GROWING UP IN THE SINGAPORE COFFEE SCENE

I grew up with piping hot coffee served to me in a plastic bag with a straw popping out on top. Back in the good ol’ days of Singapore, what is now known as speciality coffee was reserved for the rich bunch. Heck, even to this day, people I know back home won’t pay more than three bucks for a caffeine fix.

Singapore’s coffee scene is a unique one, and I’m not being biased because I’m a local. The Singapore we hear of now has a mix of traditional coffee shops and modern cafes that make up the coffee culture. Singaporeans are constantly brought back to their roots with ‘kopitiam’, sipping the familiar flavours of ‘kopi’. But while this age-old tradition of kopitiam is at the heart and soul of locals, the Lion City is also seeing the third wave of coffee weaving its way into the local coffee scene.

How did the Singapore coffee scene come about, and what is it evolving into?

Origins of Singapore Coffee Scene

It’s only fair to look back at how coffee came into this island nation. Some might describe Singapore as a seamless blend of East and West, new and old. Even in the coffee culture, it’s true. In fact, it might be the perfect example.

The local coffee culture can be traced back to the country’s colonial past. When Singapore opened its doors in the 19th century, the British, Portuguese, Dutch and French arrived. And with them, came the springing up of coffee shops to serve the European working population. These coffee shops are more popularly known as ‘kopitiam’, and it’s similar to Europe and Australia where people sit around and discuss life over a cup of brew.

The local coffee culture can be traced back to the country’s colonial past.

Europe’s taste for coffee, combined with local preferences for the brew, created the ‘kopi’: black coffee made with roasted beans in a wok with butter, mixed with sugar and condensed milk.

The Kopitiam

The word ‘kopitiam’ comes from the Malay word for ‘coffee’ which is ‘kopi’ and the Hokkien word for ‘shop’ which is ‘tiam’. To this day, these coffee shops are still present in Singapore. Nowadays, you can get a mix of old and new kopitiam — the old school ones are easily recognisable with marble top tables, overhead fans and tiles that look like they were from someone’s grandmother’s kitchen.

The more modern kopitiams are usually surrounded by a few other food stalls, complete with AC and better tiles. The word ‘kopitiam’ now is more associated with a food court or hawker centre, rather than just a coffee shop. There’s always food served with it.

Regardless of when the coffee shop opened, the atmosphere is the same: coffee orders are yelled across tables, loud chitchats from various groups of both young and old locals, and the aroma of freshly brewed kopi, coupled with the whiff of kaya (coconut spread) and butter toasted bread — a signature pairing. (For me and my family, it’s a cup of kopi with roti prata, a type of Indian influenced flatbread.)

Even to this day, the best way to hang out with friends and family is with a cup of kopi at the local kopitiam. Regardless of age, this is what we know as the local coffee culture.

‘kopi’: black coffee made with roasted beans in a wok with butter, mixed with sugar and condensed milk.

Coffee vs Kopi

Kopi is coffee, in the Malay language anyway. But it’s not the same as everywhere else in the world. It’s not espresso, and it’s technically not the traditional drip coffee either.

The kopi was invented because the locals wanted to cater to the European working population back in the day. The West were more accustomed to Arabica beans for the premium brew, but they were too expensive for the locals to get their hands on. What they could manage was Robusta beans from Indonesia.

Robusta beans are generally more bitter, so the locals had to be creative. To counter the bitter taste, they roasted the beans with butter, and then strained through a sock made from a small cloth that acts as an infuser. Afterwards, sugar was added. To give the drink an even more caramelised finish, they added condensed milk.

While that’s the standard ‘kopi’, you can quite literally get dozens of ways to serve coffee at the kopitiam. The basic ‘kopi’ can be served without condensed milk but with sugar, and it’s called Kopi O; kopi with milk but no sugar is called Kopi C. The list can go on and on.

Your local kopi guy might not remember your name, but he definitely remembers your order and starts making it as soon as he sees you walking in.

Rise of the Third Wave Coffee

The kopitiam will always have a place in the hearts of locals and tourists alike, but that’s not going to stop the third wave of coffee from making its way into the local coffee scene. This newer scene of speciality coffee can also be uniquely Singapore. I know I’m guilty of opting for the espresso-based latte over the familiarity of kopi.

Locals and permanent residents who have trotted the globe have been bringing back with them the barista expertise that they learned abroad. More and more coffee shops featuring high tech fancy coffee machines have been opening up since the late 2000s, from tourist attracted areas to more residential neighbourhoods.

Our standard kopi can cost anywhere between $1 to $3, depending on which neighbourhood you’re buying it from. But to spend more than $5 on coffee…some are more hesitant than others, especially when the coffee is not as sweet tasting as kopi.

From my own observation and experience, it did take time for locals to open their arms to the likes of espresso and drip. The younger generation, like with other things, is more willing to try new things. If I were to bring my 80-year-old grandparents to a coffee shop that serves lattes and flat whites, they would drag me to the nearest kopitiam pronto.

They roasted the beans with butter, and then strained through a sock

Conclusion

To be fair, though, a number of these third-wave coffee shops are opened by the younger generation. In comparison, the first wave of kopitiams is still owned by the older generation. While, currently, there’s a nice balance between old and new, I personally find this shift in the coffee scene a bit worrying.

Singapore is a fairly new country, but it already has a unique coffee culture. What happens if that’s overtaken by the third wave? What would the fourth wave of coffee in Singapore’s coffee scene look like?

Author

  • Azra Syakirah spends much of her time travelling asia, photographing and writing about cafe's and coffee experiences. She has lived in Malaysia, Singapore, and more recently Japan, where she resides in the capital, Tokyo.

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