In Kuala Lumpur today, specialty coffee shops are not an uncommon sight. Despite the historic popularity of the traditional kopitiam, things are starting to change. Chains and independent cafés are changing the way many Malaysians consume coffee in public.
Increased rental prices and wider changes in global coffee consumption are largely behind this trend, but there are other factors to consider. Malaysia is by no means a powerhouse in coffee production – its production volumes put it around 60th in the world – but it holds a unique position as a major producer of liberica coffee.
To learn more about Malaysian coffee culture, how it’s changing, and some of the challenges the country faces, I spoke with Shaun Liew, Jason Loo, and Mirwan Badri. Read on to find out what they told me.
You might also like our article on how the state of Sarawak is rethinking liberica.
Malaysian coffee & the kopitiam
Despite technically being in the Bean Belt, Malaysia isn’t renowned as an origin. Its production volumes are low, and they have been steadily declining since the late 20th century.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, some sources claim Malaysian coffee production volumes were close to 40,000 tonnes. Today, this figure is estimated at somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 tonnes.
The reasons for this are disputed, but it’s largely viewed as a combination of the emergence of other lucrative agricultural exports (including palm oil), unsustainable field management techniques, and increasing labour costs.
Alongside this, Malaysia also mainly cultivates liberica coffee. While liberica is the third most popular species in the Coffea genus, it comprises less than 1% of all coffee grown in the world.
Liberica is mainly grown in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia and the Philippines. It is largely consumed domestically as there is a minimal amount of international demand for it.
This is where the kopitiam comes in. A kopitiam is a traditional coffee shop or open-air kiosk that offers low-cost blends of locally-produced coffee. In Malaysia, these blends are generally a mixture of robusta and liberica, and are roasted with palm-oil margarine to give them rich, buttery aromas and flavours in the cup.
However, according to Bloomberg, the survival of the kopitiam is “precarious”. High rental prices in Malaysia’s capital city are driving costs up. This effectively forces them out in a competitive marketplace where larger chains operating at scale have much higher coffee margins.
Alongside this, third wave coffee culture came to the country a decade or so ago, and is starting to appeal to a wider base of younger urban consumers, further threatening Malaysia’s classic coffee kiosks.
Roasting and importing
However, even though third wave coffee shops are becoming increasingly common in Kuala Lumpur, the same has not necessarily been true for specialty coffee roasters.
Jason Loo is a three-time Malaysian Barista Champion, winning the competition in 2013, 2015, and 2017. He says that there are a “handful of bigger [specialty] roasters” in Kuala Lumpur.
“There are maybe five or ten working with larger volumes, then just a couple of big commercial roasters who supply to hotels and so on,” he says. “There are a lot of micro roasters who just roast for their own shop, but that is pretty much it.”
So why is this the case? Well, in Malaysia, it’s very difficult for prospective roasters to import green coffee from certain countries. Traders and roasters can only import beans from a select list of “registered” countries, and even then, importing is a complex bureaucratic process.
Mirwan Badri is the owner of Buna Market and Coffee Marketplace. He explains that while you can import green coffee from Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, and Ethiopia, buying from other origins is much more difficult. He says that Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, the DRC, and Yemen, for example, are all prohibited.
“The importing procedure is very complicated,” he adds. “Firstly, you need a proper import license, which you can only get from the Ministry of Agriculture.
“They require you to show proof of the farm, where it is exactly, who the farmers are, how the coffees are picked, how they are stored, how they are hulled… you need photos, contacts, and an explanation for everything.”
This information can be difficult to come by for roasters sourcing green coffee on the other side of the world; Mirwan tells me that about eight years ago, he tried to import Kenyan coffee. He says the application process took him an entire month. And when it finally arrived in Malaysia?
“Customs decided it wasn’t allowed to come in because nobody had brought it in before,” he says. “Which wasn’t true.”
Without a good variety of specialty-grade green coffee, it can become more difficult for third wave coffee roasters to thrive. However, with that said, Mirwan adds that this doesn’t mean coffee roasting in Malaysia isn’t changing.
As the owner of an online coffee marketplace, Mirwan adds he’s seen a huge rise in home roasters and coffee shop owners buying and roasting their own coffee, especially in the last two years.
“However, if you specifically talk about specialty coffee, I don’t think that most of the new coffee roasters are working with specialty-grade beans,” he says. “There have been a lot of people buying green beans from Shopee and Lazada (online marketplaces similar to Amazon or Alibaba).
“Most of the coffee sold there is past crop or commodity-grade, which could point to the rise in volume… without a platform like this, importing green coffee is a real hassle.”
To this end, Mirwan says that most of the growing or newer roasters in Malaysia don’t claim to roast specialty coffee, and instead just brand their coffee as being “freshly roasted” instead.
Liberica: Is there an opportunity?
So, without the capacity to import green coffee in a hassle-free way, what else can Malaysian roasters do?
In recent years, some have started to experiment with liberica as a potential opportunity. Liberica can produce a range of flavours in the cup, but is not without its challenges. Firstly, liberica takes longer to pick because the plants are arboreal (similar to trees) rather than shrublike. Liberica cherries also have a very thick, tough pulp around its seeds, which are in turn difficult to roast.
Shaun Liew was the 2017 and 2019 Malaysian Brewers’ Cup Champion, and is the owner of Wizards at Tribeca and Yellow Brick Road in Kuala Lumpur. He tells me that My Liberica, a coffee shop in Johor (which is the region where most liberica is cultivated) has started to experiment with the species.
My Liberica has its own associated coffee farm, and its website lists it as the “first specialty liberica producer in Malaysia”, founded in 2011. According to Shaun, they use natural, washed, and honey processing for their liberica beans. The naturals are often winey, with flavours of jackfruit, while the honeys can taste of hazelnut and chocolate.
Despite these innovations, however, domestic interest for specialty liberica still remains low. Furthermore, the challenges of picking the cherries, removing the tough pulp, and dialling in the right roast profile mean that even when quality liberica is picked, processed, and sold, it is expensive.
“Liberica green coffee [ends up being] almost the same price as Grade 1 Ethiopian beans,” Mirwan explains. “We can’t afford to sell domestic liberica at the same price as something we have imported.”
Naturally, local customers will ask why domestic green beans are at the same price as imported beans from a recognised origin, and will most likely choose the latter.
Mirwan adds that there is a widespread lack of awareness and information about how liberica should be processed and roasted, which affects both quality and demand. “What we know about arabica comes from experts; it’s a lot easier when there’s a reference,” he explains. “We don’t have anyone to tell us about how to roast liberica.”
Ultimately, despite Malaysia’s unique position as a liberica producer, Shaun, Jason, and Mirwan all agree that the key for continued growth is to focus on the production of higher-quality arabica.
Cultivating specialty arabica: A small but growing focus
There are two emerging coffee-growing regions in Malaysia: Sabah and Sarawak. The former in particular is known for its arabica.
Mirwan says that in Malaysia, the production of specialty-grade arabica is reasonably new. The bulk of the country’s arabica plants were wiped out during the leaf rust epidemic in the late 19th century, and were summarily replaced by liberica.
Today, a small handful of producers are planting Catimor and Typica hybrids, exercising great care in their cultivation, and experimenting with a range of processing methods. However, Shaun explains that many are still inexperienced.
“The [arabica] trees did not exist there previously,” he says. “Seedlings have just been given to farmers to be planted in these regions.”
Mirwan elaborates, noting that liberica is a legacy crop grown by families over generations. The same is not true, he says, for arabica. “Many of these [specialty arabica] coffee farmers are in their 20s and 30s,” he explains.
All interviewees also note that this coffee has started to be roasted and brewed in the areas near where it’s grown. Despite the fact that this is a very young movement in Malaysia, Jason says that “people are excited about the coffee”.
Like many other countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia has an interesting history of coffee cultivation and a unique coffee culture. Despite the fact that coffee production is currently not as lucrative a prospect as it has been in the past, there is clearly interest in revitalising it.
Nonetheless, domestic interest in coffee consumption seems set to remain high. The emergence of third wave coffee shops in places like Kuala Lumpur is driving a change in how, where, and why Malaysians drink their coffee. And while there is still space for coffee roasting and the production of specialty-grade arabica to grow, it’s clear this will be an interesting market to watch.
You might also like our article comparing filter coffee and espresso in the US and Europe.
Interested in Malaysian coffee culture? Check out the upcoming International Café & Beverage Show 2021, which will be hosted at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre from November 25 to November 27 2021.
Perfect Daily Grind
Photo credits: Jason Loo
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