Coffee capitals of Asia-Pacific
- article by Rebecca Foster
Whether you like your java hot and sweet or prefer it creamy and poured over ice, this expansive region is home to a selection of cities that are serving up world-class brews.
For many of us, coffee is the magical fuel that provides that essential get-up-and-go in the mornings, boosting us through long afternoons and facilitating cosy all-nighters, all powered by caffeine.
Coffee is one of the world’s most widely drunk beverages and as a result, a unique plethora of coffee-drinking cultures have sprung up across the globe. From the colourful backstreets of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City to the graffiti-sprinkled cobbled alleyways of Melbourne, you can never walk too far without being enticed by the smell of roasting coffee beans, leading you to the nearest café haven. So, what makes coffee culture so unique in each of these destinations, and what kind of infusion can you expect to discover? We find out.
Wellington, New Zealand
Famous for its delectable flat whites, New Zealand’s capital is the first stop on our coffee tour of Asia-Pacific. While this beverage was supposedly invented in Sydney Australia, Wellington has taken the flat white and made it its own. What the city lacks in size, it more than makes up for in the high standard of its coffee outlets. In fact, many locals would say that it’s actually quite difficult to find a bad cup of java in the city.
From hole-in-the-wall coffee carts to long-established cafes, there’s plenty of choice when it comes to deciding where you’re going to have your morning cuppa. It’s widely thought that the city’s strong coffee culture started with milk bars back in the 1930s, which were popular with US troops stationed in the city. While Australia’s coffee culture evolved largely from Italian coffee traditions thanks to the high proportion of immigrants living in cities like Sydney and Melbourne, Wellington was free to start from scratch when it came to the evolution of its unique brew. While there is certainly a strong preference for milky coffees here, the demand for black coffee is growing, so you can really look forward to experiencing the best of both worlds.
Next up, our first Asian destination on the list is Singapore. While Asian cities are often more associated with their long-standing tea traditions, Singapore’s coffee culture goes back a long way as well. In fact, its kopitiam culture (kopi being the Malaysian word for coffee, and tiam being the Hokkien word for shop) dates back to the 18th century. An eclectic array of inhabitants from across Europe and Asia flooded into the city at this time, all bringing their coffee preferences with them. When the European penchant for coffee met Malaysian flavour, magic happened and kopitiam was born.
Bitter Robusta beans (as opposed to Arabica beans) were traditionally ground up and spread across a flannel-like filter. This was placed over a coffee cup and water poured in to produce a hot, thick brew. A dash of evaporated milk and a sprinkling of sugar complete the drink. Singapore’s numerous kopitiams became a favourite spot for locals to hang out and catch up on the gossip, and remain so today.
Thanks to the city’s recent embracing of modern expresso technology, the traditional kopi culture still sustained by many locals has been given a modern twist. In fact, coffee cafe culture is one of the latest trends to take the younger generations by storm. In modern establishments, popular local orders tend to be lattes, mochas or cappuccinos.
A coffee tour of Asia-Pacific would be incomplete without sampling the best of what Melbourne has to offer. Situated in the southern province of Victoria, this is a city that lives and breathes coffee. In fact, visitors can even sign up to take part in a walking coffee tour of the city that includes the chance to sample drinks at several hand-picked venues, an expert’s commentary on the growth of Melbourne’s coffee culture and some extra local history, thrown in for good measure. There’s even an annual coffee expo here.
If you’re keen to explore the cafe scene independently, then be like the locals and order a piccolo latte. These brews are made with less milk, so the irresistible espresso flavour comes through even more strongly. From quaint cafés serving up artisan blends to warehouse-style establishments, there’s a diverse array of places to get your morning coffee fix in Melbourne. One of the irresistible things, however, about the city’s coffee culture is the communal tables that grace many of its cafés. A long, low table with accompanying stools will seat everyone from groups of friends to those that have come down to enjoy a moment of solitude with their cup of coffee. The type of atmosphere this communal table brings is synonymous with modern Melbourne, and something visitors shouldn’t miss if they’re keen to sample the authentic flavour of the city.
You’d be forgiven for associating this city with traditional teahouses before thinking about its modern coffee culture. While Tapei’s Chinese tea traditions go back hundreds of years, the city’s java culture is relatively modern - and it’s drawing on inspiration from across the globe. The very fact that Taiwan’s rate of coffee consumption has increased by 400 percent since 1990 should be enough to tell you that this is a nation that’s serious about its morning cuppa.
Tapei’s burgeoning coffee scene really got off the ground about ten years ago, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. The best part is that you’ll be able to sample an Australian-style flat white, an American milky latte or an Italian espresso all within the same neighbourhood. The beverage was first consumed in Taiwan about 60 years ago under the Japanese occupation, when the drink was siphon-brewed and served with a non-dairy cream. When the National Coffee Association set up the Taiwan Barista Championship in 2007, things really took off. Local baristas started delving into numerous global coffee cultures for inspiration on how to roast the beans, where the best beans came from and how the coffee should be prepared. As a result, a delightful array of coffee houses and contemporary Western-style outlets are popping up all over the city.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Last but by no means least, is Vietnam’s economic southern powerhouse - Ho Chi Minh City. This is the modern hub of Vietnam. Although the city is gleaming with skyscrapers, designer malls and chic luxury hotels, its coffee culture - dating back to the French occupation – remains fairly traditional. In fact, sitting on the balcony of a traditional coffee house overlooking the busy streets below is one of the best ways to while away an afternoon in Ho Chi Minh City.
A traditional cup of ca phe sua da (sweet ice coffee) is rich in flavour and gorgeously chocolatey in its consistency. A dark roasted blend of beans gives this delectable brew its unique flavour, which is offset by the addition of condensed milk at the end. A steel filter allows a thick coffee mixture to drip into the cup below - this will usually take about five minutes. Some establishments will even serve the beverage with a cocktail stick that has been infused with fish sauce. This brings in a sharp salty flavour to penetrate through the bitterness of the coffee and the sweetness of the condensed milk.
As well as being home to its fair share of traditional coffee outlets, Ho Chi Minh City also accommodates plenty of Western-style lounging cafes, where you can expect the eclectic menu of coffee-based beverages to be several pages long.
- For a good cup of coffee in Wellington, head to Flight Coffee Hangar. The café is the flagship establishment for Flight Coffee, a wholesale roasting company on a quest to develop the world’s best beans. The owner of the café, Nick Clarke, recently claimed fifth position in the World Barista Championships, so you can look forward to something special here.
- No matter where you are in Singapore, you can guarantee that you’ll never be too far from a strong serving of java. If you’re in Little India, look out for Chye Seng Huat Hardware. Alternatively, if you’re savouring the delights of the city’s Pasar Bella marketplace, make your way to Dutch Colony for a treat.
- In Melbourne, you don’t have to wander far to find a coffee outlet that satisfies all your cravings. If you’re in the southern part of the city, head to Dead Man Espresso for a cuppa that doesn’t disappoint.
- Tapei’s Fong Da is a great café for those visitors that want to sample a Japanese-style siphon filtered coffee - the cold-drip variety is excellent. The establishment dates back to 1956, and its vintage Japanese siphon equipment is well worth seeing.
- In order to sample Ho Chi Minh’s contemporary coffee culture, head to L’Usine - an establishment that is both coffee shop and fashion boutique. Concrete surfaces and exposed brick walls give the place a modern vibe, and you can shop till you drop in the downstairs area before heading upstairs for a brew.