PETALING JAYA, Sept 13 — Everywhere you go in Malaysia, you are bound to find an indie cafe. When the cafe scene first emerged, most of the cafes sourced their coffee bean supply from abroad and it was only a couple of years ago that local roasters started appearing. Now there is a handful of homegrown coffee roasters where cafes can get their fresh supply of beans.
Last May, Chiam Tow Jin started The Roast Things, a micro-roastery, with a seasoned roaster Ving Tan. Their focus is on roasting espresso-based coffee beans and filter coffee beans.
“I was a coffee drinker and I used to work part-time in Starbucks when I was still studying. It was in Starbucks where I learned about Italian coffee. In 2010, indie cafes started opening and I visited them. I realised how different the coffee tasted compared to Starbucks,” said Chiam.
At that time, Tan operated a cafe called Coffee Famille in Kota Damansara. She learned how to make coffee and roast coffee when she was in Taiwan. When Chiam decided to start The Roast Things, Tan decided to join him.
Chiam took his Q-grader exam in Hong Kong in order to learn more about coffee and be a full-time roaster. Being a licensed Q-grader means that the person is qualified to grade coffee and also be a judge for coffee competitions. Since then he has judged many coffee competitions, most recently the Malaysia Barista Championship this year.
“I learned the fundamentals about coffee quality which was important for me as a roaster. Apart from roasting and selling, I also learned about raw materials. Taking the qualification kickstarted what I wanted to do and it was what I was looking for,” said Chiam.
In the beginning, to familiarise potential bean buyers with The Roast Things, Chiam and Tan hosted coffee sensory workshops and cupping sessions for baristas, cafe owners and coffee enthusiasts. It was a way to build a reputation in the coffee industry. Over time, due to space constraints, The Roast Things stopped having workshops at their space.
“Our main focus now is on supply. In October, we will be moving to a new location. It’s going to be two floors. The ground floor will have a coffee bar and we will do our roasting there. On the mezzanine floor we will have a space for workshops and events,” said Chiam.
People found out about The Roast Things through social media as well as through word of mouth. At that time, The Roast Things was one of the pioneers that organised cupping workshops in town. Chiam didn’t want to open a cafe in the beginning because he felt that he needed to focus on roasting first.
“I didn’t want to split my attention in running a cafe and roasting because it would be difficult to focus. There is a demand for good coffee and it is great to supply to cafes,” said Chiam.
To learn more about coffee, Chiam travelled to other countries and visited other cafes, finding out about things undiscovered in the Malaysian market. Recently, he visited a coffee farm in Colombia.
“Colombia is a huge region with different qualities of coffee and different species of coffee,” he said. The trip was very informative and useful because he learned that certain farming methods played a huge role in developing the flavour of coffee.
As part of The Roast Things, Chiam’s role is to source for good raw beans. He prefers to deal with merchants for his supplies, as dealing directly with a certain farm limits his options to only a few types while merchants offer a larger variety of beans. According to Chiam, dealing directly also requires you to order a huge volume.
Tan is responsible for roasting while Chiam does the profiling. They will taste the coffee together and find what roast profile fits the coffee. “Finding the perfect roast profile is tricky because not all coffees are made equal,” said Chiam.
Through cupping, they will decide what kind of roasting style is required. Since The Roast Things roast espresso-based beans and filter coffee beans, Tan has the best of both worlds to understand the type of roast profiles each coffee needs. There is no fixed roasting profile for the beans at The Roast Things.
Besides supplying to cafes, The Roast Things also roast for baristas who participate in competitions. For the recent Malaysia Barista Championship, The Roast Things roasted coffee beans for Heng Xin Min from Thirdwave.
“They tell us what they want and we will roast it based on the coffee we have at that time,” said Chiam. Since The Roast Things is a micro-roastery, they do not stock up on every single type of bean because it would not be fresh.
The Roast Things also sell 200 gram retail packs for home brewers. You can also get their beans from Bean Shipper (www.beanshipper.com), an online coffee supplier. “It is a good avenue to showcase our coffee to a bigger market,” said Chiam.
Currently, Chiam supplies to 10 cafes, some in KL while some are located in Penang. Cafes will let The Roast Things know what kind of beans and roasting profile they want and also the budget they are willing to spend. The retail packs are a way for cafes or people to try the beans without having to commit just yet.
When their cafe opens in October, people will be able to sample the various coffee beans via their coffee bar. At the George Town Festival this year, Chiam conducted a cupping session at the MMOxGTF coffee pop-up Nowhereman Coffee in China House.
“The farm trip was organised by my supplier and it opened up my eyes because it is so diverse. The first time I went on a coffee farm trip was in Chiang Mai where I learned that they also grow Arabica beans there. When you visit a coffee farm you learn about how it works. My plan is to visit Brazil next and also the African countries,” said Chiam.
Even though The Roast Things will have their own cafe, they will continue to collaborate with other cafes. One of the interesting sensory workshops Chiam conducted was the fruits and nuts workshop where guests were invited to try different fruits and nuts. It was done so guests can get a better perspective when identifying the coffee’s flavours. After eating the fruits and nuts, they went through a cupping session to identify the coffee’s flavour profile.
In a month, The Roast Things roasts about 400 kilograms of coffee and Tan spends three days a week roasting. “We sell coffee based on the taste and not the region. It is about the freshness of the cup and the roast style,” said Chiam.