Coffee in Asia:
A World Cup
In Kuala Lumpur, coffee is hot. Fifty years ago the city was mostly jungle. This area referred to as the Golden Triangle is particularly vibrant with people and coffee. Crowded cafes are open until midnight or later, reflecting the local preference for late-night meetings. This is the place to be seen and enjoy any espresso beverage you can imagine, hot or cold. Akin to San Francisco’s North Beach or New York’s Little Italy, coffee reigns supreme. Close by, the newer Petronas Towers, the world’s tallest structure, features several specialty coffee outlets. Among them is a company called San Francisco Coffee. The chain has grown to over 14 locations with more on the way. They are members of the SCAA who focus on cup quality served by smiling friendly, knowledgeable baristas. It is an oasis of specialty coffees. Baristas attend coffee classes on espresso preparation and coffee origin knowledge. They have just been awarded the prestigious Suria KLCC Retailer of the Year Award in the Café/Fast Food category. This award goes to the best café/fast food operator in the Centre based on financial performance, product and service quality, and ballots from the public. This is the second year since the Towers opened that San Francisco Coffee has won this award. “Our people make all the difference in our success,” proudly states managing director, Robert Boxwell. San Francisco Coffee has just opened in Manila with more on the way. Their locations feature lightwoods, comfortable chairs and freshly brewed Coffee of the Day ranging from Kenya, Ethiopian and Sumatra. My doppio espresso macchiato is a perfect shot with simply a dollop of sweet foam. Another top contender for Barista Champion!
Other chains to enter the local market are Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Hoka Coffee, Starbucks and Gloria Jeans. Even Isetan, a Japanese department store has a coffee bar featuring individual brewed vacuum coffee of Jamaican Blue Mountain, Kona and Sumatra, reflecting on the Japanese preferences. No shortages here. Kuala Lumpur is a vibrant coffee town. The cafes offer a respite of humanity amidst the chaos of the streets and daily life. People are friendly and will join you to ask about your life and observations of their country.
People of all ages, races and religions enjoy coffee here. Chinese business people, next to Indian and Malaysian students next to Middle Eastern moms with kids in strollers, next to Australian tourists all take pleasure in coffee. In the U.S., a 150-sq. ft. space has a chance at sustaining a vital customer base since so much of the business is “to go.” In South East Asia, cafes offer bigger spaces with seating inside and out. Space is at a premium, homes and apartments are smaller, and people take to the streets and cafes to socialize. New customers unfamiliar with coffee jargon prefer cappuccino to a latte. Perhaps they are not sure exactly what a latte is. Eight- or six-ounce drinks are common, not 20-ounce as in the U.S. Iced and blended drinks are the top sellers. Many Middle Eastern patrons seemed relieved to find espresso. Hot beverages are served in porcelain cups as a general rule, which I appreciate. The cafes offer a good selection of food and many are open until midnight or later. A trend I see in the U.S. of restricted cell phone use is not on the radar screen here. With a population where virtually everyone has at least one cell or hand phone as they are called here, no one would even think of not allowing cell phone use. I’ve seen cafes with everyone on cell phones, some tables of four all on their own cell while sitting together. On another occasion, a young man was on two phones, one to each ear!
Coffeehouses and cafes offer a place of sharing. How welcoming it is for me personally to enjoy coffee and people in a whole new environment where one foundation of shared experience rest in the cup. I have highlighted a few of the cafes in the region to demonstrate how diverse the market is and how cafes touch all our lives, wherever we are. Seek out and frequent quality cafes striving to present excellent specialty coffees and support those cafes that make a difference. In any case, KL, as the locals refer to their city is a true coffee capital. San Francisco Coffee sums it up delightfully in their slogan, “Life Is Good.” And to that I say, “I’ll have another cup, Boleh, La!” (Translation: “Can Do, Friend.”)
Sherri Johns is president of WholeCup Coffee Consulting with 26 years of experience in specialty coffee. She specializes in retail coffee development including consumer education, barista training and marketing in the U.S. and Internationally. Sherri is also a writer, speaker, past SCAA board member and current SCAA Training Committee member. As an avid origin traveler she is best reached at email@example.com
Tea & Coffee - January/February 2002
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