The Unique and Changing Coffee Culture in Southeast Asia
The unique coffee culture of Southeast Asia, which has existed relatively unchanged for many decades now, has begun to show some effects of a new wave of influence from the West. With new coffee-growing microclimates being farmed throughout the region, and Starbucks and other chains slowly breaking into the coffee scene in the larger cities around the area, it remains to be seen how the coffee culture of Southeast Asia will ultimately emerge.
One thing seems certain though; the coffee culture of Southeast Asia will develop beyond the point of the condensed milk, sugar, and strong coffee concoction that the region has been known for. These days, specialty coffee is maturing on both sides of the regional market equation.
New crops from parts of Malaysia and the highlands of Thailand are beginning to show off the quality of coffee that the region’s growers are capable of producing, while consumers are developing more demanding tastes for the good stuff in all its forms.
Traditional Southeast Asian Coffee Culture
For many years, the kopitiam of Singapore and Southern Malaysia, and the now almost completely international Vietnamese or Thai coffee have typified the coffee culture of Southeast Asia. The latter two of these coffee drinks is just about universally made with strong coffee poured over sweetened condensed milk, served hot or poured over ice.
In the traditional kopitiam (literally coffee= kopi, tiam = shop) of Singapore, coffee is still brewed and served in the traditional manner. Robusta coffee beans are wok-roasted with corn kernels and butter, or sugar and lard (it varies from kopitiam to kopitiam), then ground and brewed in a long cloth tube, resembling a sock. This brew is dripped directly into a cup already pre-loaded with the patron’s choice of condensed milk or evaporated milk, with or without sugar.
Coffee in a traditional Singapore coffee shop may be ordered strong or weak, sweeter or less sweet, over ice, with or without milk, and it can also be ordered blended with tea.
Kopitiams have operated more or less this way for more than a century, and what they serve has changed very little over time. They also serve breakfast foods like kaya toast, French toast, and other pastries, and are considered the social gathering place for multiple levels of society. Despite the fact that Singapore is located in Asia and was once a British colony for many decades, coffee is hailed as the national drink of the country.
Contemporary Southeast Asian Coffee Culture
Despite the existing coffee culture, and in some ways because of it, Southeast Asia has recently come under more of the influence of western-style coffee culture. The launch of Starbucks in many of the larger and wealthier cities across the region and the development of slick, upscale regional coffee house chains has led to a shift in the way coffee is being consumed throughout the region.
And, though traditional coffee culture is still held close by many in the older generations, younger people are investing in the experience of more Western-style espresso and espresso-based coffee drinks. Along with the adoption of Western modes of drinking coffee, the region has also begun to develop a taste for Arabica coffee, some of which is now being grown in the region itself.
The Coffee Growing Regions of Southeast Asia and the Future of Coffee
For some time, Southeast Asia has been a very productive coffee growing region for Robusta coffee beans. Much of this crop was either processed and exported, or funneled into the region’s coffee shops and cafes. But recently, some excellent examples of Arabica coffee have begun to emerge from the highlands of both Thailand and Myanmar.
These coffees are being produced for the high-dollar export market as well as for regional cafes that are beginning to specialize in coffee and coffee drinks built on high-quality espresso grown right next door. What will become of the long-standing traditional coffee culture in the region remains to be seen – but given the influence of contemporary coffee culture, things will definitely emerge anew.