or of different grades. This is not unlike when we first introduced specialty or Third Wave coffee in KL some years back. It’s possible; it just takes time and lots of sharing.”
While Someplace Beautiful is run as a tea café for now, Mah has plans for it to expand into a restaurant in the evenings. Fine teas will be replaced by alcoholic beverages (what sort — wine, cocktails, craft beers — is something he’s keeping close to his chest for now) after dusk.
This mode of café by day, restaurant/bar by night has worked for other popular hipster destinations such as Fuglen in Tokyo, and if there’s one thing Mah understands it’s the pulse of the trendy crowd... often before they know it themselves.
G17 D7 Jalan Sentul, Kuala Lumpur
Open daily 11am-7pm
Tel: 012-699 9219