Three Little Birds and the future of specialty coffee

Three Little Birds Coffee’s new shop at Isetan The Japan Store’s THE CUBE. —  Pictures by Choo Choy May and courtesy of Three Little Birds Coffee
Three Little Birds Coffee’s new shop at Isetan The Japan Store’s THE CUBE. — Pictures by Choo Choy May and courtesy of Three Little Birds Coffee

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 2 — Has the time of specialty coffee come and gone?

Not so soon, says Joey Mah of Three Little Birds Coffee. There is still much room to grow though growing may mean doing things a bit differently.

Enter the veteran coffee roaster’s new outlet at THE CUBE, a lifestyle space highlighting Japanese culture at Isetan The Japan Store in Lot 10, KL.

Serving as an entry point to specialty coffee for members of the public who haven’t been exposed to it before, the new shop is also a way for Mah to collaborate with a larger retail entity.

Joey Mah believes in adapting Three Little Birds’ approach to reach a wider audience.
Joey Mah believes in adapting Three Little Birds’ approach to reach a wider audience.

Besides the usual excellent cuppas one has come to expect from the coffee stalwart, the café also has a toast and egg based menu to keep the hunger pangs at bay.

The former comes covered with homemade ricotta cheese and jam, Nutella and chocolate yoghurt, as well as the brunch staple of avocado. Everyone’s favourite eggs come in all forms — as omelettes, Japanese style onsen eggs as well as delicately soft scrambled eggs. That last one is the highlight of Three Little Birds’s take on the classic unadon with a luscious slab of grilled freshwater eel atop steamed rice.

For serious coffee geeks, the more hands-on and technical aspects of the craft aren’t neglected; there are still brewing workshops conducted by the likes of Malaysian Barista Champions Jason Loo and Keith Koay.

Look closer and you’ll notice shots of Malaysian Barista Champion Keith Koay in competition.
Look closer and you’ll notice shots of Malaysian Barista Champion Keith Koay in competition.

Serendipitously the opportunity to set up shop at THE CUBE came about just as Three Little Birds was entering a quick expansion phase in KL. Mah says, “We found out that Isetan The Japan Store does collaborations with local businesses. So we met up, had discussions and voila! Done. This is particularly important as we are trying to push for quality, transparency and affordability.”

Affordability is especially key as Mah notes that many Malaysian coffee roasters are affected by the economy. While some roasters have been impacted more than the others, each business has had to adapt in one way or another: from sourcing for inexpensive green beans to moving away from the specialty coffee segment towards a more commercial mass market.

2014 World AeroPress Champion Shuichi Sasaki hosted an AeroPress brewing workshop here recently.
2014 World AeroPress Champion Shuichi Sasaki hosted an AeroPress brewing workshop here recently.

It isn’t enough, apparently, to have hipsters as your main or only customers.

There is still a place for specialty coffee whatever the market conditions. In lieu of buying cheaper (and possibly lower quality beans) or vying with the bigger commercial coffee players, however, Mah has opted to expand Three Little Birds’ reach. Again, he believes that if one path doesn’t work anymore, it’s time to try and move a little differently.

He says, “By taking coffee directly to customers, we are able to communicate more effectively as a roaster. Here we can share our stories, our products and also our quality. Three Little Birds will focus more on communities and neighbourhoods where we will study and cater to those who work or stay around those areas and hope we can communicate with them better through coffee.”

The iconic Three Little Birds logo (left). Watch out for future coffee brewing classes at Three Little Birds (right).
The iconic Three Little Birds logo (left). Watch out for future coffee brewing classes at Three Little Birds (right).

Events are a great way to communicate that story of a better coffee. Besides Loo and Koay, Three Little Birds at THE CUBE has been featuring trainers and presenters from elsewhere in the region.

Given the distinctive Japanese flavour of the space, it’s not surprising that Mah invited Tokyo-based Shuichi Sasaki, the 2014 World AeroPress Champion, to host an AeroPress brewing workshop recently.

Mah explains, “I’ve been travelling for judging around our neighbouring countries and also at the same time made some really good friends in the coffee industry. Each of them is unique and they are very specialised. Having them around allows us to learn and see how different cultures and people can be.”

The diversity of coffee personalities is part of the appeal. Enthusiasts can learn about coffee cocktails from Arnon Thitiprasert, the 2017 World Latte Art Champion and owner of Ristr8to in Chiang Mai; or experience a “brewbar takeover” by Andrea Tan, 2015 Singapore National Brewers Cup champion and WCE certified judge.

Toast with homemade ricotta cheese and jam (left). Three Little Birds’s take on the classic unadon with a luscious slab of grilled freshwater eel atop soft scrambled egg and steamed rice (right).
Toast with homemade ricotta cheese and jam (left). Three Little Birds’s take on the classic unadon with a luscious slab of grilled freshwater eel atop soft scrambled egg and steamed rice (right).

“This is part of progress and growth. We are growing as an industry, pushing so consumers will find us more relevant. We are part of a bigger picture now; we are of world standard in coffee terms. We are no longer restricted by sourcing, roasting or making coffee but this also means we have to keep on learning and pushing to be better. And each of them are coffee professionals and having them allows me to learn and study this industry better.”

If it sounds like Mah is pivoting Three Little Birds’ business model, he hastens to clarify that they are still following the same roadmap, albeit not limiting themselves to taking only a single route to reach their destination. He reasons that they have been continuously pushing for higher quality products, direct trade and better customer service.

“But these qualities are dynamic. As we improve ourselves, we will change our approach to make ourselves better. We wish to offer better coffee by understanding our customers better. One day, they can tell everyone that coffee is not a flavour.”

Three Little Birds at THE CUBE
1F THE CUBE, Isetan The Japan Store, Lot 10, 50 Jalan Sultan Ismail, KL
Open 11am-9pm
www.facebook.com/threelittlebirdscoffee/

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