Kopi, Kopi C, Kopi Peng, Kopi Kosong, Kopi O …….no,not for me!!!
When I first came to Penang in 1998 there was no such thing as a Western coffee. The local Kopi, a strong, thick brew made with beans roasted until they were something that resembled a tar for the highway, with the addition of sugar, margarine and sometimes sesame oil was the only coffee available. The roastery would be in the bottom room of an old shophouse with walls and ceilings entirely blackened by years of smoke from the furnace used to heat the huge roasting plate.
As a visitor I was unable to spend more than about 5 mins inside before my stinging eyes and choking lungs would have me racing outside gasping for air. So how did these roasters cope with it every day? What did it do to their long term health?
Nowadays these roasteries still exist but many have upgraded to slightly better exhaust systems and for the sake of tourism they have become more user friendly. Now there’s a huge outlet for sales of flavoured and 3 or 2 in 1 local coffee for overseas markets and not just the local cafes.
I could never drink this thick concoction. The sediment at the bottom of the cup and the sickly sweetness of the condensed milk would leave my stomach wondering what on earth had hit it and that was during the years when I didn’t have a problem with fructose!! Though I must admit that on a few occasions I was rather partial to their Kopi Ice and whether I like the taste of the coffee or not the smell of the beans roasting, often from several streets away, is still pure heaven!
What does concern me is the effect on the health of those that sit in the old coffee shops for hours on end drinking the local brew and more often than not with a cigarette hanging from their lips. In a country that has the highest rate of Diabetes in S.E.Asia then this amount of sugar in an otherwise harmless drink is a somewhat unnecessary addition.
All said and done a lot of people I know are quite happy to drink this stuff ( one friend of ours used to drink up to 10 cups a day) but for me it will never do the trick. For a start most of these roasts are from the Liberica coffee varietal. Originally from Liberia and considered to be an inferior bean it is possibly sweetened to mask the bitter notes.
Liberica makes up about 90% of the coffee plantations throughout Malaysia whilst the other 10% is Robusta, also a lower grade bean and often blended with Arabica to impart more flavour at a lower cost. Although I sometimes don’t mind this blend I’m not partial to Robusta alone as it does boast a higher caffeine content, is more acidic and has a bitter taste.
In the last 5 or so years the Western coffee culture throughout Malaysia has taken off and there’s been a boom in cafes run by entrepreneurial young people. Many have experienced coffee in Melbourne, Sydney or the States whilst studying at Uni, have been lured by the bean and gone back home to try their luck behind a beautiful Synesso Espresso machine.
Some cafes have what it takes and survive. Others that haven’t quite done their homework and don’t realise just how many coffees they need to sell each day to cover costs sadly close within months of the grand opening.
Competition is fierce just as it is in the West, but if everything gels, great food, a passion for serving amazing coffees, a knowledge of the Industry and superb customer service then it seems you can’t go wrong.
And in my experience location doesn’t matter because if all the above are just right then your cafe will be found even if it’s in a field in the middle of nowhere.