Step aside, Starbucks: Tiong Hoe Specialty Coffee is a second generation business that’s making Singapore’s local coffee scene great again.
Bucking the trend that cool coffee houses reside either in the dominion of hipster backed startups or global conglomerates, Singapore’s Tiong Hoe Specialty Coffee is a local business with history, roots, and a place at the heart of its hometown’s cafe culture. Started by now legendary coffee expert Tan Tiong Hoe back in the 1960s, the second generation business is now run by his son Jacob and includes a cafe serving their own roasted coffee, a retail and wholesale arm that sells speciality beans from all over the world and a series of barista training courses.
For Jacob, coffee is not something to be taken lightly. “Some hipster cafes can be quite pretentious, but we are really serious about our coffee,” he explains. He even has the Arabica Q grader certification to prove it – one of only 30 in Singapore with the Coffee Quality Institute’s accolade, a group that includes his business partner Juliana, who takes charge of strategic planning and operations, and head barista, Samantha.
Backed by a team of passionate baristas and coffee specialists, Tiong Hoe sits on two adjacent units in the gentrified Queensway estate, transforming its street into a buzzing locale for hipsters, office workers and tourists. Thanks to a vibe as authentic as its story, it has attracted a cult following amongst those looking for a coffee that delivers on more than just taste. On the production side, they roast four tonnes of beans every month on site – some lucky customers may catch a glimpse of the senior Mr Tan, now 76, working his magic on their daily brew.
Swing by the store-slash-cafe next door, and you’ll get up close and personal with around 25 types of arabica coffee beans ranging from the mainstream to the artisanal such as the exotic ‘gesha’ variety that comes all the way from Panama. They also sell small batches of beans that have been treated by special processes like lactic washes and carbonic maceration, producing truly unique flavours for the most discerning coffee-philes. “We may not cover every single origin, but we have a good representation of most coffee-producing regions,” says Jacob.
For the Tiong Hoe Specialty Coffee Company, every single chink in the coffee chain is something that merits attention – from farmer to roaster, barista to customer. Just as how the farmer handles his produce is instrumental to its final taste, so is the consumer’s willingness to pay the right price for ethically-produced beans. In the end, however, the final judgement comes down to each and every cup. “There is no perfect blend of coffee. Like a dark art, we assume the basics of it but we have to run trials to materialise the flavours,” says Jacob. With over 50 years in the business, it seems they’re doing more than OK. “Competition exists, but because we continue to give our best in terms of supplies and service, even they have become friends. Most importantly, we get to drink loads of good coffee!”