Demystifying Third Wave Coffee in Malaysia – Part 1

Ask any self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur or aficionado in Malaysia which café you should visit for coffee and you would probably get a barrage of strange names and locations of cafés. You would probably hear the likes of VCR (Jalan Galloway, Kuala Lumpur), FEEKA Coffee Roasters (Jalan Mesui, Kuala Lumpur), Seven Cups (Empire Damansara), Thirdwave (Nexus, Bangsar), Thursdvys (Taman Tun Dr. Ismail), Flat White (SS15, Subang Jaya) and many more. This compared to a short three or four years ago, where the response you might have received would be the likes of franchised commercial coffee houses and the other usual suspects. If you haven’t already noticed, there has been an alarming rise of independent cafes popping up all over, both in urban and suburban areas in Penang, Ipoh, KL and Johor. Even smaller towns like Muar, Melaka and Kampar aren’t spared of this phenomenon. As a consumer, you would probably be wondering, “So where do I start, and how would I know if a café is truly third wave or are they just ‘wannabe’ cafés?”


Let us try and define what third wave coffee is, why the hype and what’s in it for us as consumers?


The term third wave first appeared in 2002 when Tris Rothgeb of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters wrote an article about third wave coffee in the November newsletter of the Roaster’s Guild of America. In summary, the article talks about the movement to produce higher quality coffee, which requires direct involvement starting from the farm all the way to the barista. This includes every step of the process such as cultivation, harvesting, processing, packaging and roasting. It also refers to building a stronger relationship between the farmers, traders, buyers, roasters and baristas. Jonathan Gold, an award winning food critic from LA Weekly wrote about the third wave coffee culture in March 2008. He said “The first wave of American coffee culture was probably the 19th-century surge that put Folgers on every table, and the second was the proliferation, starting in the 1960s at Peets and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee. We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavour is clean and hard and pure.”


Today, third wave coffee is widely accepted as an artisanal pursuit of perfection through coffee, wanting to produce the perfect cup. As such, many have considered this fastidious behaviour as being coffee snobbery when in fact it stems from a deeper passion and drive. Most third wave café owners aspire to bring the coffee experience to a whole new level by introducing their customers to subtle aromas, taste and geographical origin differences. Much like wine, terrain plays an important role in the quality of the coffee chain. More often than not, at these cafes, you will notice an emphasis on where the coffee comes from, how it was processed, its varietal, which specific farm it originates from, when it was roasted, and last but not least, the roast profile.


To achieve its goals, third wave cafes would indulge in the highest quality of coffee in the market; direct trade coffee or better known as specialty coffee; by investing in better machines and grinders, and demonstrating different brewing methods such as the V60, Aeropress or Syphon coffee. Many baristas at third wave cafes wouldn’t hesitate to introduce you to their favorite coffee and how they best prefer to brew it while highlighting the flavour notes you might taste.


So even if you are new to coffee, a trip to your friendly neighbourhood café might end up becoming an extensive coffee appreciation class. You would probably get a dose of information about their brew ratio, water temperature, steeping time and the best temperature to drink it.


So you say, “As a Consumer, how do I safely evaluate and define a great third wave café? What are the criteria that I have to pay attention to and how would I know if I am paying for quality?



THE JOURNEY: The café you are visiting would have been started by someone who was previously in your position; a consumer. Most of these café owners would probably have a story to tell about how they came into this industry or business. They would also probably have a strong stand about how coffee should be brewed or served.

Please do not misinterpret this as coffee snobbery. More often than not, its really because they understand the value from bean to cup and the effort it takes to bring great coffee to you. Feel free to ask questions like, “How did you get into this business?,” “What’s your favorite single origin?”, and “What are your brewing parameters here?”. Most café owners would be more than happy to share their stories with you, and you will probably meet many who were previous corporate executives who came out on their own, exhausted with the corporate lifestyle. A number of café owners are also just baristas who have served for several years at a café before they saved up enough money to start their own business.


SPECIALTY COFFEE: Instead of the usual suspects of famous Italian Espresso Coffee Blends, you might hear names like Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Panama Geisha, Guatemala Los Volcanos, Sumatra Mandheling Kuda Mas, and Rwanda French Mission. As exotic as it sounds, each of these specialty coffees would bring you on a gastronomic journey and myriad of taste and flavour notes. Typical characteristics of specialty coffee not only denote the country of origin but the extensive information regarding their traceability; namely, the growing region, farm, rainfall, elevation, method of processing, varietal and grade.

From a strict technical standpoint, for coffee beans to be labelled as specialty coffee, the green coffee beans must be sorted to zero defects, and then roasted to a standard coffee cupping roast profile. This is then cupped by three Q Graders who are licensed to grade roasted coffee and the roasted beans must receive a score above 80 in a 100 point system to quality as specialty coffee. Today, the familiarity of these farms and origins are highly recognised by most café owners.


BARISTA: The role of a Barista in any café is critical. He or she needs to be highly skilled and passionate about coffee. Your stereotypical third wave barista may sport tattoos, beards, piercings and skinny jeans, but beyond this, a true barista would have strong understanding of the beans and the potential flavours he or she can produce with that bean. They would probably have a close relationship with their customers and know their likes and dislikes. They might have a strong stand about how an espresso should be brewed and served, often preferring a double ristretto over single espresso shots, hence producing an intense syrupy espresso with higher acidity for your milk based coffee. They will also be skilled in hand brew methods such as the V60 or Syphon.


LATTE ART: Any third wave café worth their salt would probably deliver your milk-based coffee with a decent free poured latte art. However, they would take care to ensure that no quality is lost in the process. Hence, free pouring is the only method preferred and some of the commonly noticeable designs are hearts, tulips, swans and rosettas. Your barista would probably frown at those who request 3D latte art or even chocolate etching, knowing that these techniques require time and effort and your cappuccino would not be palatable by the time it reaches you. Any customer asking for 3D Art or customised etched pictures would probably not receive a pleasant response by these baristas. Although you may assume that the customer is always right, in this case, we’re on their side. So instead of uploading a picture of your latte art, why not take a picture of your barista and leave a tip. This will definitely leave a long lasting impression.


Till the next time, we hope that this will ensure you have a great experience and a better appreciation for the cup that you order at your friendly neighbourhood third wave café.

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Daniel Liew

Barista Guild Asia

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