Luxury comes in many packages, sometimes as simple as a good cup of coffee. Before third-wave cafés reached Malaysia a few years ago, premium coffee experiences were mostly limited to international franchises that set up shop locally. Tan Kai Bin occasionally treated himself to a cuppa at such outlets in his university days, until he stumbled upon Artisan Roast café in Kuala Lumpur and could immediately taste the difference in freshly roast and ground speciality coffee.
After graduating with an accounting degree, he applied for a working holiday in New Zealand, where he spent his days picking and packing fruit in orchards around the country. Tan returned home enlightened and hopeful. “The trip made me realise I had options beyond the prescribed path of joining a Big Four firm,” he says. “I could not afford to drink much coffee while I was in New Zealand but it was a nice treat, especially when the weather was cold. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to join Artisan Roast as a barista.”
His brother proposed the idea of coffee subscriptions, which were popular in the US, and Tan was inspired to establish a similar concept in 2014. Blaq Coffee is a monthly subscription featuring four variants of single-origin coffee from two partner roasters to introduce subscribers to new brews. As his network expanded, so did his idea. To complement the subscription service, Tan founded Bean Shipper as a marketplace that connected roasters and customers. Unlike the surprise offerings of Blaq Coffee, customers could explore the varieties themselves and pick their favourites.
“When we started, skilled roasters were hard to find and customers struggled to acquire freshly roasted beans. We closed the distance between demand and supply,” says the entrepreneur.
For maximum freshness and quality, Blaq Coffee and Bean Shipper work solely with local artisanal roasters such as Aitch Coffee, Seraph Awaken, Ghostbird Coffee, Artisan Roastery and My Liberica, which uses the lesser known Liberica cherries instead of Arabica or Robusta. The e-commerce site sells bags of beans between 50g and 1kg, the latter roasted to order, and works with fulfilment companies to ship nationwide with overnight delivery available within the Klang Valley. Blaq Coffee operates from a small office, where storage, grinding (when necessary) and packing take place.
“Customers sometimes ask us to grind the beans for them as they do not own grinders, but coffee oxidises and quickly loses flavour and freshness,” says Tan, who runs both businesses full-time with his wife and a small team. “Its intensity also diminishes when the bag is opened and closed repeatedly. Beans should ideally be ground right before consumption. That is how we developed our ground packs. We use a Mahlkonig EK43 grinder — it is the best in its class for uniform grind size particles and extracts maximum flavour from the beans — to create sachets of single-serve coffee that retain their properties until use.”
A subscription to Blaq Coffee’s single-origin beans starts at RM59 per month. It takes into account preparation style — Aeropress, French press, Mokapot, drip coffee or whole beans for grinding at home — to precisely tailor the experience. Customers can opt for a one-time purchase or sign up for a prolonged sensorial adventure. Alternatively, those who are intrigued by the prospect of discovery but would like to retain some degree of control over the selection can indicate their preference for single-origin, roast style (light, medium, bold or dark) or consumption (black or with milk).
Bean Shipper, meanwhile, walks the novice through its catalogue by filtering roast style, type (single origin, blend, filter or espresso), tasting notes (from fruity and floral to honeyed and nutty), origin and brewing method.
To better guide neophytes and share his passion for the subject, Tan regularly produces blog posts and videos about coffee production, preparation and appreciation.
“We do everything from explaining the science behind certain things to humanising our partner roasters by showcasing their coffee farms or having them teach the audience something, such as the best way to brew coffee with a V60,” says the enthusiast. “I try to put myself in our customers’ shoes and imagine their issues so we can address them in our content.”
The local market has matured tremendously in recent years, he testifies. “People used to ask us about the difference between light and dark roasts, for instance. But someone just wrote in enquiring about anaerobic natural processes (a fermentation method). I frequent forums on these topics and am amazed by the local knowledge of speciality coffee. That is why we are so selective about our partner roasters. Our customers know their stuff and we want them to be assured of receiving only the best from us.”
Tan derives great satisfaction from his work, particularly his role in aiding greater understanding and appreciation of his favourite beverage. “I need coffee first thing in the morning. Nothing happens until I have that first cup,” he says. “I believe it is the same for most people and I want to help them enjoy that start to their day. That is a real luxury to me.”
This article first appeared on Dec 23, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.