Malaysian coffee has a strong, slightly bitter but highly aromatic flavour, which comes from liberica and robusta beans varieties and the way the beans are roasted. In Malaysia, they roast twice – first, the beans are roasted the traditional way before being roasted with sugar and butter.
Malaysians love their coffee. Kopitiam, the coffee shops, often run by descendants of Chinese immigrants, is where the locals like spending their time. They are often found sitting for hours around marble tables drinking coffee and reading newspapers or chatting with friends, with ceiling fans whirring above their heads.
It is quite surprising that coffee became so popular in Malaysia, the country colonised by the English, the world-known tea drinkers. But Malaysian coffee, pronounced “kopi” in Bahasa Malaysia, is a world apart from cappuccino, espresso or flat white – it is strong, thick and bitter.
The distinctive taste of Malaysian coffee comes from the beans and the way they are roasted. In Malaysia, they mainly use liberica beans variety as well as robusta, which produce strong and earthy coffee. Made by pouring boiling water through the coffee grounds held in the sock, a traditional cloth filter, it is drunk hot or iced, black, with copious amounts of sugar (traditional kopi-O) or with condensed milk (simply kopi).
Curious to see the way they roast coffee, I tried to locate a traditional coffee roaster but many closed their business, turned into a museum or moved far away from Georgetown. When I was about to give up, I received the address of Kun Kee factory.
Located among historic shophouses in Georgetown, Kun Kee is one of the oldest traditional coffee roasters in Penang. Their famous brand made from robusta coffee beans, Salute Kopi O, with its iconic logo of the saluting navy officer, is found everywhere in Malaysia. Since the start of their business in the 1950s, they have grown from a small family owned coffee roaster into a large coffee producer in Malaysia supplying their coffee all over the country and even overseas.
Today, the company is run by the second-generation coffee producer, who has inherited the trade from his father, who left China for Penang before the Japanese occupation of Hainan. Through this hardworking and perseverance, he was promoted from a simple employer to the coffee business owner.
With the pre-arrangement made a day earlier, I arrived to the Kun Kee coffee roaster premises when the first jute coffee bags were being loaded in the truck ready to be delivered to clients.
In the meantime, the coffee roasting was about to start. In Malaysia, the coffee roasting is done twice giving the coffee low acidity and earthy taste. In the first place, the beans are roasted the traditional way until they become dark brown.
After the first roasting, the beans are roasted again, this time with sugar and butter, however, for cheaper, lower quality coffee, butter is replaced with margarine. Apparently, butter and sugar were traditionally used to disguise the taste of cheap liberica beans. This Malay traditional coffee roasting method gives the coffee its special aroma and taste, a distinctively burnt and slightly bitter flavour, highly aromatic and heavy in body.
The premises are quite dark and smoky. The coffee beans are being roasted making smoke billow up and creating an intense, thick aroma.
The mixture of coffee beans, sugar and butter is roasted and constantly stirred until it becomes a dark sludge. It is then poured into a large metal tray, where it is cooled by fans and blowers. Now, the sludge becomes a solid mixture, which looks like tar. It is then broken into large pieces with flat shovels, run through a machine to break it into smaller pieces before being passed through the grinding machine to become the coffee powder.
For the next few mornings, drinking my usual cup of kopi-O, every sip of coffee reminded me of the smoky room, intense aroma and a dedication of just a handful of men, who, day by day, patiently roast their famous coffee.
Location: Coffee roaster Kun Kee can be found at 20, Jalan Cheong Fatt Tze in Georgetown in Penang state of Malaysia.