December 4, 2014

Kopi coffee comparison in Penang, Malaysia

KOPI O – Traditional Coffee from Malaysia

I was recently in Penang, Malaysia, attending an advanced photography story-telling workshop with Obscura Photography Festival,when I had to choose a “photo story”.

Part 1
I have been amazed with the amount of great coffee shops popping up in Penang, but also fascinated with the old “Kopi O” culture that still exists in Penang, so chose to do a comparison between the two.

I had been to Penang not so long ago and happened upon a street that contained a number of coffee warehouses as well as a roasting room, so headed by foot in that direction, to see what I could find. After a number of wrong turns, aching feet, and totally dripping with sweat, I finally found what I was looking for.

I went into an office and introduced myself, explaining my project and was introduced to a lady named Ms Lee. She invited me into their factory, which was dark, hot and amazing.

I arrived just in time to see a batch of Kopi being poured out of the cooker. It reminded me of lava, as it flowed from the machine to a cooling tray that was about 4 metres long by 2.5 metres wide. As three or four men pushed this molten mix out to the edges of the tray with large metal spatulas, the steam coming off this mix was stinking hot, filling the room with smoke that stung your eyes, as your entire face was covered with a thick layer of sweat. There didn’t appear to be a lot of health and safety considerations, but the heat coming off this stuff ensured I kept a safe and careful distance.

The temperature of this mix cooled really quickly, and it was only a matter of minutes until a hammer was passed around between the men to crack off any of the mixture still on their tools, before shattering the remainder of the mix and putting it piece by piece into the first of two machines that ground the coffee down to a coarse powder, then the next grinding it down even further, before putting it into bags ready for packaging.

In the meantime, one of the men started reloading the cooker, which looked like a very large cement mixer, with 25 kg bags of coffee beans, and the same of sugar, margarine, salt and sesame oil. They all get shovelled into this mixer, which cooks and mixes the ingredients for 40 minutes before it’s poured out onto the cooling tray, broken up into chunks, ground down to a powder, and then the whole process starts over again.

Ms Lee told me that a group of Australians were coming in the next morning and asked if I would like to come again. I almost too quickly said, “Yes”.

I had taken a few hundred photos of the process and was keen to get back to my hotel room to edit them and show them to my tutor. My tutor was impressed, but made some suggestions for even better shots. I declined his suggestion of getting in a lot closer, getting close ups of the men working, as the thought of this molten mix ending up on top of me was horrifying, but I took his suggestion of using the amazing light to my advantage and getting silhouettes of the workers.

I was pleased I had accepted the offer of coming in again the next morning, this time going directly to the location without the hour long wanderings around the streets looking for where it was located.  I arrived earlier than the other Australians, so was invited in for a taste of the Kopi O. Whenever I finished my cup, it was refilled, which was a little reminiscent of something out of Alice in Wonderland (or was that just because I was given a tiny stool to sit on to drink it?) Fortunately before I was totally bloated the others arrived, who happened to be a group of retirees from Melbourne on holidays, who had somehow gotten an invitation to the factory, so we were taken back into the factory to see the process. Now I was one of 14 people in this crowded workplace, so the OH&S issues were multiplied 14-fold! I had my tutor’s words going through my head, so I pushed to the front and wedged myself against a wall as close as I dared to the action. It paid off, with some amazing shots!

After thanking my hosts and declining the offer of yet more coffee, I headed off to get shots for the rest of my project. For the next few days I sat at local makan stalls (the Malaysian word for food), at all times of the day, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. I was shouted many a Kopi O, which personally isn’t to my taste, but I couldn’t just front up and take photos of everyone I met and every Kopi I saw, without joining in.

Kopi O is stewed in an open vessel with a very long handle, then poured into traditional coffee cups and condensed milk is added. It is hot, thick, strong, and sweet! It is also served black (just Kopi) or cold (Kopi ice) in a plastic bag with ice and tied at the top with a elastic band with a straw poking though the top – great for hanging on the handle bars of you motor bike!

Kopi O (white coffee) sells for about 1.70MYR (about 55 cents) and these stalls are constantly packed. The locals will stop for one a number of times a day. It isn’t restricted to one socio-economic group, as you will find professionals, street cleaners and everything in between sitting around enjoying their Kopi … or Teh Terak (white tea, stretched out by pouring between two vessels until it becomes frothy). There are also a mix of Malays, Chinese and Indians filling the tables … oh, and me! I must admit they all thought it funny with this foreign white lady joining them, but I was always welcome whenever I turned up.

OK, half way there – now off to visit the new coffee shops!

Part 2

As the second part of my project for my Advanced Photography Story-telling workshop with the Obscura Photography Festival in  Penang, I was to compare old style Kopi O, that has been such a huge tradition in Malaysia and particularly Penang for a hundred years and the explosion of amazing coffee shops that were appearing in Georgetown, Penang.

I locked in a lot of great photos of the old style Kopi on my first couple of days and unfortunately my tutor, Justin Mott, was so impressed with my effort he wouldn’t settle for anything less going forward … so after setting the bar so high, I was up for the challenge of getting some amazing shots for my “new” comparison.

This involved finding great coffee shops and drinking some amazing coffee. OK – not too big a task, but after a couple days overdosing on Kopi O, I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. The workshop was being held in China House Café, which has quite a reputation around Penang, but no matter how many coffees I ordered, I never got one worthy of a photograph.  So off I went and found a few reasonable shops on my own, before calling in a favour and ending up with a list of 20 names and addresses from the 100 coffee shops in Penang.

The first place I went was to Secawan ‘n’ Such, which is an amazing space just out of the city on Hutton Street, with high ceilings, white painted walls, some adorned with graffiti (which Penang is becoming well known for), three distinct rooms, amazing light and an old lift up the back to bring food down from the kitchen above.  They also hope to begin roasting onsite some time in the future.  Although only being opened a few months and not having done any advertising, no matter what time of the day I was there the place was always busy. Their food menu was limited but exceptional, if the eggs benedict is anything to go by. Both of the owners had gone to uni in Melbourne and were determined to reproduce what they had loved down there. The barista and co-owner Kishen was so welcoming, happy to chat, show me around and let me take as many photos as I wanted. He also made an amazing latte!

The next place I went was The Twelve Cups; it is in the heart of the city along Beach Road. The Twelve Cups is a very modern, open style coffee shop with some iron art on the wall, great lighting and amazing coffee. They also do desserts with art drawn on each plate with chocolate – a really nice touch. When I first asked if I could take photos, they got on the phone and had their head barista pop in to make me a coffee, to make sure it would be perfect. I was there early and the place only had a couple of customers, so I was able to move this poor coffee to different places around the room to get the best light. By the time I was happy with my results, I sat down to drink my well travelled latte, which was great, although by this time a little cold. I popped back in a few times over the next few days and ended up with some shots and some great coffees.

I also wanted to photograph some roasters to compare against my “old” style roasters, so hounded some people to get me details and found a few places that roasted on site. One of them was Coffee Affairs, in Bishop Street.  Arriving early to have a look around, I was delighted to try their cold press coffee, served on a wooden board in a wine decanter with a wine glass filled with large coffee bean shaped ice cubes, sugar syrup and a funky bent spoon.  The only improvement on this could have been a bar of chocolate, and I think I would have thought I had died and gone to heaven!

Again, the ambience was great and although they only do coffee and cakes, they do great coffee and cakes! Aside from espresso and cold press they also do syphon coffee, which on a later visit I had the pleasure of trying. I popped back in the next day to meet their manager/owner Fenson, who learnt about coffee and roasting in South Korea and was happy to share his knowledge with me. He is very proud of his work and also trains other coffee shops to ensure top quality coffees are produced across Penang.

I was privileged to watch and photograph three different roasts, which was amazing and very kind of him. I also popped back in on Friday afternoon searching for one more perfect photo, and Fenson was kind enough to make a syphon for me to photograph as well as drink. It was amazing to watch and was only surpassed by the taste. I really appreciate Fenson and his staff’s kindness and help.

There was just one more roaster that I wanted to meet and photograph: Victor Leong from Lighthouse Coffee. Victor is the president of the newly formed Malaysian Specialty Coffee Association, as well as the Managing Director of Lighthouse Coffee, that runs a Barista Academy alongside his roasting business. I had heard of Lighthouse Coffee many times and when I finally squeezed in a visit to their setup, just prior to my project deadline, I was not disappointed. With a totally professional fitout, Victor’s setup was similar to roasteries I had seen previously back in Australia. He was great at explaining the entire process to me, from the green beans and how they were stored, to sample roasting, onto their big roaster, then to taste an espresso in their training room.

Needless to say, I got some amazing photos. I met my deadline, with a project that I was really proud of, as well as having met some fantastic people, drunk some amazing coffee, and learnt so much. All in all, a week well spent.
Story by Annette Dutton


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