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Taking a Sip of the Coffee Scene in Singapore and Malaysia

9 December 2020
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Entering the traditional coffee shops of Singapore and Malaysia is like stepping back in time to the 1980s. They are more than just a place to grab a quick kopi (coffee) or a serving of soft boiled eggs – they are a second home for many local folks.

But what’s so special about these hangouts, such that locals living in California queued an hour for a cup of kopi after Singapore’s oldest café, Killiney Kopitiam, recently opened its first outlet in the United States?

Let us solve that mystery by exploring the rich and fascinating heritage of the local coffee scene.

The History of Kopitiam

In the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants from Hainan reached our nations’ shores. Some took up jobs in the service and hospitality sectors, often working for wealthy British and other European households.

Post World War II, the departure of their Western employers forced the Hainanese to seek other means of earning a living. Many turned to setting up their own coffee shops, which are affectionately known as “kopitiam” today.

The Appeal of Kopitiam

an old photo of people drinking coffee at a kopitiam
A blast from the past: the appeal of kopitiam lies in its old-school decor. Photo from sharngst.

It’s the full-sensory experience at a kopitiam that makes its appeal so unique.

Marble-top tables, old-fashioned mugs, overhead fans, and floor tiles that look right out of our grandmother’s kitchen. Some might call it old-school or run-down, but to a local, these are the essential aesthetics that mark out a genuine kopitiam.

“Kopi C! Kopi Siew Dai! Kopi Gao!”

The sounds and smells are quite unmistakable: customers’ orders yelled across the counter above the loud chattering among patrons; the aroma of freshly brewed coffee with a hint of charcoal-infusion, coupled with the whiff of toasted bread, fills the air.

Every local recognises the ubiquitous kopitiam in Singapore and Malaysia. It isn’t the most quaint of places, but has its own charm that mixes old and new, history and modernity, much like the two countries themselves.

The Taste of Kopi vs Coffee

a man holding a spoon to stir a cup of coffee
A cup of kopitiam coffee tastes richer and more robust than a normal serving of espresso. Photo from Mark Chan.

The Hainanese’s distinctive techniques of roasting the beans and brewing coffee resulted in a taste profile that was completely different from the Western approach. But this wasn’t by chance.

Western blends predominantly used Arabica beans that were produced in Latin America and India. But Southeast Asia didn’t have the best growing conditions for Arabica beans.

Find out how climate and 8 other factors affect the taste of your coffee.

The Hainanese had no choice. Their only solution was to purchase Robusta beans grown in Indonesia. But there was an added challenge – Robusta tastes bitter on its own.

As a result, when roasting the beans, the Hainanese would add margarine and sugar. This gives the drink a caramelised finish while reducing the bitter aftertaste. This traditional roasting method continues today, giving kopi its added richness and distinctive fragrance, very different from Western-style coffee.

Local Taste Buds: Malaysia vs Singapore

Full-bodied, a hint of bitterness, and black – these are the coffee characteristics that Malaysians enjoy. Despite the influx of modern coffee chains, most locals still take pride in their traditional kopi, especially the Kopi O Kaw (black coffee, extra strong).

The older generation in Singapore has similar taste buds to their Malaysian neighbours. However, with the growth of trendy new Western-style cafés and international coffee chains in Singapore, the younger generation has developed a preference for brews that have a balance of flavours – neither too acidic nor bitter.

Find out more about the coffee taste profiles of Asia here.

Rise of the Third Wave

a man smelling a cup of coffee during a cupping session
The third wave coffee focuses on education about coffee production, from farmer to roaster and barista. Photo from Sean Benesh.

While the kopitiam continues to appeal to locals and tourists alike, the third wave of coffee continues to make its way into the local coffee scene.

The first wave was the kopitiam, while the second wave was the commercialisation of coffee through international coffee shop chains. Now, we enter the third wave, where fancy coffee jargon, high-technology coffee machines and consumer education about coffee thrives.

How will the fourth wave of coffee look like? Find out here.

It’s an exciting time, with home-grown specialty coffee roasters and coffee connoisseurs such as Singapore’s barista champion hoping to educate more coffee lovers and bring a holistic coffee experience back to their homes.

Nonetheless, the unique tradition of kopitiam culture continues to prosper – a treasured piece of living heritage that locals will always seek to protect.

Want to learn more about the coffee culture in Thailand as well as other Southeast Asian countries? We’ve got you covered.