Three cups of coffee sit side by side. One is made of instant coffee granules, another from Starbucks, and the other, a single-origin washed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe poured-over Chemex filter. Which will you choose? Is there a difference?
These innocuous cups of coffee, in fact, encapsulates three important chapters in the coffee trade's history books. The first-wave drives at mass production of primarily Arabica coffee. It spans industrialisation in the 1800s to post-war years.
Second-wave was notably the popularisation of coffee as a social lifestyle tool, catalysed by Californian coffee chain Peet's and Seattle-based Starbucks. It's gradually being displaced by an incoming third-wave consumers' coffee habits.
Third-wave coffee dawned in the 1990s when Chicago's Intelligentsia, Portland's Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Oakland's Blue Bottle Coffee, and San Francisco's Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters came forth. When you ask anyone what third-wave coffee means, they all say, "speciality coffee" – which doesn't actually mean anything.
We went into a lengthy probe around Singapore's finest third-wave coffee joints, and everyone had varying interpretations of what speciality coffee is. Looking back, and reading beyond all that they've said, there is indeed a common theme that runs through all of them.
Quite like the wine or food industry, third-wave coffee culture is twofold. One, conscious consumption, which wings out to traceability, transparency, social and eco-footprints, and the fair trade of coffee beans. And two, a hark back to the natural flavours coffee beans have to offer, derived by exacting preparation apparatus and methods.
Papa Palheta's first outlet at Hooper Road, off Bukit Timah Road.
It was in 2004 when brothers Phil and Cedric Ho established Highlander Coffee, supplying coffee beans and equipment.
But it took four years before the dam broke. In 2008, Keith Loh founded Oriole Coffee. A year later, Leon Foo began Papa Palheta. Two years later, Adrian Khong started Jewel Coffee. And surrounding these key players were numerous others, amongst them Jimmy Monkey, and Common Man Coffee Roasters.
When Leon Foo launched Papa Palheta at Hooper Road in 2009, he had a remarkable following. Conscious consumption was on his mind, "whether farmers [were] paid right. Which coffee came from which farm or micro-lot... It was all about traceability." But coffee was beyond a commodity. It tightens the global production chain, unifying countries. "It links producing countries to consumers – the first world to the third... Coffee transcends communities." Foo didn't go on a campaign publicising his philosophy and left it unexplained. But it seems to have silently resonated with the locals.
Adrian Khong launched the first Jewel Coffee at 1 Shenton Way. He is looking to expand to 13 outlets locally by the end of 2017.
"Demand was more than supply at that time," quips Adrian Khong. Likewise former banker Khong saw the tip of the iceberg.
While Leon Foo went on to apprentice with a local traditional coffee roaster, Tan Tiong Hoe, Adrian Khong made a trip to the States. He took a coffee roasting course at Heart Coffee Roasters and visited many speciality coffee joints.
"In 2009 the idea came to me that speciality coffee, third-wave coffee is a viable business." Khong whips out his iPhone, swiping archived pictures from his trip. He meticulously made notes of everything – interior design, furniture, coffee choices available, the baristas, uniforms, music, and customer profiles.
Blends & Single-Origin Coffees
When he opened Jewel Coffee a year later, he served up two single-origin coffees every day. The menu rotated every four to five days. It was controversial at that point in time because other local speciality stores were serving house blends instead. Leon Foo's Papa Palheta was actively promoting their house blend Terra Firma. "The thinking at that time was – if you are a coffee shop, you should have a blend so that the taste anchors customers to your shop. It's something they are familiar and will grow used to," Khong explains.
Jewel Coffee brings in a wide variety of single origins coffee, rotating every two to three days in stores.
But he wanted to emulate the advancement he witnessed in the US. And if one were to theorise speciality coffee, it'll be similar to wine's chateau or whisky's single-malt – the more specific and pure it is, the better it gets.
"Single-origin is essentially – [from] a region, and it can be as specific as a farm. The minimum is at least a region, like the areas of Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, or Harrar. You can [be] as specific as a finca – farm in Latin America. So [with wine] you can do, let's say a Bordeaux, Burgundy, or go all the way to a Chateau," Khong illustrates. And the precise traceability calls to transparency, and of course flavour profile.
"The whole idea of single-origin is terra – like wine. The taste would be defined by weather, soil conditions, post-harvesting processes, and [coffee bean] varietals that are [optimal] for that area," he continues.
Those days, Khong was serving single-origin coffees from Tanzania, Kenya, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Peru. He was surprised by how regular customers identified the flavour nuances and called him out when the menu didn't change. "They said, 'Boss, you're getting lazy!'," Khong roars into laughter as he recalls.
Shin Hao, roaster and certified Q-grader on a roast.
"I think the interest was there, and the interest is still around." Till date, Singapore's third-wave coffee industry has closed up a yawning growth gap, and are on par with other cities'.
"There was a writer who said, 'Singapore's coffee is not as good as Australia's.' I'm like, 'Fuck off!'"
Local palates are more exacting than ever. Coffee consumers now can identify flavour profiles of numerous single-origin coffees. On the other end of the supply chain, coffee joints are graduating from their mass-targetted house blends, instead taking service up a notch and providing for every customers' preferences. One of them is the acclaimed independent Nylon Coffee Roasters.
Barista at Nylon Coffee Roaster prepares a pour-over single origins coffee.
Tucked away in a quaint neighbourhood of Everton Park, Nylon is an abbreviation for New York and London's coffee cultures – also where founders Dennis Tang and Lee Jia Min previously lived and worked.
When they returned to Singapore, both wanted to replicate coffee cultures that they enjoyed, and worked in cafes to gain experience. Towards the end of 2009, they joined Leon Foo at Papa Palheta. Lee left briefly to work at the central bank, but Tang continued at Papa Palheta. In 2011, Nylon Coffee Roasters opened doors. Later, a house blend christened Four Chairs was introduced and it properly defined Nylon's character.
Nylon has since graduated from Four Chairs. But the blend has cemented such a solid flavour profile, that even without a house blend, regulars recognise the unmistakable Nylon palate from their choice of single-origin coffees.
"Sweetness, clarity, and balance," Tang asserts. "Even our customers can relate."
It's all found in the choice of coffee beans and roasting techniques. There's a manifold flavour inherent in high-quality coffee beans, determined by conditions of the terrain they were planted on. And roasting manifests facets of these flavours. "We try to get the sweetness out. It's still quite difficult for the audience. Most of them assume coffee is bitter. We're trying to change the whole perception of how coffee should taste. It's a growing trend. People are [beginning to] appreciate how sweetness comes through. We try not to roast it too dark that it's bitter, and you need sugar," Tang continues. Roasting aside, he notes that post-harvesting processes of green coffee beans contribute significantly to flavour profiles as well.
The art of coffee roasting isn't confined to professionals. There's a community of home roasters here in Singapore. Tang reveals, "It started with a couple of us. But more and more people are starting to roast coffee... They started with the intention to roast for themselves, to make [the flavours] more unique... Then they realise if you buy a machine like this, you end up with a lot of spare capacity."
The Tiny Roaster
From left clockwise: top-down view of the roasting process, Alex Chong at the roaster, and the bar of The Tiny Roaster.
The Home Roasters
That was how Alex Chong and Tiffany Chan started The Tiny Roaster in 2014. "About six to seven years ago, I first started out using a Whirley-pop," 32-year-old Tiffany Chan gestures to a humble looking steel pot. "[It's] used mostly in the States. It's a popcorn popper. We used it [to] roast coffee beans," she giggles. To Chan, roasting is simple and methodical – so long there's heat, you can roast green coffee beans. Chan used to pour green coffee beans into the Whirley-pop, lower the pot over a fire, and consistently spin the rotating wand to evenly distribute heat. As the beans brown, they expand. And much like popcorn kernels, you'll hear a loud 'pop's as the coffee beans crack open.
Back then, green coffee beans were hard to come by in Singapore. Chan would import small batches of beans from the US-based e-commerce Sweet Maria's. She eventually consolidated orders with like-minded home roasters from online forums. "We bought bigger portions of it to share with other coffee roasters. So we started a blog, an online store." Chan was purchasing in bulk – 11 or 12 gunny sacks of 70 kilograms' worth of green coffee. It was to minimise exorbitant freight costs.
She recalls vividly that it was a growing community, but relatively small. And they were an experimental bunch and were receptive to new and unusual green coffee that Chan imported. "We put in the effort to source and try out other coffees." For the heart of home roasting is to uncover latent natural flavours of coffee beans. "You appreciate coffee for what is really is – how different farmers [process] different coffees to make them taste different," Chan continues to stress on the year-long efforts farmers invest in designing coffee beans' flavour profiles.
From left clockwise: Natural sundry process at coffee bean plantations, the washing process, and the honey process.
How does one predict the flavour profiles of a green coffee bean? Apart from terrain, like Nylon Coffee Roaster's Dennis Tang mentioned earlier, post-harvesting processes significantly alter the beans' flavour profile. Post-harvesting serves to reduce red coffee cherry fruits into green coffee beans.
There are three primary processes. "The wash process, natural process, [and] honey process," Tiffany Chan quips.
"The washed process – coffee cherries are picked from coffee shrubs. They're fermented in a tank with water... Cherries' flesh is mechanically stripped from the bean, [and] the beans are dried to remove moisture – to 12 percent moisture. And that's [how] the beans are shipped to us. The washing process creates a very clean taste profile as compared to natural and honey processes."
On another end of the spectrum is the natural process. The whole cherry is dried with its flesh on. It's conventionally sun-dried on raised beds and patios of coffee farms. This way, citrus flavours are seared into the coffee seed. It's comparatively time-consuming, but for that, "you get a fruity-bodied flavour. A thicker, murkier, and very sweet [cup]," Chan continues.
In between both, is the honey process. Different percentage of the flesh are dried onto the coffee bean. "Sometimes [the farmers] choose to remove 25 percent of the fuselage, so you have 75 percent dried on. The result is still a thick-bodied [cup], but not as much as the 100 percent. You can do 20 and 80 percent variations."
Chan excitedly speaks on, "I think this is what home roasters enjoy – figuring out new coffees and creating something with it." Blends are especially demanding – arithmetically. It's a harmonisation of single-origins. "Sometimes single-origins clashes with single-origins."
Her eyes twinkle as she smiles, "When I roast it this way, how will it taste like?" Chan thoroughly enjoys exchanging input with fellow customers and roasters. "They will feedback, 'I created this blend and it tastes quite horrible!' It's like a hobby, like gaming. There are a lot of guys!"
From left column: Three easy pour-over options – Kalita wave filter paper and drip, Hario V60 filter paper and white plastic drip, Chemex filter paper and glass drip with woodneck.
For beginners and veterans alike, Chan recommends maximising the longevity of coffee beans. Invest in a small grinder, and always buy whole beans and not coffee ground, for beans oxidise rapidly that way.
Beans are usually left for three days to degas post-roasting, also why there's a degassing valve behind airtight coffee packaging. Upon receiving the beans, for the first ten days, do filtered pour-overs. From the 10th to 21st day, use an Aeropress. And between the 21st to the 30th day, it's cold brew – soak coffee ground in room temperature water and leave it in the fridge for a day or two.
"Different apparatus requires coffees of [different] age. Coffee develops over time."
To Tiffany Chan, the most important of all coffee gadgets is a small hand-held coffee bean grinder. Here, a mini Hario grinder, an Aerobie Aeropress, a 1000ml plastic Hario cold brew infuser, and a steel and glass Hario cold brew pitcher.
In our hour-long conversation with Chan, we've had a slim, lanky man pop in for a gunny sack worth of green coffee beans. Subsequently, was a family of three asking for a latte and Americanos. We watched as baristas patiently decode the single-origin coffees and brewing methods to the family. Maybe that's the point of The Tiny Roaster – to convert second-wave into third-wave coffee connoisseurs.
As they took their seats, Chan muses that most customers, after a few trips here, "will at some point switch to brewing coffee themselves."
Chan is right. There's been a healthy spike in home-brewers. "We are certainly witnessing a rapid growth in the home-brewing market," divulges Ernest Ting, co-founder of coffee subscription service, Hook Coffee.
From top left clockwise: Hook Coffee's individual drip coffee bags, or whole coffee beans fit for espresso, pods for coffee machines, and 80 grams bags of whole or ground coffee beans.
Coffee subscription operates like any speciality coffee outlet, save for baristas' duties are passed on to drinkers themselves. At the two-year-old Hook Coffee, whole beans or ground arrive in 200 grams packages.
And subscription is an unexpectedly befitting model for a commodity that pirouettes around freshness. In fact, it's a perfect fit if you were to think about it. "The subscription model fits very well with the roasted coffee model. You want to make sure it's very fresh and regular – small quantities, and frequently," explains Paul Berthelsen, who founded Perk Coffee in 2016.
Paul Berthelsen, founder of Perk Coffee recommends the natural processed Ethiopian single-origin, Aramo.
Coffee beans are often bought in small quantities lest they grow stale in the kitchen. It's a daily necessity – to some – but frequent trips to the roaster's also proves to be a hassle. Subscription plugs that hole. "Guys who don't to run out [of coffee], they get it on the dot," Berthelsen adds.
Coupled with e-commerce, he thinks this newfangled subscription model adds a new dimension of growth for the local speciality coffee scene. Berthelsen divulges that he's seeing a 20 percent monthly growth.
In the past decade, brick-and-mortar speciality coffee joints have expanded, consolidated, and matured. Could subscription well be the future of third-wave coffee culture in Singapore? Berthelsen ponders, searching for the right word. He breaks into a wide grin and concludes, "I am optimistic and excited."
Papa Palheta is located at 150 Tyrwhitt Road, Jewel Coffee at 1 Shenton Way and seven other outlets, Nylon Coffee Roasters at 4 Everton Park, The Tiny Roaster at 106 Clementi Street 12, Hook Coffee here, and Perk Coffee here.
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