Coffee has been used as a social lubricant around the world for centuries, and for Malaysians, it is no different. The coffee culture in Malaysia is said to have started with the kopitiam, coffee shops often run by Malaysians of Hainanese or Hokkien descent. It is here that coffee made headway as a staple of everyday life for Malaysians, harmoniously bringing people of all races together under one roof, to enjoy the same thing and shoot the breeze.
Typically, coffee is either roasted plain or with sugar, but when it comes to Malaysian coffee, known as kopi, the beans are roasted with both sugar and butter. And when it comes to kopi, it’s more than just a daily fix; it’s a way of life.
One of the strongest coffee cultures found in Malaysia is that of Johor’s, but when it boils down to it, what exactly is so special about the brew?
Kluang Coffee Powder Factory
After twelve years of working as a salesman for a local coffee factory in Johor, Goh Tong Tor decided it was high time to strike out on his own. Passionate for all things coffee, he established Kluang Coffee Powder Factory in 1966.
In Malaysia, when television broadcasting began in the early 1960s, TVs were an expensive commodity, so only one or two families in the kampong, or village might have a set. This often brought the entire kampong to gather around the house to watch, and it was with this sentiment of providing a quality product that brought families and friends closer together that Kluang Coffee Powder Factory’s famous ‘Cap Televisyen’ coffee brand was created.
By insisting on using ingredients of the highest quality, paired with his special roast, the business grew by word of mouth to become one of Kluang’s top coffee wholesalers. Today, the factory is managed by the founder’s grandson Goh Yong Kian, who supplies over 1000 coffee shops around Malaysia with black coffee.
Producing 4000kg of coffee powder a day, he uses the same original recipe his grandfather developed to maintain consistency and quality. Fans of their coffee include Sultan Iskandar of Johor, whose staff places orders with the factory every month for the palace.
In the hopes of drawing more visitors to Kluang, factory tours by appointment are given for free. During the tour, visitors get to see the gruelling coffee roasting process, as well as taste both the black and white coffees produced by the factory. They’re in the midst of introducing a cafe to the mix, where visitors will be able to order specialist coffees as well.
In this way, Yong Kian feels he is able to bring people joy by teaching them about something they hold dear to their hearts, and which they’ll want to share with friends and family, just the way his grandfather envisioned.
Kluang Rail Coffee
With his worldly possessions of a mere 17 Straits Dollars and some coins, Lim Luan Hee arrived alone in Kluang to try his luck at establishing a canteen in Kluang Railway Station. It was 1938 when this unwavering one-man show began the legacy of Kluang Rail Coffee.
Four generations on, the business has flourished following an immeasurable amount of dedication and hard work. With each generation growing up around the coffee shop, the Lim’s have been a heart-warming constant for locals and visitors alike.
Their coffee beans are locally sourced and their outsourced roaster uses butter instead of margarine for added richness and flavour. Aside from quality beans, what makes their brew stand out is that they use a new batch of coffee powder to brew coffee with each order. In doing so, they ensure a good consistent taste.
To grandson Jit Chen, better known as Uncle Jack, it’s not just a coffee shop. Its uniqueness lies in its ability to unite people – a place where you can find customers cut across all races, ages and demographics. And when one takes a closer look, you’ll notice just how comfortable people feel there, unhesitatingly sharing tables and smiles with strangers.
“When people grow older, they look back, and the cafe is like an old photograph or postcard. There’s so much history to it; a lot of customers like that and it creates a strong bond. If they lost that, it would be very sad. Heritage should be preserved.”
In preparation for Uncle Jack’s son Ben to take over, he emphasises the importance of continuity in family tradition. “People want somewhere they can connect their memories to. This is what people look for. It’s about the experience, the feel of the place, the soul,” he imparts, with tears in his eyes. “When people grow older, they look back, and the cafe is like an old photograph or postcard. There’s so much history to it; a lot of customers like that and it creates a strong bond. If they lost that, it would be very sad. Heritage should be preserved.”
Affectionately known by his customers as Ah Sai, Hainan native Kiar Am Sai first stepped foot in Malaysia when he was just 17-years-old. Armed with his own recipe for traditional coffee roasting, he established Sai Kee Coffee in Muar in 1953. More commonly known as Kopi 434, which was originally a nickname derived from their 3-digit phone number back when customers could call in to pre-order their coffee. His guiding principle was to always use the best raw ingredients available and to never compromise on quality, and to this day, this ethos is still being honoured.
Fast forward, the family business has expanded from factory to cafe, talks of franchising are in the works, and Kopi 434 is a name synonymous with Muar. Across from the bus station on Jalan Maharani, Kopi 434 Cafe welcomes visitors with a certain warmth. Managed by Ah Sai’s grandson Kiar Cher Yong, the concept is that of a homey-feeling wooden house, while the cafe is decorated with typical kopitiam tables and chairs, and a cunning ulterior motive. They don’t provide Wi-Fi, and the wood blocks phone signals, so customers have no choice but to talk to each other and connect sans distraction.
Proud of the fact that he gets to share his grandfather’s recipe, Cher Yong ensures that their staff are well-trained in educating their customers on the different coffees, as well as their intrinsically Muar menu. Known especially for their kopi-o, Kopi 434 brews up to 500 cups a day. Whether from the neighbouring street or from countries halfway around the world, people from all walks of life can be seen enjoying their kopi at one of the cafe’s round marble tables.
Though they’ve expanded quite rapidly over the last couple of years, they still have regulars who come several times a day, every day, having built such a strong bond with them that they don’t even have to order because the staff already know what they want. In that sense, they’re very much like family.
With each of these local, homegrown businesses, parallels can be drawn with ease. At the end of the day, the Johorean coffee culture isn’t just about a drink, it’s about everything that comes with it; it’s about the proud inheritance of familial traditions, the banding together of races in the muhibah spirit, that feeling of nostalgia – a link to the past whilst keeping up with the times. In an ever-changing landscape left in the wake of modernisation, only a handful of constants remain, holding steadfastly to history, heritage and tradition. And those constants are what makes Johor’s brew so special.