By Miriam Chacko
FOUND IN most city corners throughout Malaysia, Kopitiams are a testament to how ubiquitous coffee has been and still is to the morning culture here.
Traditional kopitiams are known to serve locally grown Liberica coffee; well-brewed and charcoal-grilled bread toast with kaya. Liberica beans are roasted with margarine and sometimes with sesame seed to create a definite robust flavor.
However, with time, coffee-drinking has moved from simple, open-air, affordable kopitiams to trendy, air-conditioned, expensive cafes. While the older generation remains loyal to the kopitiams and spend hours therein, reading the newspaper and talking politics, the youngsters inevitably gravitate to the newer and more hip cafes.
The smell of coffee can exorcise the lethargy in you and mask the foulest of moods. It is for these reasons that I began my adventure with coffee, but after many years with the bean, I am learning to enjoy my coffee for coffee’s sake.
If they had coffee profiling, mine would be that I am not medically dependent on it but that I drink good coffee, whenever the opportunity presents itself. For now, I am complacent. To have a more serious relationship with coffee and move on from harmless flirting would require deeper interest, commitment and moolah, for which my schedule and wallet are not yet ready.
A coffee map of the world, showing coffee consumed annually in kilograms by each person in a country, reveals how heavy coffee drinkers (6.8 – 12 kgs per person per year) are not usually the coffee growers.
Scandinavia, Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Canada and Australia harbour the heavy coffee drinkers. However, the world’s most popular coffee comes from equatorial Ethiopia, Kenya, Brazil, Gautemala, Yemen, Indonesia and Vietnam. This disjoint is true for other cash crops such as tea and cocoa, and to ask why would mean a lesson in history, culture and climate.
Malaysia itself has approximately 25,000 hectares of coffee plantations distributed among Selangor, Kelantan, Kedah, Terengganu, Melaka and Sabah. 95 per cent of the coffee grown in the country is Liberica and the rest is Robusta and Arabica.
The method in which the coffee berries are grown, and processed factors into the distinct taste and smell that different coffees generate. Apart from the conventional coffee-producing wet, dry and semi-dry processes, coffee can be naturally processed in the bellies of animals like elephants, weasels and civet cats (Luwak).
In Indonesia, Luwak Coffee is made from red coffee berries that have been swallowed and excreted by Luwaks. In the stomach of the Luwak, the berry undergoes a natural chemical fermentation that gives it an oomph factor.
The droppings, in which the berries are still intact, are collected, and then the berries retrieved from the poo are cleaned, dried, roasted and ground to make a cup of coffee. Caught in a tourist trap while visiting Bali, I tried it and quickly realised that my coffee palate was not mature enough to appreciate it.
However, there is no shortage of appreciation for coffee, even the Luwak kind. In fact, perhaps as a result of this caffeine-fueled enthusiasm, sometimes coffee reviews can come off seeming cryptic and only capable of full understanding by coffee connoisseurs.
For example, here is a review for Deri Kochoha, coffee grown in Sidamo region of Ethiopia from Coffee Review, the website: “Crisply lush, juicy. Distinct lavender notes, honey, fresh-cut fir, white grape, roasted cacao nib in aroma and cup. Delicately bright, juicy acidity; lightly syrupy, lively mouthfeel. The finish is richly and deeply flavor saturated, though slightly drying in long.”
I can confidently say that I have not experienced such a mouthful with coffee, and even if I did, I would struggle to put it down in words!
Fortunately, the brand does the copywriting for me. “Velvety body, caramel-like aroma, earthy flavor and a bittersweet finish” is what it says on the packet of Arabica beans used at Coffee Bean. The description fits in well with my experience of drinking lattes at Coffee Bean. Once again, my hypothetical coffee profile reveals its complacency.
The modern café culture is growing in this part of the world. The café regulars are working people needing the caffeine rush-to-go, school-goers craving ice-blended lattes to beat the heat, night crawlers seeking refuge and writers hoping to be inspired by the mere smell of coffee.
So to attract these patrons, most cafes today sell ambience that is intentionally created by design, lighting and music. Some are hip, giving off a Starbucks-y feel, while others are rustic, quaint or even grungy. Cafes are ideal for brainstorming, having heart-to-hearts, pondering in solitude and of course, gossiping. It’s no shame to admit that, when I travel to a new country or city, I step into the local cafes to scope out the vibe of the city and, if appealing, immerse in it.
So far, Le Pain Quotidien in Manhattan, Levain Boulangerie and Patisserie in Kuala Lumpur, P S Café in Singapore, Kashi Art Cafe in Cochin and Café Central in Vienna, have left a lasting impression on my attempts at international coffee drinking and café patronage.
A combination of good coffee, access to wifi and a choice of homemade or even homemade-looking cakes can give birth to great ideas. J K Rowling, for example, mentions in her interviews that she wrote her first few novels while sitting in cafés in Edinburgh, and she is not the exception. Several works of art can be attributed to some degree to coffee, if not cafes. However, it still takes a creative mind to put the caffeine to good use.
Bringing matters closer to home, there are friends of mine who have bought the Nespresso machine, and are thrilled to be their own baristas. ‘Easy, clean, convenient and cup-worthy,’ is how they describe it.
The basic Nespresso machine costs approximately, RM 900 and the coffee capsules (one capsule per cup) are RM 2.10 each, thereby falling into the investment bracket of my expenses. Then again, according to the third wave of coffee drinking, the Nespresso machine is for the lazies. The third wave promotes the experience of grinding one’s own beans as equally important to enjoying a homemade cup of coffee. So, it’s nothing less than a bea-to-cup coffee machine for these third wavers. Clearly, there is a world amongst drinkers where coffee is serious and not recreational.
Over the next few months, I plan to mull over coffee, to decide how much it has to do with my everyday genius (wink wink). Perhaps, in the future, after tasting coffee of different grades and different roots, I might be convinced to move into a more committed relationship with my coffee.
Miriam Chacko is essentially an environmentalist. After completing her postgraduate degree in Environment and International Development from the University of East Anglia, she got involved in projects promoting environmental awareness. Drawing on her experience, she has written articles on climate change and conservation.
A keen traveller, she has visited many countries in and around Asia and her love of the outdoors and interest in different cultures comes through in her writing.
Miriam has been writing for The Borneo Post SEEDS since 2013.