Working in East Africa and Central and South America, Aitch works closely with exporters that specialise in sourcing high-quality green coffees direct from growers.
It’s hard to believe that just five years ago Tunku Hadi Imran didn’t even drink coffee. That all changed though when he was studying in Australia. Like many young students in a foreign city, Hadi would occupy his time by hitting the books or the gym, and hanging out with friends.
Living in Melbourne – a city famed for its coffee culture – he would often hear his friends talk about “lattes”. His curiosity piqued, he decided to attend a barista course at The League of Honest Coffee, across from where he lived on La Trobe Street.
Even then, he wasn’t immediately sold on coffee as something to drink.
“The majority of the time [at the course] we were just trying to concentrate on latte art…I didn’t know what these fancy hearts are like, I tried and didn’t make it,” he laughs.
While he didn’t exactly fall in love with coffee, something else grabbed his attention. The idea of coffee’s accessibility stuck in his mind. And like a sculptor slowly chipping away at his prized masterpiece, Hadi’s interest in coffee began to take shape from then on.
Misses and a hit
When Hadi returned to Malaysia after completing his international business degree at RMIT University, the specialty coffee market was still in its infancy. Still, he began to explore the local market, attended more courses and engaged in conversations with coffee lovers, roasters and businesses.
One of them was entrepreneur Sylvia Tan, founder of Coffee Stain, from whom he learned that there were only a handful of businesses involved in specialty coffee and beans. That sparked his first foray into the coffee business.
Hadi’s first coffee machine went to his mother’s cafe, which was styled after a Malay warung, or stall. The investment didn’t quite work out though.
“The machine was so bad, the steam came out brown, and the barista’s [at the time] didn’t quite know how to use it,” he laughs.
He then jumped at the chance to run a roaster’s business here, sourcing good quality beans from a variety of countries. But he knew he had to do more than just invest in machines and run a coffee shop. So Hadi invested in himself. He earned his credentials to grade coffee by completing a Q Grader course in Hong Kong.
“I am qualified to grade coffee based on a scale of 1 to 100, so it’s just to give a language to customers and other roasters buying the coffee,” he explains. “[We looked at] what is the flavour profile like, body and acidity and so on.”
He went on to undertake a roasting course, which led him to buying his first roaster.
And just like his coffee journey, he says the coffee industry has grown exponentially over the past five years thanks to technology.
“Back then, [regarding] the roasting, if you ask anyone, you use a sheet of paper. At 30 seconds interval, we would jot down every single temperature, colour changes and what you change with the gasses or air flow,” he says.
“Now you can just put in a software and just watch the curve. It has evolved so much.”
Coffee roasting responsibly
The small-scale Aitch Coffee Roasters was set up in 2015 with its name “Aitch” as a play on the pronunciation for “H”.
The clean and minimalist look of the shop resembles a science laboratory. This is not so far off the mark: Aitch describes itself as a “coffee lab”, allowing coffee enthusiasts to participate in tasting sessions. The ambience of Aitch reflects its founder’s personality, particularly the clean and quiet atmosphere.
At about 6 feet, Hadi looms over the coffee counter and has the figure of a regular gym buff. He may appear to be a gentle giant, but his drive for perfection shows in his persistence in achieving Aitch’s signature flavour – unveiling the coffee’s sweetness.
Umpteen experiments and plenty of mistakes have taught Hadi that roasting is a hard business to do well.
“You’d be surprised, even with the software that you have plotted out for you, it’s difficult to understand what’s happening inside a roaster.”
Roasters spend countless hours trying out various combinations of techniques and timing to achieve what they define as a perfect roast. For Hadi, setting the goal of sweetness helps shape his buying strategy.
“With trial and error, what I have identified is [that] the fresher the harvest, [it] has a lot more acidity, a lot more flavours, which you can convert into sweetness.”
He emphasised sweetness lies in the fact that the bean has more substance. Aitch is committed to quality, Hadi says. He’s not hesitant to pay higher prices for specialty beans, and for good reason.
“It’s so that we can control what happens in the processing side, what happens in the farm side before anything we would taste it.”
At the moment, Aitch is in a partnership with Oslo’s Nordic Approach and long-time supplier La Palma and el Tucan, which has a processing facility in Colombia.
Like most independent coffee roasters and small-scale businesses, Aitch’s ethos on fair trade and sustainability has a familiar ring to it. Understand the farm where your coffee comes from to produce the best quality product for your consumers.
Hadi points out this responsibility towards the supply chain is also about transparency and integrity. “I do not want to buy a coffee that is spoilt, because what can happen is, you [the trader] give me a sample pack and it might be best of the harvest or might be someone else’ coffee … And when you buy the whole bag, there might be a defect.”
For Aitch, establishing trusted relationships with suppliers ensures the entire bag of beans is high quality. This is key for a roaster working with small volumes, which Aitch replenishes every six months or so.
Hence he spent time building a relationship with Nordic Approach and La Palma and el Tucan, both of which aim to support small-scale farmers and the communities from where they source their beans. Through their suppliers, Aitch houses beans from Central America and Africa.
The specialty coffee scene
Coffee businesses in Malaysia have mushroomed since Hadi first took a closer look at the industry. Now dozens of cafes dot the streets in dense urban and affluent townships in and around Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.
In 2014, the Malaysia Specialty Coffee Association was formed as a networking platform to grow the sector. Hadi finds that coffee competition in Malaysia is subjective because so far, he has benefitted from sharing knowledge with other roasters, and improving along the way.
Initially, Aitch was set up to be only a roaster, but it was not sustainable. It now does roasting and is a coffee shop, with plans to move into trading if the right partnerships came along.
The question is if coffee is getting too “scientific” or dominated by “know-it-alls”, says Hadi.
Barista competitions have moved away from solely focussing on latte art to experiments with fermentation and mixology. Judges measure the slightest change in the weight and colour of the coffee and even precise markings of where the coffee reaches when it is poured for the judges.
Hadi thinks that the focus on the minutiae is driving away customers “because the dialogue we are speaking to them is not understandable”. He doesn’t dismiss experiments in the name of research, but wants coffee roasters or cafe owners to return to the premise of making specialty coffee accessible to customers.
“Sure we can collaborate and do a lot of things, but it’s more about what can we talk to the customer about, what can we offer in the way that we are clear about giving quality. Everyone in the industry is clear about that. We want to serve really good coffee, because we believe in the coffee.”
Aitch wants it to be about educating the customers first, and not be bogged down by jargon and tedious methods.
In the long run, Hadi wants to get better at his craft. He looks up to his hero, Tim Wendelboe, who runs a busy coffee business in Oslo.
The keys to success are in the constant learning and sharing, and in trying to understand customers and the profile of the coffee, Hadi says. “You cannot get better if you don’t understand what you’re doing.”
So, while “Aitch” gets on with perfecting his skills, find out how you can enjoy a cup of their best roasts here.