5 signs KL’s indie coffee scene is heating up

Enjoy your cuppa alfresco at outdoor cafés such as That Latte Place (the space has since taken over by Green Tomato Café) — Pictures by CK Lim
Enjoy your cuppa alfresco at outdoor cafés such as That Latte Place (the space has since taken over by Green Tomato Café) — Pictures by CK Lim

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 28 — “Artisanal coffee, what?”

The mention of indie cafés and specialty coffee would have the average kopi O drinker in KL scratching their heads a mere five years ago. Nowadays, however, more and more indie coffee shops are springing up all over the city.

Chances are your average café-goer today will know the difference between an espresso and a flat white. In fact, it’s not only about the coffee but the entire experience.

So what’s brewing in the indie coffee scene right now?

1. Hipster cafés invade your neighbourhood

Everywhere you look there is a new indie café opening just about every week. Unlike franchise coffee outlets that prefer the high traffic of shopping malls, these smaller establishments are popping up everywhere, from small residential neighbourhoods to even semi-industrial sites.

Artisanal, independent coffee shops have become the new kopitiams. They are the places where like-minded people gather and have conversations with each other (often, with the baristas too, not unlike a scene out of the popular TV series Cheers).

These so-called hipster cafés draw a younger crowd with their free Wi-Fi and casual atmosphere. Be prepared to share space at communal tables.

JH Yee of now defunct Top Brew Coffee Bar chills a shot of espresso in an ice bath to make his signature Iced Double Black (left). At hipster cafés, baristas are superstars...or are they? (right)
JH Yee of now defunct Top Brew Coffee Bar chills a shot of espresso in an ice bath to make his signature Iced Double Black (left). At hipster cafés, baristas are superstars...or are they? (right)

Instead of the soothing jazz that is the de facto soundtrack of franchise coffee outlets, you may get a sampling of heavy metal or Shanghainese opera music instead. Eclectic is the order of the day.

This almost overnight mushrooming of cafés has gotten some folks wondering if they shouldn’t start one too and cash in on the trend. I have a couple of friends (one’s a doctor and the other a tax consultant) who don’t even drink coffee; they intend to open specialty coffee shops too.

No prior F&B experience needed, they claimed; just money to invest. (Right, where have I heard that one before?)

Whether it is a fad or a more lasting phenomenon, there is a café for every taste and pursuit, which brings me to my next point.

2. Specialise to stand out

Cookie cutter designs and beverage options don’t work here. Besides the usual suspects on the menu (such as a caffè latte or a cappuccino), indie cafés have to offer something unique and different from the rest of the pack, be it their coffee or their décor.

What with café-hopping becoming the new favourite activity of hardcore coffee aficionados, café owners need something special to set them apart from their competition.

For example, slow coffee bars such as Await Café in Taman Desa only serve hand-brewed coffee using the drip or siphon methods; no shots of espresso here. Elsewhere in SS2 PJ, The Standing Theory is known for their DIY interior design and also plans on introducing a nitrogenated cold-brewed coffee soon.

Malaysian barista champion JH Yee of the now defunct Top Brew Coffee Bar in Sri Hartamas created a beverage to please both lovers of espresso and drip coffee. His Iced Double Black combines a shot of espresso chilled in an ice bath with an ice-shaken drip coffee, using the same beans but different grinds for each, to produce a strongly caffeinated drink that helps customers cool down in this sweltering heat.

The DIY décor at The Standing Theory (left). Slow coffee bars such as Await Café only serve hand-brewed coffee (right).
The DIY décor at The Standing Theory (left). Slow coffee bars such as Await Café only serve hand-brewed coffee (right).

The Grumpy Cyclist in TTDI is a cyclist’s dream come true with two-wheelers of all makes parked outside the shop. Outdoor cafés such as Green Tomato Café in Ampang allow you to sip on your cuppa alfresco (in this case, under a rambutan tree).

Some cafés offer the infamous kopi luwak, the most expensive coffee in the world made from beans found in the faeces of civets. This often draws the curious (and deep-pocketed) to try, but also derision from others who denounce the animal cruelty that purportedly takes place during the production of kopi luwak. (Lesson here: don’t stand out for the wrong reasons.)

3. Your coffee has a “single origin” (usually unpronounceable)

Walk into a specialty coffee bar today and it’s like taking a geography lesson. Scrawled in chalk on menu blackboards are often names like “Panama Esmeralda Special Geisha Lot #6” and “Colombian Antioquia La Joyería Lot #212.” Wait, is this an auction house or a café?

Have no fear though; there is reason behind these nearly unpronounceable names of coffee farms and estates. As more people frequent specialty coffee shops, they become more discerning about the coffee they are drinking.

Where do the beans come from? How are they grown and processed? What flavours (or notes, to use the industry’s jargon) can these single origin beans produce? Some customers prefer Ethiopian beans for their high acidity and floral notes; others are fans of certain South American beans for their sweet, chocolatey flavour.

The demand for quality beans has seen the rise of not only specialty coffee shops but the people who procure these beans and roast them. In KL, there are boutique roasters such as Flightless Mule and Sprezzatura Coffee that roast beans in small batches.

We also observe the entry of Australian and Singaporean specialty coffee roasters such as Five Senses, Common Man Coffee Roasters and Nylon Coffee who are capitalising on this growing market.

4. Baristas are the new superstars... or are they?

They come in all shapes and sizes: geeky coffee know-it-alls who experiment with coffee roasting and brewing methods in their spare time; tattooed, rock-star types who can pull a ristretto shot as expertly as they can strum a guitar; soft-spoken, literate siphonists (baristas who brew coffee by hand, not machine) who recite a cup’s origins and profile like a poem.

The barista is more crucial now than ever to a thriving coffee business and specialty café. You can no longer just hire someone off the street and teach them to press a few buttons. Making good coffee takes skill, attention and dedication. One false step and the coffee becomes too bitter or the milk not frothed correctly.

As a profession, being a barista is looking increasingly attractive, with career growth options that go beyond becoming a café owner or supervisor. Coffee professionals can transition into coffee roasters, barista trainers, green bean buyers, graders and more. Entering and winning a barista championship is a big deal.

Of course, the flipside of this are baristas who believe that sullen is the new cool. Some are more concerned with spouting coffee jargon than serving cups their customers actually want.

Once a barista asked me how I found my coffee and I made the honest mistake of telling him I would have preferred it warmer. I then received a sermon about how different customers had different ideal temperature ranges and how challenging it was for him to prepare the perfect cup.

Bro, all I wanted was hotter coffee.

5. Latte art goes wild!

If you have Facebook or Instagram, you must have seen the picture of the 3D latte art cat chasing after fish that was doing the rounds last year. The milk foam sculpture was so complex that it took two cups of coffee to hold it!

I once observed WA Café’s barista trainer Masahiro Aoki drawing Spongebob Squarepants for a latte art fan. The painstaking detail as he etched on the milk foam was incredible to behold. His compatriot, Junichi Yamaguchi, goes one step further; as a latte art guru, he travels around the world to conduct latte art workshops for enthusiasts.

Snapping pictures of beautiful and intricate latte art, whether it’s 3D or not, and then sharing it on social media is a double-edged sword. Aoki tells me that quite often people don’t drink the coffee; they just order a cup to photograph the art. Perhaps this is simply another way of enjoying the cup of coffee but it does seem to be missing the point, no?

Grandiose latte art and superstar baristas aside, at the end of the day, all some of us want is a cup of coffee that tastes good, and a warm smile to go with it.

That’s not asking for too much, is it?

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