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New coffee culture blossoms in SE Asia

Jun 30, 2016, 8:07 AM EDT
Vietnamese Coffee.
(Source: teamgrayduck/flickr)

A coffeehouse in Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, whose owner can now buy locally sourced beans instead of making several overseas trips a year. A  Kashmiri island café/bookstore that attracts scores of tourists as well as locals. An Australia-based trade show that boasts a prime opportunity for attendees to “stake their claim [to a growing] market.”

Welcome to the new face of Southeast Asia’s coffee culture.

Not that coffee itself is new to the region. Its presence traces back to colonial days. In fact, Indonesia, invaded late in the 17th Century by the coffee-mad Dutch, became the first area outside Ethiopia and what was then called Arabia to widely cultivate coffee beans.

What’s new to Southeast Asians are the various coffee-centric rituals that long ago evolved in the West – but with a few local twists. Yes, there’s the early-morning latte and the corner coffeehouse where friends gather. But there’s also the local branch of a multinational coffee company serving as an impromptu office.

Writing in a blog called The Specialty Coffee Chronicle, Bronwen Serna cites the kopitiam, a series of shops and kiosks that hawk strong coffee amid more traditional food items, dotting her neighborhood in Singapore:

“Surrounding my local kopitiam are evolving artsy boutiques, galleries, bakeries, and cafés catering to an ever-increasing and ever-curious new generation of consumer intrigued with Western styles of taste and culture.”

She mentions Vietnam, a former French colony where sit-and-sip coffeehouses offering the house brew, ca phe su da, a.k.a. iced coffee, have existed for decades. Yet here, too, in the country that has become the world’s second-largest coffee producer, a new paradigm is sweeping away the familiar scene.

Thank globalization – or blame it, if you miss the old days and ways. The spread of multinationals like Starbucks – which opened its first outpost outside North America in Tokyo in 1996 – in emerging markets was met with curiosity and enthusiasm for specialty coffee served in starkly modern, comfortable spaces replete with wifi and free(ish) refills. Other chains, including Dunkin’ Donuts, McCafe and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, quickly followed suit.

To the connoisseur, coffee has been, since the early 2000s in its “third wave,” distinguishable from the “second wave,” popularized by the advent of Starbucks, with its dark roasts and ubiquitous, klatch-friendly locales. The third wave is to coffee what the proliferation of microbreweries became for beer – a focus on small-batch, locally sourced harvests that are much more delicate than the house standard at chain stores.

This is coffee for a discerning palate – and where Southeast Asia’s answer to Germany’s kaffeekultur is blossoming. The small coffeehouses that could only watch as the chains muscled in on their territory are marrying old traditions with new trends, taking advantage of the spate of new markets to more easily and cheaply find quality materials and mixing ancient Eastern recipes with newer Western ones to attract a new breed of coffee-lover.  

Chains still dominate there – it’s been reported that the branded coffee-shop market in Southeast Asia will pass 24,000 outlets by 2020. But with consumers now seeking a better-quality brew and eschewing the Western-style coffeehouse experience that so enthralled them at the turn of the century, smaller cafés are eager to take on the multinationals that have transformed their countries’ culture -- sincere in their collective belief that having the home-field advantage, they can beat these Goliaths at their own game.