Just like any major metropolis, Starbucks and McCafe chain stores are difficult to avoid in Kuala Lumpur, but cast your net a little wider and you won’t be disappointed.
The Malaysian capital is not likely to come up on any list of top coffee cities, but KL offers an adventurous range of coffee experiences, from the resolutely local, the unique and experimental, to the roasters that are determined to go toe-to-toe with the world’s best.
Malaysia’s robust coffee culture has its roots in the traditional neighbourhood coffeeshop, or kopitiam. For many Malaysians, kickstarting the day with breakfast at the local kopitiam is a regular communal experience, and the atmosphere is friendly and warm.
The local brew is rich, smooth and roasted with various exotic ingredients like butter or margarine, corn and palm sugar for a full-bodied taste that can be drunk black or with sweetened condensed milk, hot or cold, with equal ease.
For a classic taste, head to Ho Kow Hainan Kopitiam along Jalan Balai Polis, just a stone’s throw away from KL’s famous Petaling Street. Originally run from a stall, the shop has been going strong since 1956.
The owner, Ho Kow, 77, still comes in every day to chat to regulars and greet the new customers that seek out this well-known spot.
“The coffee comes from a supplier in Jalan Ipoh,” Ho says. “It’s the same since we first opened. I’ve never changed it.”
Ah Weng Koh Hainan Tea & Coffee is another crowd-pleaser, in operation since 1964 from a market stall in Bukit Bintang to its current home at the Pudu ICC.
Besides its classic local coffee blend, it is known for a concoction that mixes coffee and tea. It takes a little getting used to, but is a perfect accompaniment to the regular kopitiam breakfast of half-boiled eggs and thick slices of crisp toasted bread slathered with coconut jam and butter.
“It’s a special Hainan brew called ‘cham’,” says Danny Kam, grandson of the original founder, who now runs daily operations. “By mixing tea and coffee, you get this unique layering of tastes.”
After nearly six years in business, Feeka Coffee Roasters has hit upon a winning formula. Operating from a converted townhouse in Bukit Bintang, the third wave coffeeshop has built a base of loyal regulars.
“Just like the kopitiams that our parents grew up with, we want this to be a place for friends,” Johann Razali, Feeka’s Community Manager, says. “A place of happiness, with people who know you, that you can trust and be comfortable with.”
Responding to local sensibilities has also extended to the roasting profiles of the house blends, without sacrificing quality.
In the same spirit, the food is equally well-thought-out, offering Western dishes that balance comfort food with a touch of sweetness that appeals to Malaysian tastes.
A short walk away, VCR café discovered the need to provide full meals after a year with only specialty coffees and cakes as Malaysians are used to enjoying food over coffee.
Now in business for over six years, VCR serves arguably the best artisanal coffee in the city centre, offering signature blends and single-origin coffees, all sourced from only highly-rated harvests. They have their own roasters on-site, allowing them to carefully control the quality of their coffee.
In Berlin this year, VCR became the first Malaysian delegate to exhibit as a roastery at the World Coffee Event, the foremost international showcase for coffee.
Love for Liberica
The vast majority of coffee in the world comes from Arabica and Robusta beans, but Jason Liew, an adventurous Malaysian agriculturalist, decided to tackle the little-known Liberica variety, which accounts for only one percent of coffee production in the world.
He started by growing Liberica trees in his father’s fruit farm, and My Liberica was born. Today, the seed to cup enterprise runs a 50-acre plantation in Johor that services four cafes in Johor Bahru and one in Sunway Velocity mall, Kuala Lumpur.
The strong character of Liberica coffee makes it ideal to stabilize coffee blends, giving a clean and long-lasting finish, familiar to Malaysians as that thick satisfying sensation known as “gao”.
A unique feature of Liberica beans is their ability to absorb flavors from external sources, from as early as the pollination stage, which can happen with other species like banana trees, leaving a hint of a banana flavor infused into the finished coffee. During fermentation, Liew has experimented with spraying calamansi juice on his beans for an added citrus note.
The family-run business handles everything from planting trees, picking beans, drying and fermentation, roasting, brewing and even creating unique coffee confections.