BEER on tap? Eeeekkk! Have I got the place wrong? The thought courses through my mind as I take another peek at the message on my phone and back again at the row of chrome taps behind a long, pristine white counter right in front of me that look remarkably like beer taps.
“What’s on Tap will be at the far end, on your left. See you there,” the message reads.
There? Where? And where are the espresso machines?
Rooted like a tree at the entrance of the outlet, my eyes furtively devouring my surrounds, it’s my olfactory organs which eventually tell me that I’ve indeed arrived at my destination.
After all, there’s no mistaking the bewitching smell of coffee.
“Come in, Intan!” I hear someone’s voice calling out to me from somewhere in the corner of this sparsely-furnished cafe.
A smiling, bespectacled man rises from where he’s sat, together with two others, both sporting a similar wide beam.
I make my way over and a round of hearty introductions ensue before I take my seat and appraise my companions around the table.
“How about coffee?” asks a handsome young man seated to my left.
Well-built with the physique of a gym buff, there’s a discernible Australian twang to his voice.
I nod happily and request for a cappuccino. “Extra hot please,” I implore and another guy, seated across from me, whom I duly discover is the buff young man’s older brother, rises and smiles.
“Of course,” he replies jovially before making his way behind the counter to attend to my order.
“My older brother Andrew looks after the daily operations here,” elaborates Eric Chung, head barista and co-founder of What’s On Tap, this recently-opened sleek new cafe with a discernible “mod” feel located at Plaza Mont Kiara, Kuala Lumpur.
Noting my eyes inquisitively sweeping the space around me, resting on its many “tech touches”, Eric shares that it was Andrew who was responsible for the renovation and design of this family-owned cafe.
“My brother has his own renovation and interior design business,” he adds.
Ah, that explains the unique design concept, I mutter to myself. Interestingly, coffee is served out of chrome taps, with the espresso machines cleverly concealed just under the counter.
This effectively eliminates the sense of separation between the barista and his customer, thus allowing the latter to experience what’s going on.
Meanwhile, the equipment used for coffee-making are laid out for all to see, giving one a sense of being in the open kitchen of a restaurant.
Shares Eric, the youngest of three siblings: “The layout has been meticulously thought out. Our aim is to enable our customers to be more engaged with the process of brewing a cup of coffee.”
Suffice to say, whether it’s a new product, service concept or cafe interior, ensuring that it’s multi-sensorial would be key to making it memorable. An experience that can impact all the senses would certainly impact the customers’ mind. And this is exactly what the Chung siblings are gunning for.
Passionately, Eric says: “When people walk in here, it’s not going to be just about buying a cup of coffee. The process of walking into this cafe is devised to ignite the five basic senses — the smell of coffee roasting, the visuals of machinery and art, the sounds of coffee shop activity, and finally the taste and touch of your cup of coffee.”
CHANGING THE APPROACH
The younger Chung is a coffee and fitness specialist with over 10 years of experience in the F&B and hospitality industry.
He honed his skills and coffee knowledge in Melbourne, a city synonymous for its buzzing coffee culture.
Having spent a decade working his way up from a waiter to barista, Eric went on to become a manager and eventually the head coffee roaster of a joint in Melbourne.
“Having been in the coffee industry for so long and seen the same ol’ process everywhere, I wanted to do something different with the coffee experience,” confides Eric, who shuttles between Melbourne, where he’s based and KL, for his business.
He adds: “Wherever you go, you get the customers placing their orders at the counter and then waiting around for their number to be called out. Then they pick up their coffee. I just feel that there’s a missing link somewhere from the point you place your order to when the coffee has been made.”
Continuing, the 32-year-old points out that the conventional design of the coffee machine — much like a huge box — doesn’t allow for the barista or customer to interact.
“The barista will be standing behind it preparing the coffee and the customer doesn’t get to see what’s happening. Sometimes you want to be able to educate the customer and create a relationship but when you’re hidden behind the machine, that’s not possible. And that’s why the design of this cafe is very open. Any customer who walks in can see what we do. It’s all very transparent.”
The brothers believe that the whole coffee experience should be a veritable “spectacle” too. Just like when you order a fancy cocktail at the bar and the bartender puts on a show for you as he’s mixing.
Says Eric: “Coffee is a treat for most people. So why can’t they also be ‘entertained’ when they place their order? They should be able to see what goes on before that cup of coffee is served to them.”
The cafe’s name, What’s On Tap, is self-explanatory.
“What you see there are all deconstructed coffee machines,” chips in Andrew, adding: “Although they might look like beer on tap, what actually flows out are the building blocks for long blacks and flat whites.”
Meanwhile, the Italian-manufactured Modbar system is also efficiently applied to automated pour-over processes for smooth, light-bodied sipping.
COLOURS OF COFFEE
More tech features abound in the roasting process here too. At What’s On Tap, the brothers roast their own coffee. “See there by the doorway? That’s our coffee roaster machine from Germany,” says Eric, pride lighting his eyes.
“I think we’re the first to import this machine into Malaysia. It’s a fluid-bed roaster, which is like an air roaster. It essentially heats the air within the chamber and causes an endothermic reaction within the beans themselves from the air in the chamber. Most of the roasters in the market at the moment are what you call drum roasters.”
They chose a fluid-based roaster as it allows for better control of the process, explains Eric.
“With better control, we’d be able to ensure consistency. Consistency and quality are what we’re after. And because we have the roaster, we can control everything — from bean to table!”
There are so many things that contribute towards a coffee’s flavour: the variety, the roast profile, the brew recipe, the processing method and so on. But when you start breaking it all down, a coffee’s flavour profile is really the result of one thing — chemical compounds.
“If we want to really optimise a coffee’s profile, we need to understand the science behind it,” explains Eric, adding: “And as roaster, we need to be able to manipulate the heat to control several chemical reactions.”
It’s the volatile compounds produced when the coffee beans are roasted which give coffee its rich and satisfying taste. There are about 800 different compounds produced during the thermal degradation reaction when coffee beans are roasted. Most of these compounds decompose proteins and sugar then react to form the volatile compounds that give a cup of coffee its unique smell.
A GOOD CUPPA
“Taste is very subjective,” replies Eric, when asked what constitutes a good cup of coffee. His preferred cuppa is a Long Black. But even then, that varies according to season, he adds, with a chuckle. “In winter, on a cold day in Melbourne, for example, I prefer a slightly medium to darker roast. It looks a lot like dark chocolate or dark cocoa. And there’s more body to it.”
Meanwhile, in the summer, he’d reach for something a little fruitier, a lighter roast.
“It’s a bit more refreshing. Those notes are quite prevalent especially in the specialty grade coffee. The widely accepted definition of specialty coffee is coffee scoring 80 points or above on the 100-point Coffee Review scale. Coffee scoring from 90-100 is graded Outstanding, coffee that scores 85-89.99 is graded Excellent, while coffee scoring 80-84.99 is graded Very Good.”
At the end of the day, he adds, their priority is pleasing the customers’ palate.
“If you want something refreshing and are not quite a coffee drinker, then our signature drink, the Orange Nitro Fizz, might be your thing. It tastes a bit like homemade ice lemon tea except that it’s coffee-based.”
Chips in the soft-spoken, elder Chung, a father of two: “We’re trying to slowly educate our customers. Sometimes when they order their drink, they have some time to spare. So we’ll share with them about our other options and explain to them the properties. Because once they give other options a try, at least they’ll have a bigger selection to choose from.”
Nodding, his younger brother shares that there are plans in the pipelines to hold coffee workshops where they’d be able to share with the public their knowledge of coffee. Concludes Eric: “We’re not saying we know everything because we’re also learning. There are always things happening in the industry, new trends and so much to learn. And that makes it exciting. We have to be on the ball to ensure that we remain relevant and sustainable.”
TO understand the specialty coffee process fully, you need to know how coffee is identified and sorted in general. In early stages of production, coffee is sorted into three groups: Brazilian, Robusta and “high-grown mild”.
Brazilian grade coffee doesn’t necessarily mean coffee beans grown in Brazil. The term refers to lower quality coffee that has been grown in lower elevations on wide expanses of land and harvested en masse.
This group is again broad and doesn’t necessarily mean coffee made from Robusta coffee beans. Robusta here means any non-specialty grade coffee that represents the larger Coffea canephora family — it’s the coffee used most commonly throughout the world by roasters and other purveyors.
The last kind, “high-grown mild”, is coffee of superior quality which claims the highest price on the market (aka: specialty coffee). These beans are typically grown in high elevations upwards of at least 610m (with most coffee grown in the 1,220m-1,830m ranges). This coffee is only picked by hand, handled with extreme care, and paid special attention to throughout the production process.
What's On Tap
B-G-05, Plaza Mont Kiara, Jalan Kiara, Mont Kiara, Kuala Lumpur
Open daily, 8am-7pm