How specialty coffee is quietly thriving in Ipoh, even without tourists

Kenny Mah
·7-min read
A barista attentively brewing pour over coffee at Jln Theatre Coffee in Ipoh — Pictures by CK Lim
A barista attentively brewing pour over coffee at Jln Theatre Coffee in Ipoh — Pictures by CK Lim

IPOH, Nov 5 — The young barista watched attentively as hot water from his pour over kettle hit the coffee grounds. He waited for a few seconds for the coffee to “bloom” and release carbon dioxide before continuing, pouring evenly from the centre and outward in a circular motion.

There is an art to this, a slow craft honed from hours of practice. We have become accustomed to seeing this in KL and Bangkok, in Tokyo and Wellington, but this was in Ipoh.

The Old Town of Ipoh has been a hub of Instagram-friendly coffee spots in recent years. Don’t call them hipster cafés, however; these days everyone with a smartphone can be seen posing for selfies against colourful murals or snapping shots of intricate latte art.

But even such coffee havens have their expiry date. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit earlier this year, it took a toll on all food-and-beverage (F&B) businesses in town.

Cafés that target tourists, hipster or otherwise, have seen a drastic drop in footfall. Burps & Giggles, one of the earliest spots in town (which I fondly recall visiting back in its heyday), has shuttered, perhaps for the foreseeable future.

Selfie opportunities and pretty latte art are no guarantee of longevity, when times are tough.

So where do we go for a good flat white in Ipoh? Back in early September, before the return of the conditional movement control order (CMCO) in the Klang Valley, I was in town and wondering exactly that.

The striking aquamarine sign that leads you to Cold Blue Coffee Specialty Coffee where handcrafted filter coffee awaits
The striking aquamarine sign that leads you to Cold Blue Coffee Specialty Coffee where handcrafted filter coffee awaits

There are plenty of kopitiams around still, and those were our first stops, for roti bakar and half boiled eggs to go with our white coffee. But for a different sort of “white coffee” — i.e. expertly pulled shots of espresso with carefully foamed milk — the search is on.

To be fair, I did wonder if I was looking for the wrong thing in the wrong town. Sure, specialty coffee is now common everywhere in the Klang Valley (though times are tough even for some of the best in town) but this is the Kinta Valley.

Even elsewhere in the country, specialty coffee has taken hold. Melbourne-Malaccan style cappuccino? Sure. A growing small-batch roastery in Johor Bahru, by a Penang-born barista? Sure.

But, again, where do we go for a good flat white in Ipoh? Or hand-brewed filter coffee, for that matter?

Well, as with many a trek around town starting at the Ipoh Padang is a good idea. Here we discover a second-floor café overlooking the verdant field, hidden away in a row of shophouses.

The interior of Cold Blue almost resembles a clinical laboratory
The interior of Cold Blue almost resembles a clinical laboratory

The only sign that there is anything brewing here (pun intended) is a freestanding sign near the street level entrance. Its vivid aquamarine hue ensures you won’t miss it: Cold Blue Specialty Coffee.

Upstairs the café resembles more a laboratory than a coffee bar, with its minimalist aesthetic. Plenty of white and clean lines; no colourful murals for selfies here. The focus, thus, ought to be on the coffee.

We ordered a Costa Rica Volcan Azul Nano Lot, a geisha varietal from the Alajuela region. Roasted by Penang-based Reframe Coffee Roasters, the beans had undergone a red honey process. We could discern orange and strawberry in the resultant flavour notes; the white peach was elusive, however.

There was also a Kenya Kiamara AA roasted by Artisan Roastery in KL. This time the beans were processed using the washed method; we expected cleaner flavours here with cranberry and rhubarb notes.

Flat white and a decadently rich chocolate brownie at Cold Blue
Flat white and a decadently rich chocolate brownie at Cold Blue

If this all sounds like a bunch of gobbledygook to you, well, perhaps it is. Certainly it’s an ongoing challenge for Cold Blue’s baristas to share what makes specialty coffee unique and worth the trek up the stairs when there’s decent kopitiam white coffee in the Old Town.

Cold Blue co-founder June Wong believes the timing is right for a café serving specialty coffee in Ipoh. She says, “Specialty coffee is still a new thing to Ipohans so we have this opportunity. We studied and found that the crowd of ‘coffee people’ is actually growing in Ipoh.”

There were certainly enough “coffee people” over at Jln Theatre Coffee when we visited the following day, that we weren’t the only ones ordering pour overs. A skylight brightens the interior; a small tree brings the outside indoors.

But otherwise the décor is very bare; again, no murals in sight. Co-founder Kenneth Eng, a designer by trade, shares that they were not trying to create an Instagrammable space for people to visit.

Jln Theatre Coffee focuses on coffee made from single-origin beans
Jln Theatre Coffee focuses on coffee made from single-origin beans

He explains, “Rather, we want to express our philosophy of ‘do one thing well’ with the minimal approach. In this way, we could invest more money into our equipment and ingredients instead of renovation, so customers can enjoy every sip from their cup with the clean and simple space.”

Here, instead of sourcing from other roasters, Jln Theatre Coffee has an on-site roastery with a focus on a lighter roast of single-origin beans.

An advocate for fair trade coffee and environmental sustainability, Eng says, “We put in more effort to educate our customers: to let them know what exactly it is in their cup. Although milk-based coffee is still our top seller, the sales of our filter coffee is still quite amazing to us.”

You might wonder what the fuss is about — surely there is no need for specialty coffee. True, there is no need but the very presence of a thriving Third Wave Coffee culture indicates a burgeoning industry, a market segment thus far untapped, something to celebrate when the economy is far from where we’d like it to be.

While more customers are opting for filter coffee (left), the bulk of Jln Theatre Coffee’s coffee sales are still milk-based (right)
While more customers are opting for filter coffee (left), the bulk of Jln Theatre Coffee’s coffee sales are still milk-based (right)

Perhaps the bustle of KL’s cafés have made us blasé. In Ipoh such spaces are still sanctuaries. The brewing of coffee is still slow and unhurried. There is no rush. There is nowhere else patrons have to go.

There is this feeling that such cafés are more for tourists than for locals. That might be changing.

Cold Blue’s Wong notes that Ipohans, especially the younger segment, are craving for more choices and are open to trying new things. They form a critical base given the tourist market has been impacted by Covid-19 travel restrictions around the world.

She adds, “We launched our café during RMCO (recovery movement control order). The current CMCO means we have fewer tourists but we didn’t change our operations as we’re focusing on the local and office crowd.”

Plenty of natural light and a touch of green inside Jln Theatre Coffee
Plenty of natural light and a touch of green inside Jln Theatre Coffee

Reaching out to that base, however, will take time.

Liew Chee Chung, an Ipoh boy who has been my guide to various local food haunts, from dim sum for that perfect weekend brunch to better-than-Momofuku baos in a food court, is surprised to learn that specialty coffee is available in his hometown.

He says, “I’m happy since it means things are improving but I’m also concerned whether there is such a market demand in Ipoh or not. Even when I visit cafés in KL, I’d order mocha or maybe iced latte. No black coffee for me; I prefer it with milk.”

Therein lies the rub: if specialty coffee purveyors in Ipoh aren’t able to persuade locals there is merit in spending extra for a cup of black, filter coffee brewed from single origin beans, then what’s to distinguish them from other, better established coffee chains?

Not into coffee? How about an iced matcha and a slice of burnt cheesecake?
Not into coffee? How about an iced matcha and a slice of burnt cheesecake?

Perhaps drawing customers in with the ambience is the first step. Whether it’s viewing the roasting machine at Jln Theatre Coffee or the view of the green fields outside Cold Blue’s windows, a café should still serve to welcome you in.

You needn’t even order coffee if you don’t want to. At Cold Blue, after we had our flat white and a decadently rich chocolate brownie (and two filter coffees before that), we decided an iced matcha and a slice of burnt cheesecake would be divine.

And they were.

Cold Blue Specialty Coffee

Level 2, No. 23, Jalan Tun Sambanthan, Ipoh

facebook.com/coldbluecoffeee/

Jln Theatre Coffee

76, Jalan Theatre, Taman Jubilee, Ipoh

facebook.com/jalantheatrecoffee/

For more coffee and slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.

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