malaysia kopi shop



Growing up in Singapore, the line between Singapore and Malaysia coffee is a blur. Even to this day, if I ask my friends back home what the difference is, a lot would respond with a shrug of the shoulders. But we all have our preferences, and some would choose Malaysian coffee over Singapore coffee any day.

Malaysia is a big country, and from my experience, various regions have their own way of making coffee. That’s what makes the country’s coffee scene so unique. But just like Singapore, the third wave coffee culture is making its way into the local scene. Will this be a good or bad thing for Malaysia?

The Evolution of Malaysia’s Coffee Scene

Coffee culture in Malaysia can be traced as far back as the 1800s. Just like their tiny neighbouring country, it’s thanks to the immigration of Europeans that local coffee shops called ‘kopitiam’ were created. The word ‘kopitiam’ is a combination of the Malay word ‘kopi’ to mean ‘coffee’, and the Hokkien word ‘tiam’ to mean ‘shop’.

The kopitiam made up the first wave of coffee in Malaysia. These old-style Hainanese coffee shops are something the locals take pride in, even to this day. This is also where the ‘kopi’ came about — in Malaysia, ‘kopi’ is strong, bitter and has a one-dimensional flavour. Beans are roasted dark and coated with butter and sugar for extra aroma.

Fast forward to the late ‘80s and ‘90s, the coffee culture moved on to its second wave of commercialised chains like Starbucks and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Locals were talking more about Ethiopia, Kenya and Guatemala beans; the middle class were flaunting their social status by drinking frappuccinos. There was a massive shift from RM1 kopi from the local kopitiam to RM10 iced lattes at Starbucks.

And then there’s the third wave of coffee that entered the scene about 15 years ago. Malaysians were introduced to never-before-seen coffee machines, exposed to fancy jargon, various seed-to-cup processes, and brewing techniques for baristas to learn. Especially in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur, more and more local and international speciality coffee shops are popping up.

The second wave focuses on fancy latte arts; the third wave emphasises on behind-the-scenes work of roasters and farms. And while that’s all and good, the one that stands out the most is Malaysia’s first wave of kopitiam and kopi.

Singapore vs Malaysia Kopi

If you ask me who was first to create kopi, I won’t be able to answer that. Singapore was once part of Malaysia — together known as Malaya — so technically, both of the countries created the drink. Nowadays, though, you can tell the difference between the local taste buds.

Malaysians love a good full-bodied, bitter black coffee. The Kopi O Kaw is one of their local favourites: extra strong black coffee. In Malaysia, kopi is made with a combination of Robusta and Liberica beans; in Singapore, it’s made with only Robusta. 

Even though some of the older generation in Singapore have similar taste buds to our Malaysian neighbours, I would say that Singaporeans don’t like their kopi too bitter. Sweeter if anything is preferred. 

While some would argue that it’s because the younger generation in Singapore is more accustomed to the Western-style coffee shops, hence the country’s coffee taste buds are more balanced in acidic and bitter flavours, I personally don’t think so. Kopi O is still favoured by many, both young and old generations alike.

Malaysia’s Unique Regional Coffees

What I love about Malaysia is how big it is, and how some regions have made coffee their own way. When I travel to Malaysia with family and friends, we would lookout for the local coffee option, because you can’t get it anywhere else.

The most popular type of regional coffee in Malaysia is the Ipoh white coffee, which originated in Ipoh, Perak. This local coffee can be traced back to the 19th century, and it’s so popular that Lonely Planet named the town as one of the top three coffee towns in Asia. 

Its name didn’t come from coffee beans being white in colour, which is what overseas travellers thought when knowing that the coffee beans are butter-roasted. The name is actually from the colour of the coffee at the end, and it’s white because of the condensed milk stirred into it.

Its name didn’t come from coffee beans being white in colour, which is what overseas travellers thought when knowing that the coffee beans are butter-roasted

There are a few differences between Ipoh white coffee and normal kopi — the main one is that the beans to make Ipoh white coffee are slow roasted with butter only and no sugar is added, while kopi has. This makes it lighter in colour. 

The city Johor also has various local coffee flavours, particularly Kopi 434 and “Cap Televisyen” Kluang Coffee. These two varieties, along with Ipoh white coffee, has manufactured their flavours into instant coffee powder. 

In East Malaysia, particularly Tenom, Sabah, there’s still a bounteous coffee valley. The coffee producers in the area are still roasting their coffee using the traditional way of using firewood. This city is also where most of Liberica beans are grown — Liberica beans make up only 1% of the world’s coffee bean production.

Liberica beans make up only 1% of the world’s coffee bean production.

One memorable cup of coffee I had was in Malacca — it was a gula melaka latte from a third-wave speciality coffee shop, where palm sugar is included in a standard iced latte. It was one of my favourite cups of coffee because even though Malacca didn’t have its own regional flavour of coffee, adding the type of sugar that originated from the city made it seem like it is.


That gula melaka iced latte gave me a glimmer of hope for Malaysia’s coffee scene. According to Bloomberg, the survival of kopitiam in the country is “precarious” due to high rental prices in the country’s capital city. Big chains and the third wave coffee culture may have more means of overcoming this hurdle, unlike the good ol’ kopitiam which sells RM1 coffee. 

But unlike the fear I have for Singapore’s fast-changing coffee scene, I’m not as worried about Malaysia’s. I feel like there’s always going to be a nice granny around the corner selling the familiar flavours and aroma of kopi. 

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