SINGAPORE — Whenever marketing executive Martin Chu travels overseas, he would often create whole itineraries around the coffee joints that he intends to visit.
“There are actually times when I plan my entire trip based on the coffee places around the area,” said the 29-year-old.
Mr Chu, who started drinking coffee about seven years ago, still remembers that life-changing cup he had.
“Before 2016, I actually hated coffee. I just felt it was something bitter that is not worth appreciating.”
Then he drank “Juliette”, a coffee from Panama — first, at a local cafe which has since closed down, and a second time at a coffee house in Hong Kong.
“I actually tasted notes like honey, lychee, grapefruit… It was at that moment that it changed me into really liking coffee, and (subsequently) going for coffee trips,” he said.
The coffee convert even had a stint working as a barista in between jobs in 2021. He once also spent S$20 on a single cup of coffee at a specialty coffee house here — because it was brewed from a rare type of coffee beans, of which there were only 2kg in the world.
“It was a S$20 cup, and I’m ashamed to say that I just threw my money at it,” said Mr Chu, adding that the experience was well worth it.
With statistics showing Singapore’s coffee culture going from strength to strength even as coffee joints come and go, Mr Chu is not an outlier.
Mr Jeremy Tan, 28, who spends at least S$100 a month on coffee-related items, including coffee beans and even coffee subscriptions, once did something “crazy” in the name of love for his brew.
“I bought distilled water in five-litre jugs — two cartons of it — so that I can brew coffee at home,” the financial consultant told TODAY.
He also bought special mineral sachets to be added to the distilled water.
“The idea is that it’s specifically formulated to be the best platform to brew coffee, because minerals in water… all affect how you taste coffee.”
Since then, the brand has expanded rapidly across Singapore. It now serves coffee out of 18 outlets spread across locations like Tampines, Chinatown, Tanjong Pagar, and Katong.
Shoppers at VivoCity mall would have also noticed hoarding bearing Canadian coffee chain Tim Hortons’ logo. The outlet is expected to open at the end of the year, adding to the tally of more than 5,000 Tim Hortons restaurants globally.
For many international coffee chains, entering Singapore’s market is generally part of a larger push to expand internationally in Southeast Asia, Dr Seshan Ramaswami, an associate professor of marketing education at the Singapore Management University (SMU), told TODAY.
“Clearly for upscale chains, Singapore is an obvious choice as there is a mature market of coffee drinkers who are willing to pay high prices for good coffee and ambience.”
Since the island also receives millions of international tourists annually, “these new chains likely have loyal customers in other parts of the world, who may be a natural customer base as visitors in Singapore”, he added.
Singapore’s market is also attractive to international brands because of its low tax rates, few capital constraints, low trade barriers, and welcoming attitude towards foreign investors, said Dr Wang Peng, a business analytics lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).
‘FINER WAY OF LIFE’, NOT JUST ‘MERE CAFFEINE BOOST’
From international coffee chains, to specialty coffee houses and traditional kopitiams serving Singapore-style Nanyang coffee, connoisseurs and casual drinkers are spoilt for choice as they decide between kopi siew dai for S$1.20 or iced latte at five times more for S$6.
While getting a caffeine kick was top priority in the past, “third wave” coffee drinkers are discerning consumers who are conscious of the beverage’s supply chain, its social and environmental footprints, and coffee quality — which has elevated coffee’s status to one almost synonymous with the “finer way of life” today.
Dr Vanessa Liu, an associate professor at SUSS’ marketing programme, said Singapore’s growing affluence undoubtedly contributes to the continuously expanding demand for coffee in the country.
“Some might assume that Singaporeans consume more caffeine due to the country’s top ranking as the most fatigued nation in the world. However, this is a common misconception.
“The surge in coffee consumption and the increased demand for coffee shops or chains are not solely driven by basic needs. What locals truly desire is not just the nutritional value of coffee but rather the lifestyle symbolised by the coffee culture.”
The finer things in life, of course, do not come cheap.
In 2017, specialty coffee chain The Coffee Academics retailed single espresso-size cups of Esmeralda Geisha coffee at S$85 a cup, reportedly the most costly in the world at the time.
Singapore was the first country in Southeast Asia to taste the beverage, and only 80 cups were available for sale then.
Cafes like Soul Coffee at Kinex in Paya Lebar also hope to build a different space offering a unique ambience that could complement customers’ enjoyment of their coffee.
Describing itself as Singapore’s first 4D immersive cafe experience, customers stepping into the space will find themselves faced with a wall displaying floor-to-ceiling light projections of an aquarium.
Mdm Violet Wong, its owner, told TODAY that the cafe also employs an artificial intelligence Robot Barista, and offers tarot card readings and horoscope-inspired drinks.
Beyond coffee houses shaping up as third spaces, Dr Liu from SUSS added that the influence of new media and content marketing strategies, especially through social media and key opinion leaders, has also played a pivotal role in elevating Singaporeans’ love for coffee.
“This impact is particularly evident among Gen Z and younger consumers who are heavily immersed in the digital realm. One illustrative example is the growing popularity of Korean dramas, which often prominently feature coffee brands and shops.”
Besides influencers, good locations and creating “Instagrammable servings of food and drinks” may be conducive to patrons spreading the message about the brand to their peers on social media, said Dr Ramaswami from SMU.
Getting more people to drink quality coffee is what Ms Tan, from Homeground Coffee Roasters, hopes to do with the “Playground” — a space owned by the brand which she likens to an “Aesop or Apple store, but for coffee”.
“We expanded this space (beside our cafe) called Playground, where we call it the playground for home-brewers and coffee professionals.
“You can see it as the Aesop or Apple store, but for coffee. It’s like an experience space, where you can try anything — you don’t have to pay, there’s no commitment.”
She added: “The whole mission is always about getting more people to want to drink coffee and want to make coffee at home.”
To this end, she believes the presence of more international coffee chains in Singapore is not necessarily a bad thing, as it could signal an “opportunity”.
These chains would have the “capacity” to offer huge discounts to consumers, which could entice customers into trying coffee or getting acquainted with the field of specialty coffee.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE COFFEE CULTURE?
Besides the growing out-of-home coffee consumption, more consumers are also venturing into home-brewing — which has seen a market for coffee gear and equipment, coffee subscriptions, and coffee capsules.
This niche is something that coffee business-owners, like Ms Tan from Homeground and Mr Lim from Double Up Coffee, hope to fill.
Mr Lim told TODAY that Double Up Coffee would pivot to other functions within the coffee industry, after closing its physical store in August.
This includes ramping up its online presence, and focusing on its coffee roasting arm, intermediate barista training, and providing consultancy services to its wholesale clients.
It will also work towards a coffee subscription model, and diversifying its products to make specialty coffee “more approachable to mass consumers” — including exploring the production of specialty coffee capsules.
Amid the ever-growing competition in a relatively small market, coffee businesses would do well to diversify their product offerings, and innovate within the industry, said coffee business-owners and retail experts.
Mr Lim said: “Innovation is critical to push the industry forward.”
This could manifest itself in many aspects of coffee — from upstream farming practices that “improve the quality and resilience of coffee species” to new technology downstream — including ways in which roasters and baristas could increase the quality and consistency of coffee served to consumers.
One way to do the latter is via specialty coffee capsules, something that Mr Lim is exploring to “make specialty coffee more approachable to mass consumers without compromising on its quality”.