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Coffee in Asia:
A World Cup

By Sherri Johns

As we look ahead with anticipation to this year’s first annual Tea & Coffee World Cup Asia show on September 26-28, it is the perfect time to read up on the café culture of the East. In this piece, specialty coffee expert Sherri Johns reveals the burgeoning array of cafés that are thriving in Asia.

My first real exposure to this area came from working in Kuala Lumpur on a coffee assignment beginning in 1997. In a tea-consuming nation, with no real coffee presence, could the market support a retailer with a passion for coffee and people? The few small shops that were shy on service and coffee quality back then have made way for upscale cafes featuring full selections of specialty beverages, frozen concoctions, pastries and light meals. Today, southeast Asia could be known as a “coffee capital,” with chains such as Starbucks, San Francisco Coffee, and Coffee, Bean & Tea Leaf introducing the new lifestyle of specialty coffee to the welcoming local population. Here, a real coffee scene comes alive.

A quest for knowledge, unfamiliarity with the region and seeking a great cup of brew, lead me on a coffee expedition to summarize how Southeast Asia is interpreting the American Coffee scene. This coffee jaunt could be dubbed, “romancing the bean.” I began my research by reviewing Tea & Coffee Trade Journal’s Ukers Buyers’ Guide & Directory and the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s membership directory (even though the association is American, its members are from around the globe). Kowloon, Manila, Taipei, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are just a few of the cities listed. I thought to myself, this search will be a snap!

I was recently en route to Kuala Lumpur by way of Singapore for a business trip, and saw it as a grand opportunity to chase down cafes on the layover. I do this in the normal course of a day anyway, especially when traveling. I can relax with a hot brew or cappuccino and watch the world go by or chat with fellow patrons if I speak the language. With a steaming hot “cuppa Joe” in hand, I feel as if I always have a friend. Corny, I know, but true. It is a chance to have a familiar comfort in an unfamiliar environment.

Singapore is a bustling metropolis of commerce and people. Orchard Lane is the place for shopping and people watching. The morning begins at Dome Café in Singapore Park Mall. I have a cappuccino and croissant in a rich, dark and sleepy environment. It was early on a Monday morning and perfect - the 16-hour time difference was catching up with me. Only the tourists are here at this hour since the cafes do not draw the local crowds until late in the day. Dome is an Australian cafe with locations throughout the region. I sit, enjoying the cool air. To note, almost everything is in a mall. Not the kind that is prevalent out in the suburbs of the U.S. with the older generation mall walkers doing their thing before 9 a.m. These malls are in the heart of the cities, vertical, packed with people and cool. Yes, cool. You are drawn into them just to cool down. I figure my next stop is the taxi stand on the other end of the mall.

To avoid the sun, I stroll into the mall. From there, I am drawn into an Alessi showroom retail store. Alessi is a designer of high-end housewares and coffee merchandise that is whimsical and funny. The items work well enough, but sometimes you have to examine the piece for a bit to see what it actually does. There are a slew of French presses of all shapes and colors. Even without the aroma of coffee, the distinct presses generate conversation between Cheryl, the product manager, and myself about coffee and its impact. She loves the aroma of coffee and confesses she spends the better part of her time in cafes when not working. I ask her what’s so appealing about cafes. “Your senses become alive, are stimulated. It’s a place to be seen.” She admits being married to an American and learning about coffee from him. “It’s your national drink,” she says with a smile. She enjoys Sumatra, brewed fresh and drunk fresh. Always good rules to enjoy coffee by, I congratulate her. I ask if most patrons know about quality coffee. Her reply, “Choice not so much yet. It’s about lifestyle.”

She sends me to her favorite haunt, Coffee, Bean and Tea Leaf on Orchard Boulevard. Woodtones and a menu that features espresso beverages, regular and blended cold drinks make the store look very much like its counterparts in southern California. The assistant manger, Mr. Favian, takes time to chat. I ask him straight away about how his café is interpreting the American coffee market. Since Coffee, Bean & Tea Leaf was started in southern California I make an assumption. He looks at me for a few moments and says he really doesn’t know about what we (Americans) do but he can tell me about his customers and business. I suddenly think that I’ve been presumptuous in my approach. How bullish of me to assume it’s an American knock off. What about Italy, anyway?, I think to myself. Mr. Favian brings me back as he perks up. “It’s the people that set us apart. Our employees attend coffee classes and are trained. Our customers are students, professionals and tourists.” We look around and laugh as we both notice all the tourists were inside at the air-conditioned tables while the locals sat outside. This particular location is the busiest in Singapore with the majority of the customers visiting in the evening. “We aim to be the best in the business,” he states proudly.

A mere beans throw away is, of course, the ubiquitous Starbucks. This store in Liat Towers looks very much like the other 2000. (Or is it 3000, by now?) Bigger in size with tables close together, about 80 seats altogether, it is different from its American counterparts. The barista there has the same reaction to my query - no knowledge about American coffee bars but can talk about her customers. Most business is done in the evening. The store opens in the morning but not too early. She laughs at the thought when I tell her that most American cafes open around 6am.

Next stop is Spinelli Coffee on the same street. It is a smaller store with all seating outside, and is tucked between retail and office space. They also feature a “Spinelli Spin” frozen drink on the menu. As customers, you are greeted by a funny mural of a man in a fez roasting coffee with monkeys climbing on green bean bags. Interesting.

Next stop, Beijing - once again on a quest for coffee. Pouring rain had us soaked. In the Forbidden City, when asked about coffee we were directed down an alley to the Friendship Store. As we wove past tables piled high with silks and carvings, we were greeted by the mermaid logo and baristas donning red aprons instead of green. Yes, even in this former palace, Starbucks had crossed the threshold. I wonder if Mao would have enjoyed a cafe latte, the People’s Latte.

China Air served Nescafe as we landed in Hong Kong. The following morning we returned to Singapore and then to Kuching, Sarawak. Our holiday of jungle trekking and sleeping on planks of wood in a long house as guests of former headhunters, the Iban Dayak tribe left me exhilarated but again, yearning for a double ristretto espresso. Under the presumption this inner need would go unfulfilled we returned to Kuching, the Malaysian city on the Northeastern side of Borneo. Here, we spy a sign, Seattle Coffee Company and make a b-line for it. As I enjoyed my coffee, I think to myself what a really small world this is. This café was merely an hour-long boat ride and 5-hour drive away from the guest house where we slept the night before. Well worth the trip. The chipper barista pulls perfect 20-second shots while steaming velvety milk foam on a three-group La Marzocco. My ristretto doppio espresso crowned with rich velvet crema in a heated demitasse hits the spot. This was a polished café. I speak with Barahim, the barista, and we share coffee stories. I let him knew he should compete in the regional Barista Championship sponsored by Tea & Coffee Asia. He was a stellar example of a professional barista.

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