The Rise of Singapore's Third-Wave Coffee Culture

Three mugs of coffee are placed side by side. One comprises instant coffee granules, another from Starbucks, and the third is a poured-over Chemex filter with a single-origin washed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. Which will you pick? Is there a distinction?

Bag full of coffee beans
Photo by Tina Guina on Unsplash

These seemingly simple cups of coffee, in reality, encapsulate three significant chapters in the history of the coffee trade. The first wave focuses on the mass production of Arabica coffee. It encompasses the period from the 1800s to the postwar years.

The second wave was notable for popularizing coffee as a social lifestyle tool, aided by the Californian coffee chain Peet's and the Seattle-based Starbucks. However, it is increasingly being superseded by the coffee habits of entering third-wave consumers.

Third-wave coffee emerged in the 1990s with the establishments of Intelligentsia in Chicago, Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Blue Bottle Coffee in Oakland, and Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in San Francisco. When you ask anyone what third-wave coffee is, they all answer "specialty coffee," which means nothing.

Third-wave coffee culture has two components, like the wine or food industries. One is conscious consumerism, which includes traceability, transparency, social and environmental footprints, and fair trade coffee beans. And two, a nod to the natural flavors of coffee beans, as produced via strict preparation apparatus and processes.

Highlander Coffee was founded in 2004 by brothers Phil and Cedric Ho, who supplied coffee beans and equipment.

However, it took four years for the dam to fail. Keith Loh launched Oriole Coffee in 2008. Leon Foo launched Papa Palheta a year later. Adrian Khong founded Jewel Coffee two years later. Surrounding these leading players were several others, like Jimmy Monkey and Common Man Coffee Roasters.

Leon Foo had a huge following when he opened Papa Palheta on Hooper Road in 2009. He was thinking about conscious consumption and if farmers were fairly compensated, which farm or micro-lot produced which coffee. It was all about tracking. But coffee was more than just a commodity. It unites countries by tightening the global production chain. It connects producing countries to consumers - the first world to the third... Coffee transcends communities. Foo did not go on a campaign to publicize his philosophy and instead left it unspoken. However, it appears to have secretly resonated with the people.

Adrian Khong traveled to the United States while Leon Foo apprenticed with a local traditional coffee roaster, Tan Tiong Hoe. He attended a coffee roasting class at Heart Coffee Roasters and visited other specialty coffee shops.

Coffee Blends And Single-Origin Coffees

A year later, when he started Jewel Coffee, he offered two single-origin coffees daily. Every four to five days, the cuisine changed. It was contentious at the time since other local specialty stores served house blends instead. Papa Palheta by Leon Foo was constantly pushing their house blend Terra Firma. "At the time, the notion was that if you own a coffee business, you should have a blend so that the taste draws customers in." "It's something they're used to and will get used to," Khong said.

But he wanted to replicate the progress he saw in the United States. And, in theory, specialized coffee is comparable to chateau wine or single-malt whiskey - the more particular and pure it is, the better it gets.

"Single-origin means from a location, which can be as particular as a farm." At the very least, a region like Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, or Harrar. But, on the other hand, you can be as specific as a finca- a Latin American farm. "With wine, you can do a Bordeaux, Burgundy, or go all the way to a Chateau," Khong explained. And exact traceability necessitates transparency and, of course, flavor character.

The concept of single-origin is terra - similar to wine. Weather, soil conditions, post-harvesting methods, and coffee bean varietals that are ideal for that place would define the taste," he concluded.

Khong served single-origin coffees from Tanzania, Kenya, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Peru at the time. He was taken aback by how well frequent customers recognized flavor variations and called him out when the menu didn't change.

Local tastes are more discriminating than ever. For example, coffee drinkers can now distinguish the flavor qualities of many single-origin coffees. On the opposite end of the supply chain, coffee shops are moving away from mass-targeted house mixes and toward personalized service that caters to each customer's preferences. Nylon Coffee Roasters, a well-known independent coffee roaster, is one of them.

Nylon tucked away in Everton Park's picturesque suburb, is an acronym for New York and London's coffee cultures, where owners Dennis Tang and Lee Jia Min formerly lived and worked.

When they returned to Singapore, they both wanted to recreate the coffee cultures they had experienced, so they worked in cafes to gain experience. They joined Leon Foo at Papa Palheta near the end of 2009. Tang stayed at Papa Palheta while Lee went to work at the central bank. Nylon Coffee Roasters first opened its doors in 2011. Later, a house blend called Four Chairs was released, perfectly reflecting Nylon's personality.

Nylon has since moved on from Four Chairs. However, the blend has established such a strong flavor profile that even without a house blend, regulars recognize the unmistakable Nylon palate in their single-origin coffees.


It all comes down to the coffee beans used and the roasting procedures used. The flavor of high-quality coffee beans is dictated by the conditions of the terrain they were planted. And roasting brings out different aspects of these flavors. "We aim to bring out the sweetness." The crowd is still finding it challenging. The majority of them believe coffee is harsh. We're attempting to alter people's perceptions of how coffee should taste. It's becoming more common. People are starting to notice how much sweetness comes through. "We try not to roast it too dark because it becomes harsh, and you need sweetness," Tang added. Aside from roasting, he observes that post-harvesting operations of green coffee beans also contribute significantly to flavor profiles.

The art of coffee roasting is not just for specialists. In Singapore, there is a community of home roasters. "It started with a couple of us," Tang explained. However, an increasing number of individuals are beginning to roast coffee. They started with roasting for themselves to make [the flavors] more distinct... Then they realize that if they buy a machine like this, they will have a lot of spare capacity."

The Household Roasters

In 2014, Alex Chong and Tiffany Chan founded The Tiny Roaster. Roasting, according to Chan, is straightforward and methodical - as long as there is heat, you can roast green coffee beans. Chan would load green coffee beans into the Whirley-pop, place the pot over a fire, and spin the rotating wand constantly to distribute heat evenly. The beans expand as they brown. And, like popcorn kernels, the coffee beans will burst open with a loud 'pop'.

Green coffee beans were difficult to obtain by in Singapore at the time. So Chan would import small batches of beans from Sweet Maria's e-commerce site in the United States. She eventually pooled orders from online communities of like-minded home roasters. They purchased larger quantities to share with other coffee roasters. As a result, they launched a blog and an online store. Chan bought in quantity - 11 or 12 gunny sacks of green coffee weighing 70 kg. Its purpose was to reduce high freight expenses.

She recalls well that it was a burgeoning but still small town. And they were an adventurous group, open to new and strange green coffees imported by Chan. They went out of their way to find and test new coffees. The goal of home roasting is to bring out the underlying natural flavors of coffee beans. "You appreciate coffee for what it truly is, which is how various growers process different coffees to make them taste different," Chan explained.

How can the flavor profiles of a green coffee bean be predicted? Aside from terrain, as Nylon Coffee Roaster's Dennis Tang has indicated, post-harvesting techniques greatly influence the flavor character of the beans. The purpose of post-harvesting is to convert red coffee cherry fruits into green coffee beans.

Post-Harvesting Procedures

There are three basic procedures. The wash process, natural process, and honey process are all options.

"The washed procedure entails picking coffee cherries from coffee plants. Then, they're cultured in a water tank. Next, the meat of cherries is mechanically separated from the bean, and the beans are dried to reduce moisture - to 12%. And that is how the beans are delivered to us. The washing process produces a pure flavor profile compared to natural and honey procedures."

The natural process is at the other extreme of the spectrum. The cherry is dried entire, with the flesh still attached. It is traditionally sun-dried on coffee estates' raised beds and patios. Citrus flavors are scorched into the coffee seed in this manner. It takes some time, but it is worthwhile "The taste is fruity and full-bodied. This cup is thicker, murkier, and quite delicious.

The honey process exists between the two. Various amounts of the flesh are dried onto the coffee bean. [The farmers] may opt to remove 25% of the fuselage, leaving you with 75% dried on. The end result is still a thick-bodied cup, but not as much as the 100%. Variations of 20% and 80% are possible.

Chan believes that discovering new coffees and making something with them is what home roasters appreciate.

"Blends are complicated - mathematically. It's a single-origins harmonization. "Sometimes single-origins conflict with single-origins."

Chan advocates maximizing the longevity of coffee beans for both novices and veterans. Invest in a small grinder; always buy whole beans rather than ground coffee, as ground coffee oxidizes quickly.

After roasting, beans are often left for three days to degas, which is why there is a degassing valve inside sealed coffee packaging. Do filtered pour-overs for the first 10 days after getting the beans. Use an Aeropress from the 10th to the 21st day. And from the 21st to the 30th day, it's cold brew - soak coffee grounds in room temperature water for a day or two and store in the fridge.

"Various machines require different ages of coffee. Coffee matures over time."

Subscription to Coffee

The coffee subscription works similarly to any other specialty coffee shop, except that barista tasks are delegated to the drinkers. Whole beans or ground arrive in 200-gram bags at the two-year-old Hook Coffee.

And subscription is an oddly appropriate business for a commodity that revolves around freshness. If you think about it, it's a perfect fit. The subscription concept complements the roasted coffee model perfectly. You want to ensure it's fresh and consistent - little amounts, and frequently.Perk Coffee was launched in 2016 by Paul Berthelsen.

Coffee beans are frequently purchased in modest quantities to stay fresh in the kitchen. It's a daily necessity for some, but repeated excursions to the roaster's prove inconvenient. Subscription fills that void.

He believes that, when combined with e-commerce, this newfangled subscription model will offer a new layer of growth to the local specialty coffee market. Berthelsen reveals that he is experiencing a 20% monthly growth.

Brick-and-mortar specialty coffee shops have grown, consolidated, and matured during the last decade. So, could subscriptions be the future of Singapore's third-wave coffee culture? Berthelsen muses, looking for the proper word.