July 31, 2013

Coffee & Cafe trends in Asia

In the past 6 to 8 years the number of cafés sprouting and opening in countries across Asia, namely in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam have grown tremendously. Back in 2005/6, the only decent cafés serving espresso-based beverages were always serving Italian brand coffee such as Illy, or Lavazza. Today, we are seeing independent cafés mushrooming in major cities of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Jakarta, Bandung, Ho Chih Minh. Having said that, the consumption of coffee in these countries are mainly still the traditional styled local coffee made from roasting Robusta coffee with margarine and sugar, with the occasional addition of corn to make the end product cheaper. So, what is driving the specialty coffee and café scene in these cities?

Let’s begin where the source of the café scene is most influential to these parts of the world; namely, Australia, the U.K. and the United States. In these countries, there is almost a café on every corner. There is no lack of good, decent cafés that serve their beverages with passion and purpose. Each café could easily generate and serve 200-300 cups of coffee in a couple of hours during the morning rush in the cities of Seattle, New York, London, Sydney and Melbourne. Baristas working here are not only honed in their knowledge of coffee, but also in the speed and precision of pulling those shots for the office executives that are in a hurry and doing it with a warm smile and familiarity towards their loyal customers.These countries also showcase regular barista competitions that allows the barista to showcase their knowledge, skills and creativity in the preparation of the coffee of their choice on a stage performance to enthusiastic crowds. It is like a theatre of sorts to watch and observe these baristas display their craft and skills while serving a panel of judges. The most prestigious of all would be for a barista to win their local national competitions and represent their countries at the World Barista Competition (WBC) held annually at different cities around the world. These events serve as great marketing platforms for creating the awareness of the craft of a barista and the cafés they are working in. Every champion of the WBC becomes a superstar and a role model for all baristas around the world to emulate, and their café also becomes the place to be. The barista competitions therefore play an important role in creating awareness and setting the trends of coffee offering and the style of offering. It has lifted the status of a barista from just a coffee maker to a BARI-STAR status.

A recent trip to assist in the hosting of a national competition in Malaysia in April 2013 was an eye-opener to the much-improved standards of the baristas compared to a year ago in 2012. I had an opportunity to interview the winner of the competition, Jason Loo.

1. Hi Jason. Give us a brief background about yourself and what inspired you to become a barista.

I was previously working as a chef and also a self taught pastry chef. I took a short trip to Australia and was impressed by the coffee scene there. It inspired me to let go of my job as a chef and start all over again as a barista.

2. What are your thoughts of the coffee scene in Malaysia, and where do you think it will head? Do you see specialty coffee taking over the local kopi culture? 

The specialty coffee scene here is definitely picking up, as there have been a lot of new specialty cafés opening up in recent years, and I think it will continue this way in years to come. The world is now a smaller place, and we are all exposed to new things every day; the demand for specialty coffee will increase in years to come. The older generation might still prefer the local kopi, but with the uptake from the younger generation, the appreciation of specialty coffee will grow even more in the future.

3. What sort of preparations did you have to do to compete confidently in this recent Malaysia Barista Competition? Anyone that helped you along?

Competition is about knowing how far one’s skills can go. I have studied hard on the rules and regulations to make sure I understand it thoroughly. And I have also watched a lot of videos on the barista competition to gain as much knowledge as possible. I gained a lot of understanding of the competition by asking around and speaking to other experienced baristas. Being passionate about it (the craft) and lots of practice helps to build my confidence too.

4. What was your overall impression of the competition and how it was run?

I found this year’s competition fairly tough, as the standard had increased compared to last year. It was compatible to the WBC standard. I would say it was a success, as it ran smoothly and systematically.

5. What do you think are the most important aspects of being a successful barista?

The most important thing about being a barista is to have the passion and love for your profession.

6. What’s next for you now that you’ve become the champ? Any inspirational thoughts for those who are thinking of picking up or pursuing the craft?

I have a lot more to learn about coffee. Being a champ, it’s not easy to hold the title; therefore, I’m still constantly learning everything about coffee. I hope one day to become a roaster. For those who are new in this industry, constantly learning, and being passionate with what you are doing, believe in yourself and you will find yourself somewhere in coffee.

The transmission of the news and results of the competition or competitions across the globe is lightning fast, thanks to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The trend for the next coffee, signature beverage, style of presentation, techniques, are born and followed by hundreds of thousands of baristas, coffee aficionados and café operators across the world.

In the Asian countries where coffee is still a growing market, the young 20s-30s are mostly well travelled, with many having studied and graduated from countries such as, you’ve guessed it, the U.K., U.S., and Australia. They are social media savvy and most importantly, entrepreneurial. Most of them want to be their own boss and look at operating their own café because it is a lifestyle product, sexy, less cost-prohibitive casual set-up and less formal to operate as compared to a restaurant. And they are avid trend followers. So, the competitions and social media twittering and Facebook posting of their personal experiences in cafés here and there, coupled with the fetish of posting photos of food on Facebook with every single dish that arrives have hyped and increased the perceived glamour and excitement of operating their own café.

Spending time travelling across Asia, one cannot help but observe the tell tale similarities of design, look and feel of the cafés and menu offerings in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, most of which follow closely those in Australia, the U.S. and U.K. For those cafés in Japan, Korea and Taiwan, they are, however, more independently styled and have their own food menu that is more localised. One key reason for this is their customer base.

In China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, specialty coffee consumption is by the expatriates and tourists. The locals have a more economical alternative and that is their traditional coffee that costs less than 20-25% of the price of a specialty coffee beverage. And over many years, coffee shops serving such low-cost caffeinated beverages have grown into the thousands within the city. They were already there more than a century ago. Locals practically grew up with them. So these traditional coffees are very accessible in terms of price and location, and they have a deep and long cultural acceptance. And hence for the cafés to attract the smaller pool of expatriate and tourist consumers, in these countries they tend to offer a food menu that their target consumers are familiar with.

In Japan, Korea and Taiwan, the specialty coffee consumption is supported largely by their own local population, because there is no alternative like the traditional coffee in the earlier countries mentioned. As a result, they have no need to emulate those of Australia, the U.K. or U.S. Their deco and food are more reflective of the café operator’s own style as well as local culture and what their locals are familiar with.

A common trend remains, however, in the area of coffee offering. Cafés are now serving and raving about single origins instead of espresso blends. This is because single origins were used during the barista competitions and now across Australia, the U.K. and U.S. in well-known cafés that barista champions work in. Cafés in Asian countries follow the same, but it remains to be seen whether the single origin offerings are a trend or will be here to stay.

Most of the specialty coffee cafés here in Asia are still battling for the market against the culturally deep-seated and very affordable local traditional coffee. Just for comparison, an Australian café in the city uses up to 10 kg – 40 kg of coffee per day.  An Asian café would be doing well if they hit these figures in 1 week or less, and others, in a month. So, there is still a long way for the espresso-based beverage to become the mainstream in the lifestyle of the population.

Cafés that offer single origin coffees add a further dimension of complexity to their operations, along with a potential barrier created by the taste buds of the local palate. Traditional coffees are often non-acidic and are rather heavy bodied. Single origin filter coffees are often served as a medium roast with very noticeable acidity as compared to traditional coffee. And, the body of the single origins filter brew is nowhere near those of the traditional coffee. As a result, local palates will describe single origins as sour and too light, and not to mention, too expensive (given that some of them are exotic coffees or cup of excellence grade) and take too long to prepare as compared to traditional coffee.

It’s no wonder that most single origin coffee served in cafés in Asia are accompanied by a lengthy presentation of the coffee and its brewing process so as to prepare the customer psychologically to better accept the beverage. Some cafés also resort to serving these coffees in wine glasses, using that as a means to justify the high price of each cup, or glass in this case.

It is great to see specialty cafés growing in numbers across the Asian region, but the question remains whether the trend is sustainable or just a passing fad given the uphill task of overcoming the cultural and economical challenges presented by local traditional coffee in their respective countries. I believe it depends on whether these traditional coffee purveyors will re-invent themselves to become more appealing to the younger generation, because the world of specialty coffee is already on the path of global domination.

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