Singapore is a multicultural city-state and a melting pot of different communities. This has led to rich diversity in a number of areas, including Singaporean cuisine, art, literature, media – and coffee.
Across Singapore, people have long since enjoyed sharing a cup of coffee with friends, traditionally drinking intense, sweet robusta blends from the comfort of a kopitiam. Today, however, as with many major coffee consuming markets, quality is increasing across Singapore, and specialty coffee shops are opening across the island.
But where does this coffee culture come from? And where is it headed? To learn more, I spoke to three Singaporean coffee professionals. Read on to find out what they told me about the past, present, and future of the country’s coffee culture.
You might also like our guide to green coffee auctions.
A history of coffee in Singapore
The origins of Singaporean coffee culture are complex, and can be traced all over the world, thanks to the island’s rich and unique trade history. As a trade hub and free port in maritime Southeast Asia, Singapore (and its coffee culture) has been influenced by travellers and merchants from around the world for hundreds of years.
The history of coffee in Singapore traces back to when the first kopitiams were opened in the 19th century by the Chinese. These were established to meet the demand for European immigrants on the island, who needed their caffeine fix to get through the day.
Kopitiams still exist in Singapore to this day as traditional alternatives to chain coffee shops. The name comes from kopi, Malay for coffee, while tiam is the Hokkien and Fujianese word for shop.
In kopitiams, the coffee served (often robusta) is roasted and with sugar and butter or margarine, to provide a buttery caramel flavour. Many kopitiams also roast their own coffee, using beans imported from countries in Southeast Asia (such as Indonesia).
Kopitiam coffee, known as kopi, is brewed as a concentrated, thick beverage that serves the base of other drinks. When ordering coffee in a kopitiam, you pick from a range of options to add to your kopi, often masking the intense flavour with condensed milk and sugar. Some even claim that there are over 100 different ways to serve a cup of kopi.
Fadhly Effandi is the Head of Specialty at Bero Coffee, a green coffee importer in Singapore. He confirms the importance of this ancient coffee tradition.
“Traditional ‘kopi’ plays an important role in the historical identity of coffee among Singaporeans,” he says. “I feel that this culture will not disappear anytime soon.
“The term la kopi comes from a time where a coffee break typically involved a group of friends. They would purposefully head out to a preferred local coffee shop for a cup (or two) of kopi.”
However, he says that this culture of taking a coffee break has helped popularise modern coffee trends.
“This culture, in turn, fuels the Singaporean specialty coffee industry in a modern context,” Fadhly tells me. “The spirit of taking a coffee break shifts from having a cuppa in a local kopitiam, and becomes inherited by the specialty coffee shop.”
Today, Singapore plays a key role in the international coffee trade (especially in Asia), and its coffee culture has clearly been influenced by its rich history as a hub of maritime commerce.
Fadhly describes coffee as a “beverage of choice” for Singaporean consumers, and notes that it has “become an important platform for social interactions”.
“It is affordable and accessible,” he adds. “For the typical working adult, which makes up the majority of the population in Singapore, a coffee break in a workday is an activity that you look forward to on a daily basis.”
Singapore’s growing specialty coffee market
Today, Singapore consumes around 15,000 metric tonnes of coffee a year. Divided by its population of 5.7 million, this works out at around 2.6kg per capita.
Victor Mah is the President of the Singapore Coffee Association and the ASEAN Coffee Federation. He explains that coffee consumption has increased notably in the last decade, and says that there has been a growth in specialty coffee, especially in the last three years.
Many of the coffee trends that have come to Singapore have been “imported” by passionate locals or expats who have travelled or lived abroad, where they learned about specialty coffee.
Over the past ten years, more and more independent specialty coffee roasters and shops have popped up across the island. They are increasingly frequented by younger coffee consumers in search of high-quality coffee made from traceable beans. A strong brand identity is also high on the agenda.
“Consumers are more aware of the passion and craft that goes behind every cup of coffee,” Fadhly tells me.
He also notes that the pandemic has had an impact, as it has led to more people working from home and “a trend of deeper exploration and appreciation for coffee”.
Marcus Foo is the CEO of PPP Coffee, a specialty coffee roaster based in Singapore. He explains that lighter roasts have become more popular in Singapore over the last few years because more people have started to drink more and more manual brewed filter coffees. He also notes that plant-based milk alternatives, like soy, almond, and oat milk, are also popular.
Marcus adds: “African coffees from Ethiopia and Kenya have always been popular due to their unique floral and fruity characteristics, [and natural processed coffees are getting more popular].”
However, he also acknowledges that coffees grown in Asia have also been getting more attention, especially from countries like Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos, and India.
Finally, Marcus notes that convenience is a growing priority for coffee consumers across the island. According to him, ready-to-drink (RTD) products like cold brew are becoming more popular, as are drip coffee bags and coffee capsules. He says that some (but not all) of these are prepared with specialty-grade beans.
Singapore: A trade hub for coffee
Singapore also holds an important role as a trade hub in the coffee sector. It is a free port which has free trade agreements with 26 different countries and blocs. Around 50,000 international brands have a presence on the island.
Altogether, this means that Singapore is an ideal link between major coffee producing and coffee consuming markets – both in Asia and further afield.
“Singapore is a huge transhipment coffee centre for the whole Asia-Pacific region,” Victor explains. “[This is because of its] free trade status, banking and insurance facilities, [nature as a] logistics hub, excellent port and air cargo facilities, and the presence of international coffee traders.”
Victor adds that the two main trading partners (in terms of coffee production) are Indonesia and Vietnam. However, he also acknowledges that coffee trade with Latin America has increased in the last couple of years.
“As a trading hub, Singapore is able to enhance the specialty coffee sector in the whole Asia Pacific,” he says.
Steven Tan is the Executive Director of the Singapore Coffee Association. “Singapore has excellent [transport] connectivity on an international scale by both air and sea,” he says. “There are also robust financial systems that support the coffee trade in the country.
“It also has a great number of free trade agreements with many different nations and markets. This facilitates easier trade and business across borders.
“Furthermore, the growth of the specialty coffee segment in Southeast Asia is gaining attention on a global scale. With 655 million people, a vast majority of which are 40 or younger, the region is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.”
Growing Singapore’s presence in the international market
On July 13, 2021, the Singapore Coffee Association hosted the first Singapore International Coffee Convention (SICC) and the Singapore Specialty Coffee (Micro-Lot) Auction 2021.
This hybrid event was open to participants all over the world (online) as well as some key stakeholders in person in Singapore.
It featured speakers from several Asian and Latin American countries, and welcomed more than 1,000 attendees in person – over 100 in person, and more than 900 online.
Steven tells me that the main goal of the auction was “to establish Singapore as a centre for coffee quality excellence”.
“[We wanted] to promote Singapore as a trade hub for specialty coffee, and facilitate market access, allowing coffee producers to access Singapore and therefore the [growing] coffee market in Southeast Asia.”
At the same time, Steven says the event helped Singaporean coffee traders and roasters access origins that have historically been harder to reach – even more so during the pandemic.
He says: “The range of coffee at the auction helped to better educate the industry players in Singapore and develop coffee culture [here].”
Steven says the auction offered lots from around the world, from India and Indonesia to Colombia and Costa Rica. In total, 38 of the 58 lots on offer were auctioned; the highlight was Lot 46, a Panama Geisha from Finca Santa Teresa which sold for US $77/kg.
Singapore’s coffee culture is exciting, no matter who you are or what your background is. Its rich history as a maritime trade hub means there is something for everyone, and the coffee culture in the city-state continues to be strong.
Ultimately, Singapore has and will continue to play an important role in the global coffee sector. As a trade hub in Southeast Asia, it will continue to be a gateway for the growing coffee market in the region, especially for green coffee importers and exporters. Trade volumes are almost guaranteed to increase.
Going forward, Steven says that Singapore must focus on one thing: forming a bridge between coffee production in Asia and Latin America.
“Southeast Asia is one of the largest coffee-producing regions in the world,” he says. “[By joining these regions], we can support collaboration on market access and share knowledge on coffee production and industry farming practices, thereby leveraging each others’ strengths.”
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how coffee auctions can support direct trade relationships.
Photo credits: Singapore Coffee Association
Please note: Singapore Coffee Association is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.
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