There’s no doubt that Malaysia’s coffee scene is growing quickly, with new third wave cafés appearing all the time – whether in Kuala Lumpur or further afield. But questions still remain:
Does Malaysia really have a fully developed third wave scene? What do specialty coffee shops need for success here? And how can professionals stay motivated even when supply seems to outstrip demand for great coffee?
So I spoke to 6 Malaysian coffee professionals, from roasters to café owners and bloggers to distributors, to find out their perspectives.
Pour over coffee is becoming more popular in Malaysia. Credit: Papa Palheta
Introducing The Professionals
- Marcus, Director of PULP by Papa Palheta, KL
- Tunku Hadi, Head Roaster at Aitch Coffee Roasters, Petaling Jaya
- Keith Koay, owner of the café One Half in Petaling Jaya and also Malaysian Barista Champion 2016
- Goh Chee Wan, Coffee Consultant for Classic Fine Foods, an authorized La Marzocco and Illy distributor
- Sean Yoong, writer of the popular F&B blog EatDrinkKL.my
- Hock Soon, an experienced coffee trainer from Barista Guild Asia, an authorized SCA training center
Between the six of them, these coffee professionals have experienced every aspect of the Malaysian coffee industry: cafés, roasteries, competitions, journalism, equipment… So here’s what they had to say about our local third wave scene.
Tunku Hadi enjoys a freshly roasted cup of Ethiopiann Nano Challa.
Does Malaysia Have a Fully Developed Third Wave?
The first question I asked was whether Malaysia’s third wave is fully developed. Marcus told me he considers us to be in the third wave. He said it arrived approximately 15 years ago, and that Malaysians are starting to appreciate it. However, he added that a better question is: how long can we continue to profit by being in the third wave before it moves on?
In contrast, Hadi told me that Malaysia’s third wave isn’t fully developed, but that we’re getting there – led by an appreciation for the space and food more than for the coffee.
“Due to a not fully defined Malaysian coffee culture, Malaysia houses different style of drinking coffee,” he said. “Roasters stills need to progress towards purchasing and producing great coffees, whilst more and more independent coffee shops have to continue educating the consumers along the way.”
Sharing information with customers is key. Credit: PULP by Papa Palheta Malaysia
Is Demand for Third Wave Weaker Than Supply?
Sean agreed that we are not entirely in the third wave. He explained that there are Malaysian café owners and managers with talent, skill, and enthusiasm, but they face challenges in cultivating a strong and stable market that’s sufficiently receptive to their offerings.
Hock Soon, similarly, told me that he surveyed 2000 participants, serving them 5 different coffees: instant, stale commercial coffee, commercial coffee, premium commercial, and specialty. “Our results found out that only 15% of participants found specialty an enjoyable cup of coffee,” he explained – a damning result. The solution, for him, is more engagement with consumers.
Goh also saw the barista-consumer relationship as key to progress. “Baristas have to explain the coffee so customers can understand, and customers should provide feedback so baristas can improve.”
Baristas play a key role in Malaysia’s growing third wave. Credit: One Half
Defining Success as a Specialty Coffee Professional
Keith told me that, for him, success was visible in the consumer’s growing understanding of coffee. “As long as [the consumer] makes more filter coffee orders than mocha, and [they] understand what they are paying for in their cup of coffee, that is considered a success by me.”
Hadi held a similar belief. He explained it was about successfully imparting an appreciation for specialty coffee. And how does he achieve that? “Consistently delivering great service and quality, and adapting to the consumers needs, is the key.”
As a coffee shop reviewer, Sean described this as being ahead of the curve. He told me it’s about recognizing what customers might want even before they do, and introducing them to new experiences.
Hock Soon stressed the importance of the fundamentals: serving consistent good coffee. Yet he added, “The baristas and service crew have to have knowledge and understanding of not only products but also the café’s principles and beliefs.”
Good-quality coffee is only part of specialty coffee success. Credit: One Half
Does Success Extend Beyond Consumer Experience?
Consumer education and satisfaction is also part of being successful for Goh. However, he also took a bigger picture perspective. “A successful specialty café is one that is able to be self-sustainable, and able to pay for coffee education, barista training, high-quality coffee beans, and ingredients.”
Similarly, Marcus believes it’s about not letting down the supply chain through poor quality control. He talks about the all the hard work that comes in after Q graders have scored a coffee as specialty: the transportation, the roasting, the brewing. “To me, specialty coffee is a game of passing the ball,” he explained.
Goh Chee Wan during a recent farm trip to Honduras. Credits: Goh Chee Wan
The Golden Rules for a Specialty Café
Marcus’s business mantra consists of 3 words: consistency, service, and quality. “Quality does not only means good coffee; it also includes hygiene and cleanliness. First impression matters for a café.” As for service, he added, “Good service can create regulars and creating regulars is key.”
And general hygiene, being friendly and welcoming, and – of course – serving great coffee are Keith’s rules to live by. “Great quality coffee means a fresh crop, well roasted and well brewed.” he explained.
Goh brought up the importance of a people skills. “Owners need to be ready to provide coffee explanations and share their knowledge about specialty coffee by hosting cupping, testing, and brewing sessions.”
As for Sean, he told me that an intelligent and imaginative team of problem-solvers is all a café needs. Similarly, Hock Soon values planning. “Asking yourself what you wish to stand for is important. And then proceed to find a location that suits your principles,” he elaborated.
Hock Soon, David, and Afiq, a representative from Barista Guild Asia (left to right).
More Than Passion
You’ll notice that none of them mentioned passion. And in the third wave, we often hear people talk about this.
For Marcus, being too passionate can lead to irrationality. He told me that it needs to be a balance. “Being sensible and rational is more important. It is pointless to get agitated if someone asks for sugar in their coffee. And for a business like a café, you might love the coffee but you might not love the grind of working in a café.”
Hadi is of the opinion that passion is overly valued in every line of work. Passion goes nowhere without hard work. “To some degree, all of us are very passionate individuals,” he said. “We need to be clear with our business and have an objective, driven passion to sustain ourselves in the industry. Not a passion to just make coffee but a passion to deliver the right customer experience.”
Passion for good coffee is important, but it’s not everything. Credit: Aitch
What More Do You Need?
Goh didn’t hesitate to tell me that passion is just the words that keep you going – it’s not enough to make a café sustainable. “Last year, many cafés were opened by passionate baristas,” he said, “and closed very fast, within a few months. To open a café is to run a business. It require business skills, not just latte art skills.”
For Sean, successful café owners may be passionate but they’ll also have creativity, discipline, stamina, an eagerness to learn, a perceptive understanding of the food and beverages business, and the ability to deal with the unexpected.
And since Barista Guild Asia has trained many successful baristas, Hock Soon has had plenty of experience of training your baristas. He told me that he always advises that, like any journey, one in specialty coffee will have up and downs. Passion is a basic building block of a café, and without passion a café has no principles for serving great quality coffee or even to provide excellent customer service.
Yet he also added, “Passion alone will not pay the bills. It’s important to diversify and listen well to how a café evolves, just like any other enterprise in the food sector.”
Keith Koay, 2016 Malaysian Barista Champion, at work.
Spreading specialty coffee awareness isn’t easy, and so I was curious about what motivated these leaders in the Malaysian third wave coffee scene.
When I asked Marcus, he paused for a minute before telling me that his team and loyal customer base are his motivation to do better. “If PULP goes down, many people will lose their job, affecting at least 60 people. I am also responsible for the lifestyle and community that we have built over the years.”
For Hadi, who has specialized in roasting small lots specifically for customers who enjoy his roasting style, it’s also about the people and the culture. “There’s so much to be done and a lot more to be inspired from,” he added. “Be in love with what you are doing and share it.”
And Keith agreed, adding mention of the smiles he sees on customers’ faces.
Motivation can come from customers. Credit: Muhammad Azfar
The Possibilities of Coffee
Goh’s motivations, however, are a little different. As a consultant, he loves the endless possibilities of coffee. It’s sharing this, and inspiring others, that drives him.
Similarly, Sean loves the inventiveness and drive of café operators. “The sheer satisfaction of enjoying food and coffee prepared with heart keeps me going.”
And for Hock Soon, it was almost impossible to choose. “From the technical knowledge from seed to cup, to the people in the industry that are ever so willing to share and give back,” he told me.
The Malaysian third wave coffee industry may not be as advanced as Portland, or Melbourne, but there’s no doubt that it’s an exciting time to be a coffee drinker here. The question is, what motivates you? And how do you define success?
Perfect Daily Grind is not affiliated with any of the individuals or bodies mentioned in this article, and cannot directly endorse them.
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