Kuching’s coffee craze

KUCHING: “Coffee, coffee everywhere!”

Such is the comment of one fellow Kuchingite who returned recently after spending many months abroad. Indeed, I cannot blame him for saying that for such is the rapidity of growth of coffee cafes all over Kuching.

It is a trend growing worldwide and now emulated here. These specialty stores pick up on the growing culture of coffee drinking as Kuchingites educate themselves on java juice.

After crude oil, coffee is the most sought after commodity in the world, putting it ahead of commodities like natural gas, gold, brent oil, sugar and corn.

With over 500 billion cups of coffee consumed every year, the value of coffee  is valued at a staggering US$100 billion.

Cafes are a rising star in the specialty food and beverage industry and the fastest growing niche in the restaurant business, enriching tastebuds by offering brewed coffee and specialty drinks like cappuccinos and lattes with the cafe’s success determined by consumer taste, as well as shop location and atmosphere.

Entering the third wave

Social needs and demands always develop together with status and income and so too has the Malaysian coffee culture, which started from small stalls in rural area, to ‘kopitiams’ and now into big commercial cafes.

The growth of this coffee culture is termed in ‘waves’ by those in the industry, with the first wave being the standard coffee shops and instant coffee while the second wave is the proliferation, starting in the 1960s (in the US) at Peet’s and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee.

Pullitzer prize winning food critic, Jonathan Gold, said in 2008 that, “We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.”

The third wave’s emphasis on manual, rather than mechanical, brewing is further emphasised by the wave’s brewing protocol where the only button the barista presses is to turn on the coffee grinder.

The rest is the handiwork of a trained barista dedicated to achieving the perfect brew.

Among Malaysians who are traditionally tea drinkers due to its British history, coffee stands for the merger of western culture and ideology.

Sipping a cup of coffee, with a strange foreign name, on a relaxing afternoon commonly represents a higher standard of life in Malaysia.

With the increasing middle class and the booming ‘Generation Z’, this has slowly evolved into a lifestyle among Malaysians in general.

Growing number of coffee drinkers

The coffee house business has grown every year. Lifestyle factors converge to make the coffee industry strong at all times.

The surge in interest in coffee drinking among young people assures a diverse, receptive, sophisticated customer base now and in the future.

Older adults also enjoy the fact that for the relatively modest price of a cup of coffee and snack, they can meet with their friends, relax or work.

Instead of going to a bar and paying for an alcoholic drink or a restaurant where a meal usually comes with a hefty price tag, the coffeehouse is an intimate yet inexpensive venue.

The third wave coffee culture is still considered a recent phenomenon in Malaysia and Kuching being one the largest cities in East Malaysia, it really is a matter of time before specialty coffee places really took the scene as it did in Kuala Lumpur.

As the appreciation of coffee continues to grow, BizHive Weekly talks to a few local players that are currently part of the boom here in Sarawak.

Earthling:  An inspiration from a friend

To coffee lovers, Earthling’s Coffee Workshop is not an unfamiliar name.

Situated at one of Kuching’s more iconic malls, the coffee workshop consistently sees great patronage with many afternoons bustling with customers.

Speaking to the BizHive Weekly, co-founder of Earthling’s Raven Kwok highlighted that the journey has not been easy.

It took him and co-business partner Kenny Lee a year in planning to set up the place with an investment of over over RM300, 000.

Kwok, a New Zealander who studied in Australia, came to Kuching to seek what the land of the hornbill has to offer.

His love for coffee came when Kwok was studying in Melbourne. The prevalence of the coffee culture in Melbourne was so great, “you couldn’t miss it”, he said, slowly developing his love as well as his fascination for java.

“I started off drinking latte and slowly I got rid of the sugar,” he reminisced. “After a period of time. I started identifying what’s good coffee and what’s bad.

“Beyond that, I started to be able to tell if the milk is too hot, when it doesn’t taste good.

“I started wondering why it tastes different and I found out that even if it came from the same place, it could taste good and bad depending on the barista,” he observed.

At this point, Kwok experimented with coffee on his own – talking to baristas, trying out different flavours, and experimenting with home brewing.

From there, he started drinking at home and learnt to fine-tune brews.

“I was grinding different beans by myself to see what sort of flavours will come out and basically playing around with it. So that’s how my coffee journey started,” he enthused.

On starting Earthling’s, Kwok and his business partner Lee talked about a friend who was the one who inplanted the idea for the shop.

“Her dream was to open a cafe and one day she just nonchalantly said why not has our own coffee place since we all love it so much.”

He explained that since he came to Kuching quite often, he decided to move here indefinitely and see what opportunities but it was also the year tragedy struck, as that was also the year their friend passed away.

“Since Kenny and I loved coffee, and we also wanted to remember our friend, we decided to pursue her dream and open this cafe.

“There was a multitude of factors involved including the fact that we both loved good coffee and good coffee places here aren’t easy to find as there aren’t that many.

“Add on the fact that it is really hard to find the gadgets over here for making coffee (unlike Australia), it sort of all falls in place.”

Talking on the specialty coffee that is blooming, Kwok highlighted the focus going way beyond just espressos and lattes – back to the source such as processing (cherry stage, farming), which basically brings in a whole new era to coffee.

While Earthling’s may not be the first in Kuching in terms of being a single origin coffee roaster and server, Kwok said they were on a mission to educate Kuchingites the difference between a good brew and a bad one.

“We may not be the first but those who were here earlier than us in terms of using single origin beans, used different methods of extraction from ours.

“We respect them of course for bringing it into Kuching but there’s so much more to the third wave than just single origin coffee beans.

“Compared to our competitors, I am not sure how much are they into the coffee itself because for us, that is the main focus. A good distinguishing factor between the rest and us is that we roast our own beans here.

“Aside from the fancy latte art and the whole ‘hipster’ package, we also carefully examine every shot that we pull through.

“We are constantly trying to improve as we understand that there is no perfect cup, let alone the subjectivity of the matter, but science have it that there is a range of what people like.

“Reason for this is because of the coffee bean we’re not drinking 100 per cent of it, we are only extracting 18 to 22 per cent of the coffee mass as the rest will taste disgusting. Hence the reason sometimes you get disgusting bitter coffee, which has been over extracted,” Kwok said.

“Knowing well that there is a range for everyone’s perfect cup, and there is science behind it, we are striving to achieve to reach that range with every brew we serve.

“This is also part of the third wave as they bring science behind it and not only rely purely on one’s own senses.”

To further emphasise this, he added, “We try to control our variables per shot. We also try to keep a log on what goes in and what comes out merging both senses and science.”

With the much-needed accreditation from the right bodies, Kwok revealed it took much longer and more expensive than originally expected. However, he was also relatively surprised at the turnout.

“Business was better than expected where it had gone to the point where we had to expand it.

“Initially we only had the inside area but due to the overwhelming response, we added more tables outside and now we even had to expand it a second time within a matter of months of opening.

“The biggest surprise was that most of our clientele were not regular mall goers but more towards coffee lovers who have heard about us via word-of-mouth.

“This shows the growing appreciation for specialty coffee in the local scene.”

The Coffee Clinic: The story of music and coffee beans

In a society where fusion is the new ‘in’ thing, The Coffee Clinic hypes on this trend by merging specialty coffee with music thanks to the owner’s connection to the local music scene.

Dennis Ting, one of the three co-owners of the cafe located at Jalan Song, revealed to BizHive Weekly the idea for the shop which formed thanks to the difference between its three owners.

“I personally had no experience in the food and everage industry, except for working as a waiter while studying overseas.

“But seeing the trend booming overseas as well as in KL, I brought the idea up with my nephew and current business partner, Joseph Ting, this could be a good idea for a venture.”

Dennis highlighted that the third wave coffee boom is still a recent phenomena in Malaysia, with KL only starting to see coffee cafes mushrooming about five years ago.

“I was in KL for a number of years, and ten years ago there weren’t any stores like this. There was only places like Coffee Bean and Starbucks.”

This sparked the idea for Dennis to initiate such a concept in Kuching, supported by the three co-owners’ professional works which they often tap into for meetings.

“Since Joseph and another partner, Lau Kiew Yung have a lot of business associates, we thought of starting this project to benefit them.

“Even if the business does not take off, it can be utilised as a meeting place for their own circle of friends or associates. To our surprise, the business ended up better than expected,” he enthused.

“Despite being fairly new to this scene, we are always learning new things – either by studying it or even visiting established cafes when we travel. In face, we have become good friends with other stores such as Earthling’s.”

It was revealed that Joseph and Lau both were in other businesses such as music, so for them, investing a certain amount into Coffee Clinic was within their budget.

“Joseph’s main line is in musical supplies, therefore his network of musicians is there for us,” Dennis revealed. “You can usually find performers playing live music here regularly, be it Joseph’s friends, music schoolteachers or even professional musicians.

“To add on to the appeal, we also have two guitars for our customers to play with. We might add on more in the future. If customers perform

well enough, we can even arrange a night for his or her own performance here.”

The introduction of music to its store also helped Coffee Clinic to set itselves apart from a typical store.

Demand for coffee has no doubt been increasing in Kuching. Dennis said.

“Kuching is not exactly unknown when it comes to the coffee culture in Malaysia, with our recent boom being noticed. In fact, we are outpacing places like Johor, Ipoh, or even Penang.”

This encouraged Coffee Clinic to enhance its offerings and services, to the point of even considering expansion despite just starting business less than a few months ago.

“At the moment, we’re trying to up the ante. Joseph – being the ambitious person that he is –  is eyeing expansion to the first floor,  converting it into a wholly specialty coffee/single origin coffee place.

“So the idea is to keep the current place as a regular cafe for people to ‘chill out’ while the first floor is set to be a specialty coffee place not dissimilar to Earthlings focusing on specialty coffee or upmarket coffee.”

“We are also planning to set some facilities for training as we notice that we are very short on experienced baristas locally.

“It would be a platform for those that want to be baristas to come and learn from certified trainers from Kuala Lumpur or elsewhere under the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE)/ Specialty Coffee Association of America.

“As society advances itself, so would its taste for the finer things – and coffee is one of them.”

Cupella: Keeping the classic feel of a coffee place

For those in Kuching, Cupella is known not only for its coffee and service but also the quirky artwork that lines its walls. Jago Ten, the founder of Cupella noted that the idea for Cupella was more accidental than on purpose.

Ten highlighted to BizHive Weekly that Cupella is more of a subsidiary business as his main business is the restaurant called Gourmet Sausage. His java venture started thanks to a stroke of luck and a lot of influence from KL.

Ten said, “It’s a habit for youngsters in KL to head to a coffee joint after work or study to grab coffee and meet up with friends. Indie cafes are a dime a dozen over there with websites recommending the top 20 must visit cafes in Klang Valley and the like.

“Even my friends and I (as we have stayed in KL for quite a few years) would sometime come up with a list of cafes to visit that day.

“Being a food operator, my initial idea was to renovate my own shop as I felt that it needed a fresher look. So I took inspiration from other outlets around and added my own touch.

“I was basically becoming my own interior designer and that gave birth to the idea for the decor at the cafe.”

Ten said the shoplot that Cupella currently occupies was initially a pub.

“When I took over this place it was rather well maintained so the initial idea was to continue the place as a pub for the first month as the place was very well received and highly profitable.

“But at the end of the day maintaining a pub wasn’t an easy feat and with this being a second business I was unable to fully focus on this all the time.

“After giving it some thought, I was reminded of my love of coffee and thought that this could be a good idea,” Ten enthused.

However, as the young entrepreneur ventured into the coffee scene, he realised that unlike most traditional cafes, specialty coffee shops are a little different as the baristas require certification from certain bodies.

“Thing about specialty coffee is that unlike regular cafes, baristas dealing with specialty coffee needs to be certified and go for courses. So all in all with the detailing, design work, training

Cupella took me roughly three to four months worth of work and circa RM250, 000 for renovation costs before it became what it is today.”

Touching on the signature artwork of Cupella, Ten highlighted that the whole idea of it is to retain a classic feel to the place.

“We decided to stick to a more ‘timeless’ concept to keep a New York feel to the place.”

Ten opined that demand for coffee especially specialty coffee has been increasing with the times and have yet reached its peak.

“The younger people nowadays are more knowledgeable about almost everything than their fathers’ time and with that comes an increase in appreciation for things.

“For example, nowadays we have starbucks but during our father’s era, there were only regular ‘kopitiams’.

“Compared to our competitors, I honestly can’t tell you how far different we are in terms of coffee as for us, we only focus on bettering ourselves rather than compete directly with them because when it comes  to the F&B scene, if the food or drinks is good, there’s no denying it and people will be willing to wait for it.

“After having said that, I believe that’s what we’re trying to achieve and just to better ourselves from where we were before.”