For a small but growing group of young Malaysians, coffee is not just for the morning wake-up kick, but a profession, a passion, and a calling. It is a lifestyle, a joy, and not simply something to wet your mouth on. Welcome to Malaysian coffee culture.
Ironically, the budding coffee culture in Malaysia is attributed to international influence, brought back by Malaysians who have studied or lived abroad. JH Yee, director and owner of Top Brew Coffee Bar, fell in love with coffee when living overseas in Taiwan. He resolved then and there to open his own café in KL.
Spare, trim and completely fuss-free, Top Brew Coffee Bar opened in July 2012, and is located in Sri Hartamas. “More people coming back to Malaysia from other countries will drive the coffee culture here,” says Yee, who won first spot in the Malaysia Barista Championship in 2012.
Step into any coffee joint in the Klang Valley, and you’re likely to find yourself rubbing shoulders with creative types and business wallahs.
Similarly, Liyana Ferdaus and Sayid Rahman, the husband-and-wife team behind cosy Mukha Café in TTDI, lived and worked in Melbourne, Australia for ten years before returning to Malaysia. “When we came back from Australia, my husband and I were working as freelancers. We were bouncing from one café to another making them our personal office. It was only natural to bring the café culture back from Australia and make our café our office as well,” says Liyana.
Indeed, blending work with coffee seems to be taking off in KL and its surrounding suburbs – step into any coffee joint in the Klang Valley, and you’re likely to find yourself rubbing shoulders with creative types and business wallahs, surrounded by laptops, smartphones, tablets…and coffee.
Jeffrey Ng, the co-owner of The Brew Culture, believes it’s the cosy ambience that these cafés offer – the unpretentious feel of a lived-in, homely environment – that just invites one to kick off one’s shoes and get to work over a latte. The Brew Culture, opened in August 2012, sports some quirky décor including kindergarten tables and chairs, wood pallets on the wall, and a set of children’s encyclopedias scattered about.
Many café owners feel that they are playing an educational role in the development of coffee culture in Malaysia. Hiew Kuei Yun, co-founder of The Brew Culture, says, “In Malaysia we are used to kopitiam coffee. The way we roast it is very dark and the taste of the coffee doesn’t come out.” His partner Jeffrey can sympathise with the wider Malaysian coffee-drinking public, saying that he had to be taught how to appreciate good coffee.
Both Yee of Top Brew and Hiew of The Brew Culture look to Singapore as the closest regional influence on Malaysian coffee culture. Yee says “We are about two years behind Singapore, but it is growing very fast here,” while Hiew thinks that coffee-drinkers in Singapore “pick up on trends faster.”
Yee is unwavering in his desire to bring different beans and roasts to the Malaysian attention. “Normally we would think of coffee as chocolatey, bitter, nutty, heavy and rich. But specialty coffees roasted in Australia now go into fruity tastes, blueberry, strawberry, lemony with very light body, no kick, sweet not bitter. We give our customers the choice,” Yee says.
Coffee aficionados compare beans and roast profiles the way an oenophile compares vintages and vineyards. Popular beans include the Arabic Gawa, which Jeffrey Ng describes as spiced, and Yirgacheffe, which is “Ethiopian, floral, bright. It’s very light, almost like a tea.” Wahana, an Indonesian bean, has notes of savoury capsicum, according to Jeffrey.
“We want to let our customers know that the coffee they drink has a story behind it,” says Jeffrey. “We want them to know what they’re paying for.” The Bee in Jaya One has also taken up the educational mantel, by running semi-regular coffee appreciation sessions. For those who want to become coffee connoisseurs, the time is now.
Whether the setting is quirky or intimate, childlike or chic, sophisticated or cosy, these cafes offer their own insights and twists on coffee. As a result, coffee culture in KL is becoming normalised, with demand for high quality brews increasing among urbanites. But, according to Yee, it’s not just about business. “It’s about passion,” he smiles.
Video by The Weekend Projects. Photos by Ng Juan Hann.
Disclosure: Ng Juan Hann is an employee of WAGO, the agency that produced “Mukha: Our Coffee Story”.