Heritage Malaysian Coffee

20 August 2018

The most iconic Malaysian coffee drink of all is the kopi-o. Here’s a look at four family businesses that have stood the test of time to continue to sell this classic local favourite.

In naming a Malaysian coffee drink, kopi-o stands out among the rest. Even the name itself is a portmanteau of two local dialects; ‘kopi’ is coffee in Malay and ‘o’ is Hokkien for black. Beloved by many across generations, the jet black beverage can now be enjoyed just about anywhere as numerous local coffee brands continue to package and manufacture kopi-o sachets for the mass market.

Among the many kopi brands you’ll find in supermarkets, a few of them boast a long history dating back as early as the 1930s – the purveyors of the humble kopi-o. Fast forward to today, and these brands are still going strong, their respective coffee mills still roasting their beans with sugar and butter or margarine to create that distinctive flavour and aroma often associated with local coffee.

In Taiping, Perak is Malaysia’s oldest coffee mill, Antong, and it claims to be the most historic too. Established in 1933, the rumour goes that the location of the mill was formerly the villa of Chinese revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s partner, Chen Cuifen. According to Thian Boon Chung, the third generation owner of Antong, “Ten years ago, Dr. Sun’s great-grandson made a visit to Antong and confirmed the story to be true.”

Coffee beans are roasted using firewood

The roasted and caramelised beans are hardened before being ground into powder

So it’s no wonder that Antong Coffee Mill has opened up its premises for visitors to learn about its heritage and traditional coffee roasting process. Besides selling its full range of products at the Taiping coffee mill, Antong also sells its products online and supplies to local coffee shops. It even exports to China, Taiwan and Singapore. To this day, Antong still uses firewood to roast one tonne of coffee beans daily, which Thian says influences the aroma of the coffee.

A display of various coffee beans at Antong Coffee Mill

Antong Coffee Mill is open to visitors who can learn about the site’s history on top of observing the traditional roasting process

Address: 8A Jalan Syed Burhan, Kampung Assam Kumbang, 34000 Taiping, Perak (05 807 5189). Open daily, 8.30am-5.30pm. www.antongcoffeemill.com.my


Kopi Hang Tuah

In 1950s Penang, Tuan Haji Zainal Haji Said started Kopi Hang Tuah to make coffee more accessible to the Malay community. Today, the third-generation proprietor is Mohd Shahrizal Zoal (Shah), who’s in charge of the business sales and marketing division located in Taman Sri Keramat, Ampang. Having literally grown up in the business, Shah recalls, “Every morning when I opened the curtains, I could see people starting their work downstairs and beginning to roast coffee.”

Coffee beans being roasted at Kopi Hang Tuah’s Penang factory

A worker prepares Kopi Hang Tuah’s kopi-o bags for packaging

In a year, Kopi Hang Tuah roasts an upwards of 1,000 tonnes of Indonesian robusta and liberica coffee beans, while an average of 250 packs are sold per month. Branches can be found in Pahang, Ipoh, Melaka, Klang and Johor Bahru, but the largest market is in Klang Valley. While many other coffee brands have added more variety to their line of products, Hang Tuah has remained true to kopi-o all these years.

Mohd Shahrizal Zoal is a third-generation proprietor of Kopi Hang Tuah

“I believe coffee has to stand on its own. The only things you can add are sugar and milk. Nowadays people would add tongkat ali to make it more of a health drink but that’s not what we do – kopi-o is still our market leader,” says Shah. Even so, there’s a business to run and Hang Tuah will be introducing their own line of teh tarik, a decision that doesn’t lead Kopi Hang Tuah away from offering locals a taste of an iconic Malaysian beverage anywhere they please.

Kopi Hang Tuah is available at major supermarkets nationwide. www.kopihangtuah.com


Koon Kee

On the other hand, Koon Kee, another Penang-born family business, has embraced diversification more readily. With an estimated 300,000 cups sold daily through distribution and partners, the family business has three main brands today, namely Traditional Penang White Coffee, Salute Penang White Coffee and Le Bistro Roasted Coffee Beans. Made with a higher grade Indonesian instant coffee, Traditional Penang White Coffee is available in various flavours, from coconut and durian to healthier options such as linzhi and tongkat ali.

Koon Kee’s range of coffee brands

Adrian Chin, factory manager at Koon Kee’s headquarters in Bukit Mertajam, tells us that Le Bistro Roasted Coffee Beans is Koon Kee’s way of allowing their customers to enjoy artisanal coffee affordably, with beans that are carefully sourced from world-renowned coffee growing regions such as Brazil, Colombia and Ethiopia. In an attempt to compete in today’s culture of thirdwave coffee, Koon Kee started PBC Coffee, a specialty store in George Town’s 1st Avenue Mall that sells coffee beans by weight and hand brewing equipment such the dripper and French press.

Adrian Chin, factory manager at Koon Kee

“At PBC, you can opt to pay a fee of RM2 or RM5 [per bag of coffee beans] to DIY and try coffee brewing yourself, before you decide what you want to purchase for the home or office,” says Chin.

Address: Koon Kee Tea and Coffee Factory, 21- 27 Lorong Asas Jaya 3, Permatang Tinggi, Bukit Mertajam, ​14000 Penang. PBC Coffee, Lot 4-22, 1st Avenue Mall, 182 Magazine Road, 10300 Penang. Open daily, 10am-10pm. Koon Kee products are available at selected stores nationwide.  


Kopi 434

In Muar, Johor, Kiar Am Sai started Kopi 434 in 1953. Since then, Kopi 434’s recipe has remained the same, such as using the indigenous Elephant Bean AA, a type of liberica bean.

Kopi 434 uses the indigenous Elephant Bean AA, a type of liberica bean

“Malaysia’s coffee market had some changes since we started in 1953,” explains Kiar’s grandson Kiar Cher Yong, who took over the business in 2009. “In 1960, almost every coffee business used liberica, which is called Elephant Bean today, but after 1990, most Malaysian coffee drinks have now changed to use imported beans such as robusta.”

Kopi 434’s processing factory

For a taste of how kopi-o tasted back in the day, a potent, fragrant Kopi Elephant would do the trick. To keep the business growing, Kopi 434 has inevitably expanded its repertoire to include espresso blends and instant cappuccino. If you’re in Johor, head to 434 Kopi House in Taman Sri Emas for a taste of the brand’s specialty cuppa.

Address: 434 Kopi House 121, Jalan Maharani, Taman Sri Emas, 84000 Muar, Johor. Open daily, 7am-6pm. www.saikee.com

By Cindy Low Shing Yi
Photos of Antong Coffee Mill and Koon Kee by Hizwan Hamid.
Kopi Hang Tuah and Kopi 434 photos courtesy of respective brands.


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