28 May 2018
Where are we going?
Published by Byron Lim in Quarterlife Coffee Roasters
Thoughts on Singapore Specialty coffee culture
This is my little opinion about what coffee culture is like in Singapore, what is possible for us, and how we can be a part of it.
What do Singaporeans think of when you talk about specialty coffee? Chances are their minds go to Melbourne-style cafes, with their themed interiors, amber shadeless light bulbs, where they serve all day breakfast benedicts and intricate latte art in every single coffee order.
I’d say that’s a start. At least they have an idea.
Others think that specialty coffee is hipster coffee. For these folks, they either hate it for seeming pretentious, or we have those that try a little too hard to be part of it.
Awareness for our craft gets misunderstood in our nation a little too much, but I think I understand why.
Cafe culture does not come naturally to Singaporeans. I hope to offer my opinion here to explain why specialty coffee merely gets blank stares, or best guesses here, and how we can better share about our passion. First, let’s compare and contrast the usual western or Aussie lifestyle, and ours to better explain:
Espresso? Simi lai?
Every culture has it’s coffee culture. Take the Americans, who have their coffee from diner batch brews, with milk and sugar. It normally comes straight out of a tower-like machine into a carafe, steaming hot, with a waitress topping up cups all around.
With that, I’ve given you an example of a stereotypical coffee culture image of an everyday coffee. And with that in mind, we quite simply can deduce what our “everyday coffee” is.
In Singapore, our everyday coffee is, and always has been, good old Kopi O/C/Kosong/Siew dai/Ga dai.
Espresso is, by far, probably the sexiest and most popular form of coffee consumption, it’s image promoted by Meryl Streep in her Prada coat strutting about with her Starbucks in hand with poor Anne Hathaway in tow (I really love The Devil Wears Prada, by the way. I’m a chick flick kinda guy). Very common in Australia and the western nations that your cafe is your everyday coffee place. But in Singapore, it’s the Kopitiam.
So going to a cafe is seen somewhat as a luxury and a “whenever I'd like to enjoy and treat myself” sort of thing. Not to mention that a latte is literally 5 times more expensive than what your Kopitiam has to offer.
Cafe culture, and it’s coffee, is simply un-Singaporean. It is unnatural, and I seriously doubt that cafe style coffee can be an everyday coffee in the eyes of the Singaporean.
So can Specialty Coffee be everyday coffee at all?
In my opinion, the key is an everyday coffee lies in accessibility. I was speaking to my good friend Josh from Common Man Coffee Roasters when he said this,”People need to know that specialty coffee is simple… and it’s just better”.
And at that moment I realised. That was it. That was the most distilled, matter-of-fact statement of coffee I’ve been looking for.
Specialty Coffee is simple
We seem to have this idea that “Specialty” is another marketing gig, or term used by pretentious ice cream cafes to get people to order their coffees, and to think their coffee is as fancy and unnecessary as the rest of the menu items (no offence). It is actually an industrial term used to describe coffees that score high enough (above 80 points out of 100) such that they are considered higher quality compared to commodity coffees.
Quality coffee that is well grown, well sourced, well roasted, and well brewed to highlight unique flavours. Doesn’t that sound like what coffee SHOULD be? And with so many great roasters, I see no shortage of great coffee. With so much diversity and flavours in coffee, we should learn to appreciate all instead to drowning it out with sugar or roasting it to a tasteless ash.
So why is it moving so slowly to be adopted? Why do Singaporeans feel alienated and find that specialty coffee is “hipster coffee” and not something that’s just simply a better version of their everyday?
We need education and engagement. And we can show people specialty coffee is interesting, yet not overwhelming. Is not cheap, but great value for money. It comes from a commodity, yet not common and boring.
And it all begins in the cafes, our home turf. As professionals, we should be spending time to speak to our customers. We should get to know them, what they do. We should share with them about their cup of coffee, like where their brew comes from, for example. Pique their interest, and after a while you might see them asking questions.
Why am I such an advocate for specialty coffee? Because I don’t see why such good product that is good value for everyone on the supply chain is being shied away from simply because Kopi is our everyday coffee.
I’m not saying that we should replace Kopi. I’m saying let’s make it clear to people that Specialty Coffee can be great value, is easy and tastes great. Let’s give specialty coffee the attention it deserves.