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How a teenage barista blossomed into a café owner and coffee roaster

How a teenage barista blossomed into a café owner and coffee roaster

Enjoy some fully washed Ethiopia Gigesa with its notes of elderflower and sweet apricot (left). A perfect shot of espresso (right)
Enjoy some fully washed Ethiopia Gigesa with its notes of elderflower and sweet apricot (left). A perfect shot of espresso (right)

JOHOR BARU, June 10 — Cafés serving specialty coffee are a dime a dozen these days, a far cry from a mere five years ago. Yet how many have been built from scratch, almost single-handedly by one person, almost through sheer force of will?

Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters’ Ang Yeesiang might be one of the few who can lay claim to that mantle. The 25-year-old Penangite wears many hats: award-winning barista, café owner and now boutique coffee roaster. That he has come this far, not as a trust fund baby, but through sheer grit and plenty of passion for his craft is something to marvel at.

A typical day for Ang begins early: After taking some light breakfast (“so it won’t ruin my palate,” he explains), he takes around 15 minutes to calibrate his coffee after the espresso machine warms up. At 8am sharp, the café is open for customers.

He says, “During lulls in the day, I will update my brewing skills, learn more about a new coffee or review my roasting log to understand how I can improve certain roast profiles to maximise the flavours. Every day is a routine, brewing coffee for my customers but each day is also different because I have an opportunity to brew different coffees, to brew differently.”

Penang-born barista Ang Yeesiang made his bones in KL before opening his own café in Johor Baru
Penang-born barista Ang Yeesiang made his bones in KL before opening his own café in Johor Baru

In the evenings, after closing up and grabbing dinner nearby, Ang would return to the shop three to four times a week to roast beans. He uses a Cube 600 direct fire drum roaster for small batches. Depending on what needs to be roasted that day, he might only finish close to midnight.

It’s not an easy life.

“Roasting a batch of coffee takes just eight to 13 minutes but the pre-heating and clean-up of the roasting machine take a lot of time. There’s no skipping any steps. Pre-heating the machine is crucial for a consistent roast profile so I have to very precise with it,” he explains.

Though the daily grind can be challenging, Ang has no regrets. He recalls when he first arrived in KL from Penang before he even turned 20: “My entire cash savings then was only RM300. It was very tough; I could only have sliced white bread, Maggi noodles and white rice with curry. These were my three meals a day for more than three months until my salary increased. Without family or friends there, I did everything myself.”

Fortune favours the bold: After putting in his time as an apprentice barista in the capital and learning to manage a café, it was time for Ang to take the next step. In 2014, he opened Art52 Coffee, his first shop, in Johor Baru. He recalls, “As café owner, I couldn’t just focus on coffee the way I used to as a barista, but I had to quickly learn the business aspects of it such as marketing and branding as well as managing my cash flow.”

Initially 3D hot chocolate accounted for much of the sales (left). Every morning, Ang spends around 15 minutes to calibrate his coffee (right)
Initially 3D hot chocolate accounted for much of the sales (left). Every morning, Ang spends around 15 minutes to calibrate his coffee (right)

Location was another hard lesson for Ang; he swiftly learned that a small space on the second floor of an art gallery didn’t provide much walk-in traffic or visibility. Less than a year later, Ang moved out and opened his current place, Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters, with some capital infusion from a silent partner, formerly a regular at his old café (thereby validating his first endeavour).

It’s obvious that Ang can both think quickly on his feet as well as deliver, brewing coffee good enough to convert a satisfied customer into an unsolicited investor. He’s a survivor, an important trait in an extremely competitive industry that rewards bigger players with higher volumes.

Masahiro Aoki, barista trainer and one of Ang’s mentors, feels that his former protégé’s creativity helps him to stand out from the pack. He says, “I first met Yeesiang when he was only a teenager and he was already deeply passionate about coffee back then. It’s not easy running your own café as customers get bored easily – one needs to come create new experiences for them. The great thing about Yeesiang is that he always has plenty of ideas!”

Sometimes the path to success requires a leap of faith. For Ang, this leap meant staying patient and having his eye on the goal despite an unconventional and rather circuitous route. Who would have thought the way to a coffee lover’s heart would be through 3D hot chocolate, for example?

Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters is suffused with natural light
Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters is suffused with natural light

He explains, “When I first started three years ago, filter coffee was something new in JB. I thought maybe I could slowly expose my customers to specialty coffee but I needed something to draw them back till that happened. That’s where hot chocolate with 3D latte art came in: it was very Instagrammable and still fresh back then.”

At first, 60 per cent of total beverage sales came from the 3D hot chocolate. This worried Ang because that wasn’t the direction he was aiming for. Still he persisted as the revenue from this little “detour” meant he could purchase his own beans for roasting.

“The popularity of the 3D hot chocolate meant I had more money to spend on higher grade raw coffee beans. In fact, I have been roasting coffee since 2014 but the early days were for learning. It was only 30 months later, around 2016, that I started using beans I roasted myself in the café.”

Over time, the sales of 3D hot chocolate accounted for less of total sales, about 10 per cent, while more customers started ordering filter coffee. Ang says, “This really proved what we can achieve after almost three years in retail coffee. And it’s rare to see in JB. But it’s still not enough. I’m still figuring out, every single day, how to improve the quality of coffee and our sales.”

These days Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters has a rotating menu of single origin beans suitable for both espresso and filter brew coffee. From a fully washed Ethiopia Gigesa with notes of elderflower and sweet apricot to the natural processed Ethiopia Hambela redolent of juicy mixed berries, fruity flavours reign. Limited quantities of beans are available for purchase for home brewing.

The natural processed Ethiopia Hambela from Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters is full of fruity flavours (left). Ang uses a Cube 600 direct fire drum roaster for small coffee roasting (right)
The natural processed Ethiopia Hambela from Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters is full of fruity flavours (left). Ang uses a Cube 600 direct fire drum roaster for small coffee roasting (right)

According to Ang, once the customers started trying filter coffee, initially out of curiosity, they started liking it. He says, “They could taste the difference in what we offer. They tell me this is ‘smoother’ or that it is ‘fruit-like’, and I knew this is why I strive to make better coffee. More than winning a coffee competition, this means so much to me.”

Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters

28, Jalan Maju, Taman Pelangi, Johor Baru

Open daily (except Thu closed) 8am-6pm

Tel: 016-235 1393

www.facebook.com/sweetblossomcoffeeroasters

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