Coffee: Muar Coffee Of Course!

I DON’T remember myself being a coffee drinker when l was growing up. I drank tea…coffee…or milo…on regular basis without any obvious preference from one to the other.

Who knew Malaysia has a coffee industry? I did, even though I didn’t know how big or small the industry was then. Why? because I remember my father planted a few coffee trees around the house when I was small.

I think I started picking up coffee seriously after being married to John. He never drank tea despite coming from England. He said being true blue Scottish, he drank coffee instead…

His coffee would be black. No sugar. No cream.

Over the years I started to drink more and more coffee with him and now I am a full-pledged coffee drinker.

Mine would be black with a bit of sugar. No cream.

In my attempt to know more about coffee and its history in this country I came across quite a few interesting facts that I never knew until now…

Apparently, for the last ten years or so, coffee production here in Malaysia has held steady at only about 160,000 bags, or 10,000 tonnes, yearly. Actually it wasn’t that much as we only produce just .01% of the world’s coffee and lags far, far behind Asia’s big three producers (India, Vietnam, and Indonesia).

The majority of Malaysia’s cultivated land is planted in rubber trees and oil palms (Malaysia is a major player in the world rubber and palm oil markets). Coffee plants cover only 25,000 hectares or so (primarily in Kedah, Kelantan, Selangor, Terengganu, and Pahang states). What little coffee is grown in Malaysia is consumed here, and because there’s no export dollars to be gained from the industry there’s been no official emphasis on improving the crop’s quality.

Another interesting fact is, about 95% of Malaysia’s coffee beans come from liberica plants, a little-known variety that’s also grown in west Africa and accounts for less than 2% of the world’s coffee (most coffee comes from arabica and robusta beans). A liberica tree can grow as tall as 18 meters; its leaves are large and leathery, it produces big fruits and seeds, and it’s extremely hardy.

But careful cultivation and skilled roasting can make even liberica beans shine. Just head to the right places – old-style Chinese kopitiam (coffee shops), then you will get the taste of Malaysian coffee.

Coffee has probably been consumed in Malaysia since the 15th century, having migrated with Middle Eastern traders to the Sultanate of Malacca’s ports not long after it appeared in Makkah and Medina, although it wasn’t grown here until the British began cultivating it in the Cameron Highlands in the latter half of the 1800s. We, Malaysians favoured brew method, using a ‘sock’ or ‘butterfly net’ filter suspended in a pot of hot water (see above), and this might have been introduced by Chinese immigrants or by Indian Muslim immigrants in the 1800s.

It was also believed that coffee once had played a very important role in Malaysian economy before rubber plantations took over. Since Malaysia’s geography is only suitable for low quality coffee beans, it is impossible to go further with non-profit coffee production and the colonial powers decided that rubber is more suitable as the main crop since the high demand for rubber due to development of the automobile industry supported rubber estates rather than coffee plantations.

Some of us, like myself, like it black (‘kopi o’), or those with sweet tooth will take it with generous dose of sweetened condensed milk (‘kopi’) or with a mixture of sweetened condensed and evaporated milks (‘kopi special’, at least at some shops). 

And when I said drinking coffee, I am taking primarily about traditional way of drinking coffee, and not all those hipster places such as Starbucks or Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf  – just to mention two as I am totally out of touch with the hipsters’ movements.

Traditional Malaysian coffee, called “kopi,” is for some an acquired taste. It is made by pouring boiling water through grounds held in a cloth “sock” or filter, and is thick, strong and bitter. Kopi can be drunk hot or iced, and is often mellowed with sweetened condensed milk.

Malaysian kopi’s distinctive burnt flavour comes from the butter and sugar that the beans are roasted with. Whatever today’s coffee connoisseurs might make of kopi, the traditional coffee beverage is a cherished part of Malaysian cultural heritage.
Kopi is served in “Kopitiam” (“tiam” is the Hokkien Chinese word for shop) — traditional Malaysian coffee shops that also serve Western dishes like toast and eggs, and Malaysian standards such as Nasi Lemak, fried rice and noodles.

For those keen to experience Malaysian coffee culture first-hand, here’s a quick glossary of “kopi” and how to order this national beverage:

Kopi: hot coffee with sweetened condensed milk

Kopi O: hot coffee with sugar only

Kopi kosong: hot coffee with no sugar and no milk

Peng: added to any of the above will get you the said version in a glass, over ice.

Kow: added to any of the above will get you an extra strong cup (or glass).

After two years living in my hometown (2014-2016), I am now the biggest fan of Muar Coffee of locally known as Kopi 434, locally blend coffee. Being spoilt by its rich strong taste for two years, I can’t think of any other coffee brands that would come close. But then again for those who have tried Muar coffee, they would agree that it is an acquired taste… 

And talking about  drinking my favourite 434 coffee, I am now seriously thinking of getting a couple of coffee seedlings this weekend from my hometown in Johor as I envision my garden in Nilai to have a few flowering coffee trees in a few years’ time…A