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The 3 Waves of Coffee in Malaysia & Singapore

Besides cooking, the writer is also a Barista with The Bulb Coffee, with 3 years experience as a Barista.

The 3 different waves of coffee

The 3 different waves of coffee


In my previous article, Coffees Loved by South East Asians (Link below), I’ve mentioned that Malaysia and Singapore are like two separated brothers. The two countries in South East Asia share a lot of cultural similarities, even our coffee culture is somewhat similar. Malaysia has the “Kopi” and Singapore has the “Kopi”, we have our morning cuppa with a plate of “Kaya & Butter” toast with a side of Half boiled eggs and we even have our own respective “indie coffee” scenes. Lets get to know the coffee culture of both Malaysia & Singapore in today’s Coffee Culture article.

But before that, the translations which will be important to your read:

“Kopi” = Coffee

“Kopitiam” = Coffee house

“Kaya” = A type of spread made from “Pandan” leaves, coconut milk and sugar.

Link to Coffees of Southeast Asia article

  • Coffee in South East Asia
    Today, we go deep into the types of Coffee loved by the people of South East Asia. From the famous, Vietnamese Egg Coffee, to the most expensive coffee in the world, the "Kopi Luwak". Lets go on this adventure together!

The 3 waves of coffee

Instant coffee, also known as the first wave.

Instant coffee, also known as the first wave.

Frappe, made famous by Starbucks, which is 2nd wave.

Frappe, made famous by Starbucks, which is 2nd wave.

The First Wave = More commonly known as the boom of Instant coffee, which dates back to the late 1800s where entrepreneurs saw a growing market in the affordable and “ready-to-make” coffee production, hence why brands like Maxwell house or in Malaysia and Singapore’s case, Nescafe, became household brands during this period.

It was during this period where Instant Coffee or any large production coffee grounds were the “hype” of the time for Malaysians and Singaporeans, which was when “Kopi” and “Nescafe” were the favorites of the time and arguably, the time where “Kopitiam” was invented.

The Second Wave = This was when Coffee was further developed into Speciality coffees, which is a reaction to the “bad coffee” market during the first wave. It is during the second wave where consumers start to wonder where origin of their favorite coffee beans was and were interested to understand further about the roasting styles of these beans.

The second wave was influenced heavily by the wine culture where the principles and the applications are now applied to the coffee industry. Words like espresso, latte, cappuccino and Americano start to appear during this period.

Arguably, this started the boom of major café chains such as, Starbucks, Coffee bean and others during the late 1970s and made its way around the world and to Singapore in the year 1988 and Malaysia in the year 1999.

Latte art, something that represents the third wave.

Latte art, something that represents the third wave.

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The Third Wave = The third wave is quite new to the group, its term was first used by Trish Rothgeb, in her 2002 article “The Flamekeeper”. The third wave of coffee is how consumers were more and more interested in the characteristics of the coffee. For instance, the first wave was more of making coffee available to the masses while the second wave was when coffee became better but it was the marketing that was the driving force while in the third, both product and marketing is put aside and there is more emphasis on the production.

This is where the origin and its coffee taste start to be in the center stage of coffee shops, which gave birth to the “Niche Market” cafes or in layman terms, the indie coffee. Indie coffee shops have made its way to Malaysia and Singapore and has now became hangout spots for most Generation Y/Millennial people.

The "Kopitiam" Coffee Culture (First Wave)

A typical "kopitiam" in Kuala Lumpur. The setting is similar in Singapore.

A typical "kopitiam" in Kuala Lumpur. The setting is similar in Singapore.

The “Kopitiam” culture still exists in today’s Malaysia and Singapore and it is still considered a national culture by the people of these countries. We still love our “Kaya” & Butter toast, half boiled eggs and “Kopi” from time to time.

Although “Kopitiam” culture is an old-fashioned way of life in today’s world, we can’t help but to savor the food and beverage we loved since our childhood. “Kopitiam” culture is still evident in our culture as it is still fresh in the minds of Malaysians and Singaporeans.

“Kopitiam” was once known to be the place where everyone gathers for a business discussion, gather for a chat or just a good old family gathering on a weekend morning. Besides going for Coffee, the “Kopitiam” is where Malaysians and Singaporeans gather for breakfast, which is still a cultural norm followed by the people.

Coffee Chain coffee culture (Second Wave)

The interior of a Starbucks Chain which most of their shops look similar.

The interior of a Starbucks Chain which most of their shops look similar.

The introduction of Starbucks and Coffee bean to Malaysians and Singapore has created a significant change to Malaysian and Singaporean coffee culture and the behavior of the people towards coffee. In 1988, Starbucks opened their first store in Singapore and in the year 1999, Starbucks opened their first store in Malaysia.

The people of Malaysia and Singapore start to gain an interest in knowing what the origins of the coffee beans are and were eager to understand further what specialty coffees are. It is at this point of time, Malaysians and Singaporeans are introduced to Espresso, Latte and French Press culture.

Second wave coffee shops are a major meeting location for many people of Malaysia and Singapore. I’ve worked in Starbucks before in the year 2015 and I noticed that many people conduct business talks or do their work in these places because of the service they offer, which is why Malaysians and Singaporeans are attracted to Second wave coffee shops. As said in the previous section, Second wave coffee shops are not just about improving how we consume coffee, but it is the work of effective marketing.

Independent Coffee Culture (Third Wave)

A setting of an Independent Cafe in Penang, Malaysia.

A setting of an Independent Cafe in Penang, Malaysia.

Based on the study conducted by Faculty of Business and Management, Arshad Ayub Graduate Business School, of Universiti Teknologi MARA, it is now a trend among the younger generation (Most commonly, Generation Y) Malaysians to meet with family, friends and colleagues over a cup of coffee in cafes, the same with Singapore.

Continuing from their study, this has led to many western and local themed cafes popping up around the countries. Themed cafes are the work of Third Wave coffee shops, sometimes known as Independent coffee shops, which is an improvement to the previous second wave in terms of understanding deeper into the production of the coffee.

This is where coffees made using hand-brew and aero-press start to gain a following. Coffee in Malaysia and Singapore has evolved from drinking unknown coffee beans to knowing the origins, taste notes and production of the beans in the cuppa of the day.


Besides the changes in coffee consumption culture, these waves of coffee cultures have changed the way of Malaysian and Singaporeans coffee consumption style. From having a basic coffee with condensed milk and evaporated milk, to a cup of Ethiopian Citrus flavor and smoky after taste Americano. However, one similarity that remains throughout the wave changes was the importance of Coffee when it comes to socializing. We continue to meet and enjoy coffee together as a community.

© 2021 Nigel Koay

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