The Blossoming Coffee Culture of Southeast Asia

By Bronwen Serna, The New Black

I wake up every day in my new neighborhood and see myriad people begin their day. Like every morning all over the world, their day often begins in the common gathering place–the local cafe. What’s different for me now is that my days are currently spent in Southeast Asia, in the small country/city-state of Singapore.

In one end of my neighborhood, there is an amazing market with hawkers serving traditional food and coffee. Here, the kopitiam (kopi: Malay for coffee and tiam: Hokkien for shop) is where many Singaporeans and Malaysians begin their day, and use as their typical hangout throughout. These traditional-style coffeeshops or stands are all over Southeast Asia, from Hong Kong to Indonesia, serving varying traditional styles of coffee and tea: usually strong, and usually served sweetened with milk. Surrounding my local kopitiam are evolving artsy boutiques, galleries, bakeries, and cafes catering to an ever-increasing and ever-curious new generation of consumer, intrigued with Western styles of taste and culture. The dichotomy of the kopitiam for elders and locals, and Third Wave specialty coffee joints for the younger generation and foreigners, represents the current state of specialty coffee and traditional coffee ideas co-existing, influencing, and competing with one another.

Over the past five years, increasing globalization has brought new opportunities to emerging markets all over Southeast Asia. Among the fastest-growing is the coffee industry, introducing Western/European-style coffee into these markets, which has been met with equally fast-growing interest: In Seoul, South Korea alone, there are now hundreds of small nano- and micro-roasters. China saw its first Starbucks over a decade ago and continues to grow rapidly. Major cities in coffee-growing regions such as Jakarta, Bangkok, and Denpasar now have specialty coffee shops roasting and serving locally grown coffee, and local infrastructure for importing green coffee is being established. It’s an exciting time for specialty coffee in the region due to increasing interest in the coffee industry on the part of both professionals and consumers.

What does this mean for specialty coffee in Southeast Asia? First and definitely foremost, it means many more opportunities to introduce a local market to better coffee. Secondly, it means opportunities for increasing innovation and education in new markets. Finally, it means increasing consumer growth in awareness of and demand for specialty coffee.

I asked a few colleagues and friends in specialty coffee within Southeast Asia to share their thoughts; there is an overwhelming positive response as well as many hurdles to overcome.

Many agree that there is rapid growth. Silvester Samonte from Origin Coffee Network and current Filipino Barista Champion, remarks, “Quality is not driving growth, rather availability and diversity of experiences [are].” This is not necessarily a bad thing, because these markets are very deeply rooted in innovation and developing unique experiences. Coffee Academics in Hong Kong strives to create a powerful sensory experience for its guests through varying stations of brewing coffee and tea, as well as by being innovative in creating specialty beverages highlighting their coffee.

Karen Chu, publicist for Coffee Academics, remarks, “the Southeast Asian coffee scene is vibrant, energetic, and full of interesting coffee ventures. From the farms in Indonesia and Thailand producing world-class coffee, to new independent cafes sprouting up in all the major cities in the region, there is lots going on and many exciting new ventures. That’s why we have chosen Singapore to be our first market outside of Hong Kong.”

Indeed, this is certainly true, especially in Singapore–the likes of Common Man Coffee Roasters, Papa Palhetha, and Nylon Coffee Roasters have now paved the way for many other specialty coffee roasters to take risks and introduce the concept of specialty coffee to the Singapore market.

In Vietnam, the scene is becoming a vibrant one, where focus is on improving quality as well as awareness of Vietnamese specialty coffee. Josh Guikema and Rolan Co Lieng started K’Ho Coffee in 2012 to produce specialty coffee from Rolan’s family coffee farm in the mountains outside Dalat, Vietnam. Nguyen Canh Hung of Bosgaurus Coffee states that since 2014 consumers have slowly begun changing their perception of coffee, but that espresso and espresso-based drinks are still a relatively new concept that local consumers are trying to embrace.

Education and continuing innovation are important in these emerging markets in order for growth to occur and be sustainable. It’s one thing to introduce the concept of specialty coffee into these markets, but another, much larger challenge to get consumers to support and sustain it. Many consumers still view specialty coffee as “trendy” and “new,” and are not quite sure why it is important in the larger scheme of the food and beverage industry. For Western expatriates/foreigners/tourists in Southeast Asia, the fact that they can get this small luxury far from home is amazing, and they need little to no convincing. When you have a foreign concept in competition with cultural norms and traditions, it takes more time for locals to come to terms with it as part of their new normal. Many roasters and cafes in the area are helping their local consumers to become more aware and accepting through classes and programs from SCAA and SCAE, as well as independent educational workshops and tastings.

Much of the Southeast Asian specialty coffee industry incorporates these influences in its cafes. One sees heavy influence from Australia, New Zealand, and Japan due to their proximity to Southeast Asia. Cafes must serve great food and have a particular look and feel, in addition to an extensive and creative coffee menu, in order for an increasingly discerning public to take them seriously. Despite the challenges, it is exciting to see the industry creatively expand the concept of specialty coffee to cross over into other industries such as fashion, design, etc. Karen Chu, from Coffee Academics, points out, “We are seeing coffee startups embracing local culture and creating unique offerings, rather than replicating what is done in the more established coffee markets.”

Most important is the increasing excitement among coffee professionals. Daniel Humphries of Origin Coffee Network has a good insight, “As specialty coffee matures in the region, I would like to see more young people able to make a career out of it, to grow a truly deep understanding of coffee, including understanding origin, coffee farms, and green coffee. That kind of depth helps the entire industry blossom.”

In order for consumer interest and demand to grow, the local specialty coffee communities need to work together: “Industry players coming together to grow the industry, meaning to grow the base of coffee drinkers and to share. In the past, it was almost impossible to get three to five roasters to be in the same room, now they all attend events together. This is amazing!” states Leon Foo of Papa Palhetha. It’s only through this collective effort that the same excitement can be transmitted to consumers in Southeast Asia. Unanimously, when I asked my specialty coffee colleagues and friends “What would you like to see happen?” the answers all related back to the consumer in some way: wanting consumers to understand what specialty coffee is about, being able to share stories about the coffee, and dveeloping a greater appreciation for it.

Those local consumers who are curious, adventurous, and have the desire to learn are what make the industry here exciting. Unlike many others, Southeast Asian consumers are not afraid to try new trends, and continually push the food and beverage industry to provide new engaging and innovative experiences.

This is also the biggest challenge–how to keep these consumers engaged. Many here just want to experience the trendiest and newest thing without caring to understand what goes into it. My hope, and the hope of many specialty coffee entrepreneurs, is to help these consumers turn coffee from a fad into something that is woven into their everyday lives.

Truly, specialty coffee in Southeast Asia is rapidly growing. Given more time, it will certainly expand to produce better quality specialty coffee in green and retail markets and become an important player in innovative and exciting ideas the way specialty coffee is presented.

Bronwen Serna is the Director of Coffee and Education at The New Black. She currently lives in Singapore and has no shame about drinking a traditional coffee with sweetened condensed milk once in a while.