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Coffee to go with urban growth

Independent coffee chains like the Grumpy Cyclist (above) and Thvrsdays reflect rapid urbanisation in Malaysia./The Straits Times

Publication Date : 02-03-2014


Independent cafes are popping up all over Malaysia to offer air-con comfort and a place to escape


Not too long ago, very few Malaysians would be able to tell Arabica beans from Robusta, or instant coffee from the storied variety.

Today, the merits of these beans and coffee-making techniques are the stuff of earnest discussion, with some travelling far and wide to learn more. This new-found enthusiasm has led to a coffee company called Barista Guild Asia being set up here in 2012 to train not just baristas but also ordinary Malaysians who want to know what they are drinking.

It goes without saying: Coffee is big in Malaysia, and cafes are even bigger. While international coffee chains like Starbucks and Coffee Bean once dominated the market, independent cafes have been flourishing.

An online map of cafes called Cafe Hop KL, created by a group of friends, now lists almost 100 cafes, clustered in middle-class neighbourhoods.

While the growth of independent coffee joints is not just a Malaysian phenomenon, here the trend is driven by rapid urbanisation. More than 70 per cent of Malaysians now live in urban areas, in smaller and smaller living spaces. Increasingly, people are seeking a low-key, comfortable place to escape, preferably with air-conditioning and a hot beverage.

"People increasingly need a space - a 'third space' - that's between home and office," said Joachim Leong, a barrister-turned-barista who founded the Cafe Hop venture.

People meet for dates, hang out with friends and conduct business meetings at the cafes. For young adults, the cafes can offer a relatively cheap option compared with restaurants, bars and clubs.

Some serve meals like all-day breakfasts, pasta and sandwiches, with coffee costing between 7 ringgit (US$2.14) for a black coffee and 10 ringgit for a latte.

Besides Kuala Lumpur, cafes have also sprouted in smaller towns like George Town, Kota Kinabalu, Kuching and Johor Baru. Even sleepy Ipoh saw over 30 cafes opening last year alone.

Daniel Liew, the academic director of Barista Guild Asia, said it has trained more than 240 people since it opened a year and a half ago. Most were planning to open cafes or already own cafes.

"There is a high demand for good baristas, and many who opened cafes found that they couldn't recruit any. So, they decided to get trained themselves," he said.

More owners invest in coffee machines that can cost anything from 15,000 ringgit to 40,000 ringgit, and beans that cost 80 ringgit to 100 ringgit per kg for just 35 to 40 cups.

But one thing you won't find in these speciality coffee shops is Malaysian coffee. Local coffee, which is thick, bitter and slightly oily, is sold mainly in the kopitiam (Hokkien for coffee shop), including upscale air-conditioned versions like the Old Town White Coffee chain.

Mr Liew said Malaysia does not grow the Arabica beans, which are regarded as higher quality than the Robusta and Liberica beans planted here. Arabica beans grow in high altitudes.

"It's a different market altogether," he said about the local coffee that's usually drunk sweetened with sugar or condensed milk.

With so many new coffee joints out there, some are trying harder to stand out.

By the time he opened his Coffee Cottage Cat Cafe in the Subang Jaya neighbourhood in January, said Warren Lim, there were already eight or nine cafes within a few blocks.

But he was confident that he had found a niche because his cafe came with cats.

People can come just to have coffee and a meal, or they can pet and feed the cafe's cats as well.

*US$1 = 3.28 ringgit


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