PETALING JAYA, Aug 31 – Is there such a thing as a truly Malaysian coffee? Our traditional kopi O comes to mind but given the number of Malaysians, particularly the younger generation, flocking to independent cafés serving ristrettos and flat whites, it’s hard to say which cup would get more votes.
Enter Roast & Grind, a café and coffee roaster in Petaling Jaya that aims to bridge both worlds. Baristas here serve both kopi O and espressos to regulars comprising office workers, university students, nearby residents and families both young and old.
Owners Shahrizal Zoal (fondly known as Shah) and Faizal Rashid have created an unassuming space that manages to be both retro and modern. Pieces of comfortable furniture that look like they came from someone’s house coexist with a fire-engine red espresso machine. It’s rojak without being too hipster or too kopitiam.
The two business partners, with their matching clean-shaven pates, met over a mutual love of – what else? – coffee. Faizal, a former professional footballer who played for Selangor State, says, “We have been friends since 2007 and play futsal together. Afterwards we would hang out at mamak stalls because back then there weren’t so many specialty cafés.”
Over time, Faizal started learning more about coffee from Shah who handles marketing for Hang Tuah Coffee, his family’s Penang-based kopi O business. The third-generation coffee roaster says, “Faizal and I both enjoy coffee so much that we asked ourselves, ‘Why don’t we become part of it?’ We wanted to roast and sell our own coffee.”
Their decision was timely given the number of cafés that have recently sprung up all over the Klang Valley. Most, Shah notes, get their coffee beans from roasters that have a more Australian or Singaporean influence. He says, “We want to supply these cafés with beans that have a more Malaysian profile, even though it’s for espresso.”
To learn more about the coffee roasting process, the partners visited the Hang Tuah Coffee factory in Tasek Gelugor, Penang. Faizal says, “Of course, the roasting profiles for kopi O and espresso-based coffee are completely different but I wanted to learn all the basics, including how to cup. For example, how do we get this cup of kopi O that we drink every morning?”
Hang Tuah Coffee was founded by Shah’s grandfather, Tuan Haji Zainal bin Haji Said, on August 31, 1958, a year after independence, making this “kopi Merdeka” as Malaysian as it gets. The late Tuan Haji Zainal had started producing kopi O as early as 1955 but during this period, the coffee was branded as “Chap Tiga Murid” (Three Students Brand).
Post-independence, Hang Tuah Coffee began as a cottage enterprise producing a kopi O powder mix called “Serbuk Kopi Campuran Hang Tuah” that soon became popular nationwide. The small family operation grew over time and today its current facility has state-of-the-art technology and machinery from Spain.
So what’s the difference in roasting coffee for kopi O versus espresso? Shah explains, “For kopi O, we roast the coffee beans up to a medium-dark roast.
Next, we caramelise the beans with sugar. We use a ratio of 60 per cent coffee to 40 per cent sugar. This changes the colour of the beans to a much darker shade and enhances the coffee’s aroma and flavour. The beans are then cooled and hardened before being ground into powder.”
Many believe that the addition of butter or margarine during the roasting process adds an intense richness to the beans. Shah dispels this myth. “The use of margarine is more for lubrication so the caramelised coffee doesn’t stick to the bottom of the kawah, a big ‘wok’ we used to mix the beans and sugar in. Some local coffee producers may add flour, salt or even corn to the caramelisation process as filler to bulk it up! This started because people in the past couldn’t afford expensive, pure coffee so they packed it with other ingredients to reduce the cost.”
Meanwhile back in Petaling Jaya, the Roast & Grind team use a 500g Roure Tectosa Barcelona machine to roast their espresso coffee, which will soon be sold under their RB Beans brand. Faizal says, “For kopi O, the kawah can handle up to 20kg of beans, but for espresso we roast in smaller batches to maintain its freshness. We can even roast for customers on the spot who require small quantities of 250g up to 1kg.”
Even the beans used to roast kopi O and espresso are different. There are generally three different types of coffee beans – Arabica (Coffea arabica), Robusta (Coffea canephora) and Liberica (Coffea liberica).
Shah says, “We use Robusta beans only for our blue label kopi O to get a bitterer taste whereas for our green label kopi O, we use a mix of Liberica and Robusta to produce a balanced flavour. For espresso, we only use Arabica.
Currently we have single origin coffee from Indonesia, Brazil and Colombia; we do a medium roast for these as most cafés here serve it this way due to the Aussie trend and to retain the original flavours of the beans. For our house blend, we prefer a medium-dark to dark roast as this is closer to the taste of coffee we grew up with.”
Another difference, of course, is that kopi O comes in powder form and is ready to mix with hot water; for espresso, the beans are ground right before brewing. Faizal adds, “The concept for our café is to serve our own roasting profile of espresso coffee but also educate the younger generation about local coffee. Here, families can enjoy the best of both worlds under one roof.”
So far, coffee roasting has been a continuous learning process for the duo. Shah says, “It looks simple but it’s quite tricky. How long to roast – too short and it’s too light for the flavours to appear; too long and the beans get burnt. Kopi O is something I believe only Malaysians can do right.”
How does one know if the kopi O is good, then? Faizal relates an anecdote he picked up from Shah’s uncle. “He told me that if you want to find a good kopi O, look out for a kopitiam where an old uncle will drop by for his morning coffee and still return in the evening for one more cup before he heads home. That’s how you know they serve the good stuff.”
The future looks bright for these home-grown espresso coffee roasters. To keep up with the increase in orders from wholesale customers, Roast & Grind will have a new dedicated 60kg roasting machine for RG Beans at the Hang Tuah Coffee headquarters in Penang.
The kopi O business is doing well too. “Right now Hang Tuah Coffee exports to Hong Kong, Australia, even China. It takes time and money to educate consumers overseas but the potential is great. One of the visitors to our exhibition booths told me ‘This is like Malaysian espresso!’ so it’s clear there’s demand for our local coffee,” says Shah.
For the Roast & Grind duo, it’s important that our Malaysian coffee culture does not disappear even as we embrace new trends such as Third Wave coffee.
Faizal says, “We don’t want to leave our kopi O behind. We are born in Malaysia and this is what our first taste of real coffee is. That bitter taste and why we add sugar to sweeten it – that’s how our palate has been shaped since young. There’s really nothing more gratifying when we have different generations ordering coffee at our café. Sometimes it’s the youngsters ordering kopi O for the first time while their grandparents try a cappuccino!”
Roast & Grind
6 Lorong Universiti B, Petaling Jaya
Open Tue-Sun 11am-11pm; Mon closed
Tel: 012-2520855 & 019-3931399
For more information about Hang Tuah Coffee, visit www.kopihangtuah.com