East Meets West Coffee Movement

29 August 2018

Tucked in among factories and hardware shops in Bandar Sri Damansara, an industrial neighbourhood outside the Malaysian capital, is the Bean Expedition At Manufactory or BEAM. From the outside, it gives little indication of what goes on inside; you could be forgiven for thinking it processes legumes rather than specialty coffee.

Despite its sleek, modern appearance, BEAM also seeks to recognise Malaysia’s coffee drinking traditions; some of its founders have been roasting coffee for more than 40 years. BEAM was created four years ago as an industrial-themed cafe and is a culmination of the experience, knowledge and skills of its three founders.

One of them is a veteran coffee businessman from Caroma Sdn Bhd (Pvt Ltd), which began in 1976 as a family business supplying coffee powder to local coffee shops or kopitiams. Caroma is also an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), offering custom-made products throughout the country. The other two founders, Tan Wei Han and Skye Lin Tze Khai, are certified coffee instructors that provide BEAM with the distribution knowledge. Both have experience from Delitea Sdn Bhd (Pvt Ltd), specialising in beverage powders, dessert mixes and beverage apparatuses.

“[They] have experience in the wholesale aspects of beverage ingredients and its distribution processes,” explains BEAM barista Liew Chong Siang.

An aerial view of a cafe
Blending beans the BEAM way. Photo courtesy of: Susan Tam

Combining all their experiences, the team created an environment to best reflect their expertise and love for coffee. Their factories are all located in the same area, providing BEAM with all the ingredients and tools to create a playground for coffee appreciation.

The idea behind BEAM came about when they decided to integrate Malaysian coffee culture with the Western cafe, particularly specialty coffee. The double-storey cafe is an open planned space with metal-framed wooden tables and chairs, accompanied by soft lighting to create a warm and inviting atmosphere.

What is specialty coffee? Find out here.

The high ceiling gives the space good ventilation with big glass doors and rectangular windows to allow light in. To the right of the entrance lies the usual offering of cakes and snacks, but venturing upstairs on the steel steps leads you to the cafe’s heart and soul. This is where BEAM roasts its beans – up to 70kg a day.

“We started off as a mini-roaster and cafe, and we used to have a mini roasting machine in the corner on the ground floor,” says 26-year-old Liew. “Then as demand increased, we invested in a larger machine.”

A Mix of Flavours

a man cradling a few bags of coffee beans
BEAM retails a variety of coffee roasts that are sourced internationally. Photo from BEAM Facebook

BEAM’s most popular blend – the aptly named Beaming Blend – consists of three different beans from Colombia, Brazil, and Indonesia. It mixes the nutty, creamy and caramelised flavours of Brazilian beans with Colombia’s date-like sweetness and chocolate flavours. This combination then blends well with Sumatran bean flavours. This customised flavour is one of the many profiles created by BEAM, which seems to have mastered the art of marrying flavours from the East and West.

BEAM’s walk-in patrons enjoy trying the cafe’s Indonesian beans, specifically the Sumatran Mandheling. Liew says the flavour profile of this bean consists of chocolate and caramel flavours with a tinge of a herbal taste.

“This coffee is strong, for those customers who like something strong, powerful in the morning, as a way to wake them up. Another specialty is a Liberia bean sourced locally, from Johor. This is a common bean used in our local coffee, our kopi O.”

Liew says this is an acquired taste: you either love it or hate it. BEAM wants their customers to get used to the idea that local coffee and specialty coffee can go together in the same space.

“At BEAM we give this bean a light roast and the flavours that emerge from it have a sweetish base, with jackfruit and sometimes durian flavours.”

The choices seem endless at BEAM. Another favourite, Liew says, is the fruity, floral Yirgacheffe beans from Ethiopia. The beans originate from this micro-region in southern Ethiopia, which is widely considered the birthplace of the Coffea arabica plant. BEAM also imports from as far afield as Kenya, Panama, Tanzania and Uganda.

“BEAM is considered a seasoned importer of green beans. That was before BEAM [cafe] started. The idea behind selling green beans was to give consumers an in-depth understanding of coffee characteristics and improve [their] knowledge.” Liew says, with its 15 years of experience in the green bean trading business.

Dollars and Cents in the Coffee Business

BEAM sells its roasted coffee beans for RM110 to RM120 (SG$36 to SG$40) per kilogram, delivering a healthy revenue stream for its founders.

But Liew says the business has seen its ups and downs. Consistency can be an issue as surges in demand for roasted beans depend on the types of flavour profiles sought by their clients. However, the company remains optimistic about the retail market as BEAM can sell more than 200 cups of coffee a day on busy weekends.

“With our location it can be challenging as we are in amongst industrial facilities and factories. But we have had customers that travel from Puchong or Cheras to enjoy a cup of coffee here.”

And like other specialty coffee shops, BEAM markets and sells beans for filtered coffee.  For 150gm, it charges RM33 (SG$11), going up to RM45 (SG$15) depending on the type of beans used.

To supplement the coffee income, BEAM offers a choice of local and Western food, including sandwiches and pasta. Salads and cakes are on the menu, as well as Malaysians’ breakfast of choice – nasi lemak. Liew says focusing solely on coffee can be difficult because Malaysian customers tend to want food to go with their cup of coffee.

Nevertheless, the founders hope they can get more Malaysians hooked on specialty coffee. One way they do this is through personalised classes, which held on demand. The workshops require a minimum of two people. BEAM experts teach latte art and run barista and hand-brewing classes.

While specialty coffee and the roasting business is at an infancy stage in Malaysia, Liew says more customers are investing in small roasting machines so they can roast at home.

“Our advice to new roasters is understand your motivation for roasting, research and explore the industry for better understanding. And never give up, keep the passion alive, don’t be disheartened when facing hardships it will drive you [new roasters] to push through the tough times.”

To find out more about BEAM’s specialty coffee or purchase their beans, visit their website here.

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