Newsflash: Coffee is no longer equated with caffeine. The age-old notion of coffee playing the role of morning pick-me-up is slowly thinning with the rise of specialty coffee, a movement where the world’s favourite beverage is submitted to an astounding level of intricacy and care – popularly known as coffee’s third wave.
‘In the Malaysian context, the first wave would be the local coffee in kopitiams,’ says Lim Yi Perng, roaster and owner of independent café Standing Theory. Old-style Hainanese coffee shops our grandparents frequented often take pride in black, inky concoctions – the more bitter, the better. Perng continues: ‘Across old cultures, most of the firstwave coffees are strong and bitter. It’s usually a very pronounced but one-dimensional flavour.’ Local coffee producers often roast their beans dark with a coating of margarine and sugar for added aroma.
Little did our ancestors know that the humble bean would eventually be hand-sorted, sniffed, ground and brewed by a collective of coffee geeks. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, budding yuppies took to the second wave of coffee, commercialised by the likes of Starbucks and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Suddenly chatter was beginning to buzz around coffee from Kenya, Guatemala or Ethiopia, and the middle-class started drinking frothy frappuccinos in disposable plastic cups under the comfort of free WiFi. We didn’t have time to sip coffees around old marble tables anymore – the era of overpriced to-go coffees had landed with a grande-sized thud. ‘All of a sudden, we went from RM1 coffee to RM10 coffee,’ Perng says. ‘That massive shift in coffee’s perspective propelled the second wave.’
Fast forward a decade or two: First dates are now no longer centred around generic swills and ice-blended mochas, but rather single-origin brews without sugar, milk, flavoured syrups or (heaven forbid!) whipped cream. Enter the third wave, where we plunge into new, foreign ways with coffee: fancy jargon, the whizzing and whirring of never-before-seen machines, inspired etching on the top of milk foam, a series of global conferences, extensive research on sustainable seed-to-cup processes and flannel-clad baristas pulling levers in composed, calculated moves. It’s an exciting realm, a rabbit hole into which serious coffee aficionados are pulling new followers every day. In cities like Melbourne, San Francisco and Tokyo, loyalists have fallen deep and hard.
The second wave of coffee was all about baristas doling out fancy lattes in multinational chains, with perhaps a cursory mention of where the beans came from; the third wave, on the other hand, places equal emphasis on the behind-the-scenes factors. That’s the essence of third wave coffee: an understanding that every step of production, from farmer to roaster to barista, is vital in creating a great cup of coffee. Perng puts it best: ‘In the search for perfection, you have to nail every leg of the supply chain. The baristas have to be good, but they can only work with what the roasters give them. And the roasters only work with what the farmers give them. It’s a cycle, because the farmers are only willing to give you what you’re willing to pay for.’
It’s not uncommon to compare coffee’s third wave with that of wine’s ever-thriving, sometimes elitist scene. Just like wine, profilers often describe coffee with words like ‘floral’, ‘acidic’ or ‘nutty’, using references to food like chocolate and maple syrup and on more bizarre occasions, tropical fruit like durian. This is all fleshed out in the standard coffee flavour wheel, where a glossary of common flavour profiles is matched against various sensory experiences of smell and taste. You can understand why coffee connoisseurs will wince if you were to describe good coffee simply as ‘strong’ – it’s like calling premium wine ‘winey’.
Just like specialty grape plantations, coffee plants are grown in suitable regions where soil, ground elevation, rainfall and climate are crucial factors. If there’s one man in KL who is deeply selective about the source of his beans, it’s roaster and coffee purveyor Joey Mah. He travels to places like Brazil to book exclusive lots at coffee farms for Artisan Roastery, buys raw green beans by the sack, and roasts them in the compound of Sentul’s Three Little Birds Coffee.
Single-origin coffee is his pride – high-quality beans sourced from a single estate or farm. But one doesn’t just stop there. ‘You move one step forward to micro-lot coffees where it comes from a specific lot. This kind is hard to come by and therefore expensive,’ Joey explains. The café’s storage room sees hundreds of brown sacks stacked atop each other, and it’s constantly air-conditioned to maintain the freshness of the beans. Joey also sometimes roasts for other cafés and restaurants upon request.
In the roasting room sits a glorious Smart Roaster by Loring, one of the most impressive, efficient roasters on the market. The machine chugs along smugly as beans are roasted to Joey’s preference of lightness and speed. This shiny engine alone set the Artisan Roast team back by about RM400k. ‘It doesn’t emit a lot of carbon dioxide because it’s quite smokeless,’ enthuses Joey. ‘And it’s stainless steel so heat gets dispersed very well.’
The scent of coffee in the room is intoxicating as Joey runs his fingers through a fresh-off-the-roaster batch of beans before they’re vacuum-packed and allowed to ‘breathe’ in the storage room. It’s a therapeutic ritual for him if he’s not busy at the café counter tweaking with a copper kettle to prepare a pour-over or coaching his apprentices to guess coffee regions simply by taste. Around him, coffee apparatus line the shelves, some oddly shaped into cones, others bearing narrow funnels. Minus the inviting atmosphere, one could mistake the space for a science lab.
For a movement that focuses so much on the natural flavour of coffee, the third wave is rather reliant on science, as demonstrated by glossy gadgets and expensive tools. The coffee industry is in the thick of improvement by way of scientific research, but for those who sleep and wake in the presence of coffee, there isn’t yet a single formula for the perfect cup. In a few years, will coffee take the route of molecular gastronomy, sometimes criticised as ‘soulless’? Standing Theory’s Perng is quick to dismiss the idea. ‘Science helps you make a more informed decision, but ultimately, the decision is made based on artisanal value. It’s still very touch-and-feel,’ he says. ‘It’s one of those things that’s very exciting about coffee.’
On the other hand, exciting isn’t always the case for Yip Sum Leong, roaster, supplier, owner of Beans Depot and all-round coffee wizard. Importing coffee beans into Malaysia isn’t quite as smooth as a well-pulled espresso, as importers are faced with a thorny list of obstacles. ‘Just like importing a car, we need an AP [approved permit] to have the right to import coffee beans,’ Yip says. ‘In order for you to get the AP, you need to import bulk volumes in containers.’ The red tape surrounding importation is the reason Yip turns to other suppliers for beans, which sometimes restricts her choices as a specialty micro-roaster. ‘I’d rather bring in variety than bulk, which is why I don’t import,’ she laments. Only a handful of roasters in KL directly import beans: Artisan Roastery, myespressoLAB Coffee Roaster, Plan b. Roasters and Coffex Coffee, among others. The reason behind the rigid import policies is unknown; some suggest it’s to help sustain local first wave coffee producers or to regulate the quality of the beans. But one thing’s certain: It seems a strangely self-defeating economic move considering the swift rise of third wave coffee in the country.
As much as the quality of coffee is determined by the performance of the farmer, the roaster and the barista, it’s safe to conclude that our sense of culture and community rooted in coffee-drinking isn’t going anywhere. But while our forefathers gathered over potent cups of coffee to discuss the country’s woes or to simply catch a break, are third wave cafés providing similar solace? Not all the time, apparently. Hordes of KL students and middle-class social climbers throng third wave cafés for reasons other than coffee itself – coffee bars are often regarded as sanctuaries for the trendy and demonstrate an upkeep of status for the socially aware. This spurs local joints to hitch on the trend of hip set-ups – raw brick-accented decor, industrial wiring, warm lighting and a patchwork of vintage-inspired furniture. Hands up if you’ve ever felt inclined to enter a coffee joint sporting an old typewriter in the corner. Exactly.
One café that takes this aesthetic approach to heart is VCR, a stunning coffee hideout stashed along Pudu’s faded Jalan Galloway. Owner Andrew Lee invested a startling amount of time and money into the café’s deceptively minimalist set-up; rattan chairs are strewn across the charming, old-world space while dark panels border the floor-to-ceiling windows. Andrew stresses that aesthetics play just as much a role in pulling in customers as a café’s specialised blend. ‘It’s two thirds of the business. I think people are sick of sterile environments with laminated wood where everything is fake and commercial,’ he says. ‘If you go to Starbucks, they all look the same. But the moment you go to an independent café and see real wood, you know you’re somewhere different. You know they’re not just trying to get a buck out of you.’
His sentiments are proven correct by the sheer number of Instragram junkies that swarm the café on weekends, snapping shots of every possible nook and angle. ‘I think I hit the spot among the [Instagram] clan,’ he says. ‘We banked on that and it really helped us out.’ Andrew’s business partner and self-proclaimed coffee evangelist Lee Ee Han adds, ‘I believe the aesthetics of the place definitely play up the experience. People like the laidback, comfortable, non-uniformed environment.’
Joachim Leong rode on this hunger for independent, good-looking cafés by drawing out a physical and online café map branded as Café Hop KL. As his personal hobby of exploring cafés sparked interest on his Facebook page, he decided to compile KL’s best start-ups in a handy map. ‘I think people are interested to hang out at places that are like an extension of their lounge,’ he says. ‘In short, it’s to do with urbanisation.’ The success of Café Hop is physical proof that KL’s third wave scene is thriving at rapid speed; it also sheds light on coffee aficionados that seek to be connected by a single thread of cool, unspoken exclusivity.
With a cup of coffee averaging at RM12, are people buying coffee as much as they’re buying into the coffee lifestyle? Do people want to drink coffee or simply be seen drinking coffee? Are our photo-snapping habits shrouding the old-world romanticism of communal coffee-drinking? The answers to these questions are fuzzy, but with the escalating number of pretty cafés churning out sub-par coffee, it’s difficult to keep focused on quality product. Perng expresses mild worry: ‘A lot of [café owners] are jumping on the bandwagon and it’s always going to be the case. It’s inevitable because the presence of money makes everyone tempted.’
As money slowly but surely rolls in, investors are also turning a keen eye to the third wave. It’s new, it’s stylish, it’s trending on social media – key reasons for them to have faith in the industry. But will it all crumble with the unravelling of coffee’s next fad? KL’s coffee experts are not panicking just yet. ‘Coffee will never die,’ says Andrew. ‘It’s only a fad if it’s easily replicable. We like to say that there’s only ever a fad of really bad cafés.’ Joey concurs. ‘It’s not a sudden craze because coffee is a daily lifestyle,’ he says, filling his cup with gleaming black brew. ‘Even in ten years, we’ll still be here to stay.’
Places behind the third wave trend
One of KL's most good-looking cafés is perched on Jalan Galloway, a curiously unusual option for a contemporary coffee spot. The café is remodeled from a building on-site, while much of its original charm and old-world feel are retained. On the ground floor is a dim, narrow seating area where coffee machines whiz, baristas chatter and tempting cakes parade. Climb up the steep stairs to the first floor for an airy, breezy, rattan-chaired setup. Coffee wise, the folks here don't believe in house blends. Instead, single origins rotate fortnightly, save for the Valrhona hot chocolate that retains a permanent slot on the menu. Cakes here are bang on form with the most indulgent being The King Cake, banana cake layered with peanut butter frosting, banana slices and chocolate.
PJ’s newest coffee bar hopes to challenge the onslaught of mediocre cafés by providing what few remember to – quality. Couple the inconspicuous location with a top-notch single origin from Papua New Guinea, Standing Theory is a potential success story. The current house roast will not stick around too long as owner Perng is of the opinion that coffee should rotate. Look for in-house coffee scientist Jimmy to pour you some of the best cold brews in the city – steeped for 48 hours, served on the rocks and tasting of bourbon. If you bounce off the walls, order a waffle topped with house-cured pork bacon.
If you’re a coffee retailer, café owner or serial coffee consumer, go to Beans Depot to buy beans or to get schooled on coffee by owner and Malaysia Barista Championship judge Yip Leong Sum. Depending on your taste preferences, the friendly coffee expert will blend and grind your orders on the spot. For the less cool among us, you can also visit the place as an idle latte-sipping customer. Decadent coffee cocktails are also available. There are no prices on hot and cold drinks, a tipping culture is practised.
The folks behind Artisan Roast have come a long way since their humble RAW days. This breezy new café in Sentul’s airy D7 building is testament to their maturing style and quality. We suggest you lock your spot at the outdoor patio where vines entwine around thick ropes; for a precious while, you’ll feel completely disengaged from the city buzz. A Three Little Birds coffee blend is in the making, but take temporary refuge in a punchy Mandheling roast or other rotating single origins. If you’re lucky, coffee connoisseur Joey Mah will be your trusty barista behind the whizzing machine. Meanwhile, hot chocolates here are made using single origin Kalingo 65 percent Valrhona, superbly expensive French-imported chocolate buttons.