A nutty, sweet aroma wafts through the air INSIDE AN AGEING INDUSTRIAL PARK. Smoke billows from one of the shophouses in a row of one-story red-brick factories.
Four men emerge from the smoke inside, dressed in polo shirts, hair nets, masks, and heavy-duty gloves. They repeatedly slam a mound of caramelised coffee beans inside a tub with metal rods, shattering them. These are employees of Kim Guan Guan, one of Singapore’s last remaining traditional coffee roasters.
In 1988, Jason Soon founded Kim Guan Guan. At first, he viewed coffee solely as a business opportunity. For years, he specialised in the import and sale of raw coffee beans. However, coffee quickly developed into a passion for him. Soon purchased a coffee roasting factory in 1996 and taught himself how to make kopi, a type of coffee unique to Southeast Asia.
When robusta beans are cooked in copious amounts of sugar and margarine, then ground and brewed, the result is a coffee that is distinctively thick and luscious. Often, a flannel sock is used as a filter, and the coffee is poured into ceramic or glass cups from long-sprouted kettles to create a frothy, smooth brew. It can be consumed plain or sweetened with sugar and evaporated milk.
However, kopi is frequently regarded as inferior to gourmet brews. Roasters attribute this to cost. One cup of kopi costs less than S$2 ($1.49 USD) and is usually purchased at the hot, open-air food courts called kopitiams. In comparison, an Americano costs at least twice as much in chic cafes.
Nonetheless, kopi has a lengthy history. Soon asserts that this roast dates all the way back to the nineteenth century. European settlers in colonial Singapore were coffee drinkers. They imported arabica beans, which merchants coated with sugar to preserve it during shipping. When locals picked up the habit as well, many could only afford the cheaper robusta beans grown in Indonesia.
To mimic the flavor of the more-expensive arabica, they cooked the beans with butter or margarine, as well as sugar. Robusta beans have around twice the amount of caffeine as arabica, more bitterness, and less acidity. As a result, kopi, which means “coffee” in Malay, became the regional favorite for its caffeine content, sweetness, and cheapness.