Coffee Culture Article cover photo
01 June 2016

Coffee Culture

There is a popular belief that your coffee order can give insight into your personality type - So what does it mean when it comes to the identity of a city? We explore the bean culture of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia to see if we can find out.


It is impossible to explain to a non-coffee drinker the sheer pleasure that courses through your veins when you get your daily fix of this liquid cocaine. But how did this incongrous little bean reach our part of the world, and how big, really, is the coffee culture in Southeast Asia?

As with all life, the cradle of birth for the undomesticated coffee bean lies on the continent of Africa - Ethiopia, to be exact. It then spread northward to North Africa, Egypt and the Middle East, where it was picked up by Venetian traders in the 16th century. Once it had spread to Europe, it was only a matter of time before their colonies started to adopt the bean into their culture; Latin America’s geography in particular was heavily influenced by the coffee industry, with Brazil becoming the largest exporter of coffe in the world by the late 19th century. Indian coffee is believed to be the finest in the world that is grown under shade rather than direct sunlight.

But in Southeast Asia, coffee has taken on a completely new identity, notably distinct from its colonial masters. First introduced by the Dutch East India Company, Indonesia has been growing coffee for over four centuries, making it an integral part of their heritage. For the Vietnamese, coffee is a veritable institution, its signature chocolatey charm and rich flavour unparalelled by any other in the world. In Singapore, there have even been dishes created just to go with that cup of morning coffee - if you’ve ever had soft-boiled eggs and kaya toast with a cup of kopi, you’ll understand why it’s a transcendent experience all on its own.

And if you’re talking about making it to the international headlines, Southeast Asia is the origin of two of the most expensive coffees in the world - Kopi Luwak and Black Ivory Coffee, derived from the digestive processes of Vietnamese civet cats and Thai elephants respectively.

So while it seems that there’s no escaping this ubiquitous little bean, perhaps the best way to see a city is to take a sip in one of its coffee shops. After all, there’s a reason why you wake up – to smell the coffee, of course.



There are two worlds of coffee in Singapore. Above indistinct chatter, middle-aged men and women, affectionately called 'Aunties and Uncles', shout across crowded hawker centres.

“Kopi-O!” shouts one.

“Kopi-C Bing!” shouts another.

Two cups of coffee are delivered in a matter of seconds and sweaty change pass hands into 1990s style fanny packs.

On the flip side, smartly-aproned baristas stand behind espresso machines, watching intently as caramel nectar drips into a cup.

“One cappuccino!” one of them shouts, followed by repetition by the rest of the crew.

It takes a while and the piercing shriek of the steam machine fills the small cafe. Customers patiently wait to the side for their cup to be topped with swirled foam filigree before bringing it back to their table.


Nanyang style coffee conjures up images of large cans of boiled water being poured over stocking strainers filled with coarsely ground coffee beans. The strained black coffee is the base for various amalgamations of the beverage. Kopi is black coffee served with condensed milk and sugar. Take away the milk and it's Kopi-O. No sugar? Kopi Kosong. Switch the condensed milk for evaporated milk and it's Kopi-C - the C stands for Carnation, a brand of evaporated milk widely used around the island.

Then there are other "codewords" savvy drinkers will need to know: Gao for a stronger brew; Po for just the opposite. Siew Dai means less sugar; Gah Dai if you like them sweet. And to make any of these drinks chilled, just add "Bing" to the back of any of these combinations.

Nanyang style coffee is what most Singaporeans would have drunk growing up - It's available in all kopitiams and hawker centres around the island. There is no definite answer as to when coffee first arrived in Singapore but Founder of Killiney Kopitiam, Mr Woon Tek Seng, believes that the first few kopitiam owners were Hainanese immigrants who came to Singapore about 100 to 150 years ago. Kopitiams are hole-in-the-wall coffee shops that serve fast-brewed coffee, as well as slices of hot toast slathered with kaya and cold slabs of butter with a side of soft-boiled eggs.

Killiney Kopitiam is one of the last few authentically traditional Hainanese kopitiams in Singapore. The original Killiney Kopitiam, located along Killiney Road near the Orchard Road shopping district, has been in operation since 1919. Mr Woon was a regular customer and longed to own Killiney Kopitiam to keep the tradition of Nanyang style coffee alive. He bought the place, originally called Qing Xin He, in 1993 and business has quickly expanded since to about 100 branches across Asia, with the bulk of them in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Killiney Kopitiam has grown into a coffee chain but the company still insists on roasting their coffee beans the traditional way. The Nanyang style was developed by enterprising Hainanese shop owners who chose to roast Robusta beans, which were considerably cheaper and more widely available in this region. Robusta beans aren't known to have a good flavour profile and a regular roast would produce an acrid and bitter cup. However, the Hainanese found that roasting Robusta beans with margarine, sugar, and sometimes maize, could enhance the flavour of the bean, thereby creating a bittersweet and rich caramel tasting brew. Killiney Kopitiam roasts their Robusta beans with a mix of Arabica beans. The Arabica beans are considerably more expensive but Mr Woon believes they add better flavour to a cup of coffee.


However, with gourmet style coffee, most of the time, only Arabica beans are used and roasting times depend on the flavour profile wanted in a cup of coffee. Beans start out green and turn a pale blonde before darkening to black. Darker roasts are less acidic and contain less caffeine than lighter roasts. The finished roasted beans are then ground before being brewed. Brewing techniques vary by region but the American and European styles are most well-known.

Although it seems that the gourmet style of coffee was introduced to Singapore through major coffee chains such as Starbucks and Coffee Bean, roasted Arabica beans for gourmet use have been available in Singapore for more than 50 years. Mr Tan Tiong Hoe, who runs the coffee bean wholesalers, Tiong Hoe Specialty Coffee, found passion in roasting coffee beans when he was an apprentice at Dutch Company, Mirandolle Voute & Co. Mr Tan left after three years to start his own coffee business where he distributed his beans to households and small F&B outlets. As coffee prices increased, many other roasters turned to Robusta beans and the Nanyang style of roasting as a cheaper alternative but Mr Tan held firm onto his belief in delivering an uncompromising quality on his coffee beans to his regulars. His shop at Stirling Road is one where he has been roasting beans for decades. it was only a couple of years ago that his son decided to open up a cafe to share Tiong Hoe Specialty Coffee’s beans in the form of gourmet style coffee.

Jacob Tan, Mr Tan’s son, is part of the third wave of coffee, a movement that considers coffee to be an artisanal foodstuff. High priority is placed on quality and there’s a deeper focus on the origins of a cup of coffee. Most third wave cafes have their own roasters or are heavily involved in the selection of coffee beans, and roasting and brewing methods.

The past couple of years have seen a surge in third wave cafes but that is not to say that the first two waves completely bypassed Singapore. The first wave saw homemakers carting home bags and bottles of instant coffee powder to be enjoyed in the comfort of their own home. At a few cents per cup, the first wave thrived on cheap convenience. Then came the second wave, which introduced the general public to speciality coffee. Some credit the 1990s American TV sitcom, Friends, for introducing the idea of hanging out at coffee houses for extended periods of time drinking gourmet style coffee. Starbucks just made that idea a widely available reality with their aggressive expansion.

This third wave movement doesn’t seem to be slowing. Apart from the growing number of cafes opening up in Tiong Bahru, Everton Park and Jalan Besar, there are countless barista workshops available, and the Singapore National Barista Championship sees stiff competition, with the winner moving on to the Worldwide Barista Championships usually held overseas.


It seems like such a possibility that with the popularity of gourmet style coffee, the Nanyang style will eventually die out. But that doesn’t mean Nanyang roasters like Killiney Kopitiam are afraid of closing shop completely. “Even though the trend now is for gourmet style coffee, a lot of people still love our coffee because of the flavour,” said Mr Woon confidently. Killiney Kopitiam still continues to steadily expand annually to more countries in Asia.

Juliana, a barista at Tiong Hoe, also agreed. While consumers today are better informed and more discerning of what’s out there, Juliana believes it boils down to business. “It’s the complexity of human capital. There will always be a demand for Nanyang style coffee because of its cheaper price point,” she said.

In fact, shops boasting of Nanyang style coffee have popped up in recent years, such as Nanyang Old Coffee in Chinatown, Good Morning Nanyang Cafe in Far East Plaza and 1983 Taste of Nanyang from Koufu food group.

What’s interesting, however, is the lack of interest in learning Nanyang style roasting and brewing despite many coffee shops hoping to revive Nanyang style coffee. Unlike the countless courses with certification for gourmet style brewing available, there is an obvious lack of Nanyang style workshops offering the same artisanal intensity. Those offered in recent years have only been introduced to those who are purely curious about an allegedly antiquated method and have no real intention of learning such a craft.

Mr Woon also pointed out that while he does get approached by many young ones, mostly from Malaysia, to make coffee, most, if not all are in it for the money. “We provide accommodation and training and a higher pay than what they’re offered in Malaysia so it is a lucrative deal. But coming here to learn this style specifically? Not so much,” he said.

It’s safe to say that there’s a conclusive agreement that both styles have reacheda point where demands for both are high. Clientele needn’t be divided between the two but are often shared. Neither style can be considered bad coffee, instead, both can be appreciated for what they are. Go Nanyang for a sense of nostalgic tradition, and gourmet for an appreciation of the ever evolving coffee culture on this tiny red dot.



Coffee, the miraculous brew that gives our mornings the extra kick we require to last throughout the day. With an ever popular coffee culture on the rise, it is amazing to realize and Kuala Lumpur is a heritage ground of over 100 years in coffee history. Perhaps the earliest references to coffee in Kuala Lumpur points to Hainanese coffee shops like Sin Seng Nam and Yut Kee Restaurant.


For those unfamiliar with Hainanese coffee, it is a mixture of ground coffee powder and evaporated milk. This combination is typically called “kopisee” and is a favorite of coffee shop owner Choong Ah See, who is often referred to affectionately by his customers as “sei-kor” (fourth brother) when he ran the infamous Sin Seng Nam Restaurant. Choong reminisces about the days when he used to brew personal cups of coffee for regulars of his rustic coffee place.

“A cup of coffee should always be thick and have the oommph,” Choong began. “It should be drunk with evaporated milk. We called this “kopi-see” back in the day. The cups should also be warmed with hot water first before serving,” said the animated Choong, who doesn’t seem to have slowed in his fervor when describing his perfect cup of coffee.

Choong chuckles that his passion for coffee literally ran to his heart – he has drunk so much it has given him heart problems. The strategic location of Sin Seng Nam in Leboh Pasar Besar meant that was the meeting place of its day, frequented by prominent Malaysian politicians and celebrities like Patrick Teoh, Karpal Singh, Datuk Mark Yeoh, and Lim Kit Siang.

Unfortunately for Choong, the coffee place soon served its final cup of coffee in 2013 due to a change of owners. Choong could not contend with the new exorbitant rental costs and decided to hang up his boots.

“After the new owners bought over, they allowed us to continue the business but they wanted RM18,000 per month from us. So I told him sorry, we couldn’t continue at these rates,” Choong remarked.

Among the many nuances that he misses as a coffee shop owner are the personal touches he would place in making every cup. Choong says that it is strange how a simple brew has evolved to lose its simplicity and beauty.

“Coffee has really lost its personal touch. Those days the coffee we would actually butter and fry it ourselves. It was very personal. I miss being called “sei-kor” (fourth brother) by my customers and the white cups we use to serve our “kopi-o” in. I also miss the practice of drinking coffee from the saucer which is now considered unhygienic by youngsters and also how one would stir a cup of coffee till bubbles appear.”

Choong laments over the fact that the taste of coffee has waned over the years, and he personally yearns for the return of kopitiams.

“Modern day coffee has more milk than coffee these days –you hardly feel the coffee and it is so expensive. From my observation, modern day coffee is no longer appropriate to its value. Due to rapid development in Kuala Lumpur, we’ve lost touch with our heritage and it’s difficult to find any traditional coffee shops anymore when things are so expensive,” he said.

On the prospect of Sin Seng Nam making a comeback, Choong’s wife, Irene speaks with hope on the prospect.

“We as a family really want my father-in law’s name to be hung up again, Sin Seng Nam,” she said. “We want to sell food at reasonable prices to people,” both he and his wife concluded.


Yut Kee Restaurant is perhaps the last remaining bastion of old time Hainanese kopitiams in Kuala Lumpur. Established in 1928, the coffee shop will be celebrating its auspicious 88 years in existence this February 15th said its 2nd generation owner Jack Lee Kwong Hon. Lee said that a traditional coffee shop is definitely one of noise and clamor differentiating itself from the modern day coffee cafes.

“It’s the noise from a coffee shop that really sets it apart. It’s difficult for you to find verbal orders which are shouted across which we still do here. I have commented to foreigners who visit us that if you do not find this in a so-called kopitiam, it’s not an authentic one,” he said while sipping his signature “kopi-o” and welcoming one of his old customers to the store.

While formidable in appearance, it was unexpected to find that Yut Kee was run by a compassionate business owner. Jack shared his philosophy on being a socially supportive business. He was on the verge of holding back tears while reminiscing of the by-gone days where a culture of unity existed amongst the three main races in Malaysia.

“Coffee shops are also community areas where people share things. Whenever we have surplus in terms of food and supplies, we do our part to share it. That’s basically how I do my business. People say I am soft-hearted but my mentor says to me to have a higher sense of compassion. We can’t turn a blind eye to the plight of starving people around us. Like a Cantonese proverb would say, it’s just another pair of chopsticks to help out a fellow neighbour,” he said.

The 71-year old Lee now watches the reins of Yut Kee being wielded by his son and heir Mervyn Lee, who runs the day-today operations of the restaurant now.


Riding on the wave of the modern coffee culture and trends is Heartbeans Coffee, run by fledging entrepreneur duo Carmen Tan and her mother Mrs. Tan. The passionate 19-year old decided that she has more to offer after concluding her training as a barista and a culinary arts student.

“After 2 years of working as both kitchen staff and barista, I decided to open my own café. I wasn’t very confident about my plan, but entrepreneurial parents encouraged me and I was very lucky to get a lot of encouragements from them. Since I had the funds, why wouldn’t I risk it.”

Following some banter and warm up questions, Carmen unveiled the secret behind the shops intriguing name. The name Heartbeans was actually conceived after she had a full day of tasting sessions of coffee and reading an article of the benefits of the brew.

“That day I remembered going to 15 cafes around the city to try out their coffee. That was possibly the day I had the most coffee my life,” she laughed. “While I was brainstorming a name for my cafe on the same night, I came across an article about a research proves that moderate coffee consumption offers powerful protection against heart failure. As I had drunk too much coffee my heart was actually racing and the word “heartbeats” came to my mind. Thinking the ring of “Heartbeans” was rather nice, I decided to give my cafe the name “Heartbeans Coffee,” she said with a mischievous grin.

Heartbeans Coffee Café offers a contemporary looking and minimalist approach to coffee. The shop with its bright yellow hues, wooden architecture and smooth jazz music playing in the background offers a vastly different experience from the noisy and clamorous setting of a kopitiam.

Introducing her house blend of coffee, Carmen recommends it for the first timers to her café.

“It contains 30% Java beans and 70% Brazil beans, which brings up the flavour that most customers presume about coffee (bitter) instead of overly acidic. It is a good choice to help us bring in new customers.”

She points out that the café’s bestselling coffee is still a latte, because milk based coffee is easier to drink compared to a cup of espresso.



As one of the world’s top 5 producer, it’sno wonder that coffee has been a part of Indonesia’s culture for centuries. Started in 1699 when the Dutch decided to plant coffee in Indonesia, the country has exported coffee since 1711. For centuries, local people have known how to drink the magic beans as part of their daily routine. This 400-year old coffee farming practice was the key to the strength and persistence of coffee culture in the country today.

The fact is, Indonesia’s people are more coffee than tea drinkers. Drinking coffee is a habit on a daily basis. People in Aceh can spend hours talking over coffee at local coffee shops. The same happens in Belitung and Pontianak where the local coffee shop is the place to sit and exchange information while sipping on a cuppa.


Most traditional coffee shop serves Kopi Tubruk, internationally known as black coffee. It is the most common and simplest method of brewing coffee – coarsely ground beans are doused with hot boiling water, with addition of some sugar. No high-end coffee machine is needed; it is simple, fast and cheap.

Meanwhile, in the small alley of Jalan Gloria in Jakarta’s Chinatown, you can find Tak Kie - an old small coffee house that has survived with its simple and conventional concept from 1927 to date, serving coffee across three generations. People always come for its well-known iced black coffee and iced milk coffee, which you can accompany with a serving of delicious Pork Noodle or Nasi Campur (Pork Rice). There’s nothing fancy about it, but visitors flock to Tak Kie for its authenticity.


In 2002, the first Starbucks store in Indonesia officially opened its doors at Plaza Indonesia. Today, Starbucks claims more than 150 stores in 12 cities in the country. The fastgrowing international brand has created a new form of coffee lifestyle in the country – coffee joints have now became popular meeting places for city dwellers to socialise, conduct business, or simply to hang out with friends.

Eko Purnomowidi, the founder of Klasik Beans, a coffee cooperative based in Bandung, has a slightly different opinion. “I think the growing demand to drink coffee is related to our tradition. It wasn’t about the lifestyle or trend, in fact, we need to drink coffee. That’s it.”


A 3rd wave has taken over the coffee industry in Indonesia, encouraging more local coffee shop to grow. Starting with Anomali Coffee in Jakarta, more artisanal coffee shops began popping up across Jakarta over the next couple of years, including Tanamera Coffee, One Fifteenth, Giyanti Coffee Roastery and Common Ground – some of the favorite coffee places in Jakarta for the coffee enthusiast. The industry was growing rapidly not only in Jakarta but also happened in Bandung, Bali, Surabaya and including Yogyakarta.

They serve coffee at its best. The bean quality is improved, from planting to roasting and brewing, and beans are named by the plantation or district, some even giving specific identification to the farmer’s name. The coffee industry is leveling up, from farmers through the hands of coffee shops to its fans. The demand for specialty coffee has increased.

In touristy areas of Tirtodipuran in Yogyakarta, Ruang Seduh recently opened their second coffee shop in mid- January 2016. Similar to their first outlet in Jakarta, they offer a new concept where visitors can brew the coffee themselves. They invite people to come over the sacred brewing table and experience how to brew coffee like a barista – a seductive experience for coffee aficionados.

But in spite of the fact that coffee scenes in big cities have evolved to become more experimental and educational, the old coffee shops

in small towns like Aceh will continue serving black and strong Kopi Tubruk. While coffee culture is getting richer and more intense, strong traditions will still remain the same.