Why Does Coffee Taste So Much Better in Asia?

There are coffee shops strewn about all around Singapore serving specialty coffees.

I see more (non-Starbucks) chain shops in Kuala Lumpur — there’s an Old Town White Coffee everywhere — but more craft coffee purveyors in Singapore than anywhere else I’ve been. (Disclosure: I live in Arlington, Virginia and — as memorialized by GoRemy in the Arlington Rap we mostly have Starbucks.)

A few months ago I had a fantastic cup of coffee at Oriole Cafe & Bar at the Pan Pacific off Orchard Road.

Singapore is one of the heaviest coffee drinking countries per-capita. But the phenomenon of really good coffee in Southeast Asia is hardly limited to Singapore.

I’ve only tried Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee in the air (on Singapore, Asiana, and ANA in first class). It’s good but not my favorite and I don’t deign to know whether it’s the coffee beans or the altitude that causes me not to appreciate it as much as some coffee aficionados do. But it’s likely revealing that most of it is consumed in Japan.

Now, I fully acknowledge that my coffee preferences play a role in my thinking here. I like a deep, rich cup of coffee. I prefer a full bodied somewhat bitter flavor, so perhaps the prevalence of robusta beans in Singapore is related.

There are many other things I don’t understand about coffee, not at all related, like why you cannot get takeaway cups in Italy.

In high school I drank coffee in the morning, but it wasn’t very good coffee. In college in the early and mid-90s I drank Starbucks coffee. There’s little doubt in my mind that Starbucks served as a ‘gateway’ of sorts for me into better coffees. Rather than putting local craft coffeehouses out of business, they’ve grown as Starbucks has grown, introducing large numbers of people to specialty coffee in a ‘safe’ environment, many of whom go on to even greater specialization.

At home I drink coffee from a machine I picked up on deep, deep, deep discount — a $3000 retail machine purchased for less than $700 six years ago. I order my beans online and I usually order fresh roasted beans from Sumatra (and it’s not more expensive than buying beans from Starbucks — which I can’t do because those beans are too oily, and they cause problems for the machine).

I have near universally-good coffee not just in Singapore and in Indonesia but also in Thailand (not just ice coffee with condensed milk!) — and, oddly enough, in the Maldives. The coffee at the Park Hyatt Hadahaa is some of my favorite, anywhere.

I can bring quality coffee home. And when I’m in Asia it’s likely I’m not drinking just average quality coffee even for the region. Nonetheless is does seem as though average quality is higher there, and I don’t have a strong theory why that is.

Are you a heavy coffee drinker? Where do you find the very best coffee in your travels?


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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Last month I had absolutely delicious coffee in Beijing, and wondered at the time if they had added something unknown to enhance the flavor.

  2. Seattle and Portland are my two favorite coffee cities. And a shout out to Blue Bottle in San Francisco as well! I haven’t been entirely convinced that the coffee is necessarily better in Asia. In fact, I had some of the worst coffees in my life in Taiwan and China. Maybe it’s because there such a predominant tea culture instead?

  3. Big coffee snob here and (for me) it boils down to if the coffee shop owners/ roasters know what they’re doing. You can have a “great” coffee shop that has no clue about roasting coffee. My recent favorite (domestic) has been a local roaster I found when in Rhode Island. International – Brussels has some great coffee shops.

  4. You should have figured it out by now from all the traveling you have done. Asian people cannot stand loving around the same stuff everyday. They hate standardization. In the States, you see Statbucks, Best Buy, Wal-mart and so forth everywhere. If you go to China, for instance, the chain restaurant only exists in one particular city.

  5. Regarding Italy: that’s tradition and good taste. Ventisized coffees are not highly appreciated there

  6. Paul Newman K-Cups, black. I actually like plungers as well, Le Meridien uses them in their rooms, but I was never very good at it. But I adore my Keurig, will never go back.

    I just wish someone would tell me why they would ruin a good cup of coffee by adding cream or sugar to it, might as well just drink instant. Enjoy the full flavor and drink it black as it is intended.

  7. My question was always why is the coffee so much better in Australia than in the UK or the US when they are comparable countries. It’s possibly the most competitive market for espresso coffee in the world

  8. Am I the only one who is an iced coffee lover? My standard coffee house order is a large iced Americano with an extra shot to which I add just a little bit of half and half. In Los Angeles the restaurant where I often have breakfast (Hugo’s in West Hollywood) has excellent, strong and rich, regular iced coffee. In Beverly Hills, the EuroCafe makes a superb iced Americano, which I enjoy with a fresh baked croissant before going to All Saints Episcopal Church every Sunday, which is just around the corner. When I lived in Paris and couldn’t get iced coffee, I’d enjoy a double espresso at the nearest tabac. Wish more airlines would serve good iced coffee!

  9. I’m a daily Illy drinker, but like to pick up some Blue Bottle or Stumptown on occasion.

    I love Fuel Espresso when I visit HKG every year – in the IFC mall, actually from NZ originally:http://www.fuelespresso.co.nz/

    They make a great Flat White!

  10. Slightly off-topic, bit it IS coffee… I’ll date myself, but who cares. Yes, I’ve tried the chain and free-standing up scale coffees and remain convinced that my best cup of coffee is well made standard drip brewed and the French Press method is as fancy and I care to go. In 99% percent of cases, the quality of the finished cup centers on water quality, strict attention to brewing details, followed by bean and roast quality. The ultimate sipping question is whether any airline has developed a means to bypass use of on-board “Potable Water” in favor of bottled water for their generic coach class brewed coffee. If brewed with good water, their generic cup can be remarkably good. One sip will expose their secret and yes, “Potable Water” sucks.

  11. If you aren’t at a pour-over 3rd generation coffee shop, you’re doing it wrong. Full bodied coffee is only better than Folgers. Medium roast pour over is where it’s at.

  12. lot of pacific island grown beans have a rich but more syrupy taste with less bite than maybe what you usually drink in Centro American blends.

  13. it’s not just coffee and it’s not just Asia, the States has problems with excessive sugar and sodium, you haven’t noticed, type two diabetes? i notice the time i eat in Europe, Asia, Pan Pacific, anywhere ex the states is far less sugarless and sodium

  14. it’s not just coffee and it’s not just Asia, the States has problems with excessive sugar and sodium, you haven’t noticed, type two diabetes? i notice the first time i eat in Europe, Asia, Pan Pacific, anywhere ex the states is far less sugar and sodium

  15. Australia hands down. Every espresso-based drink I had there was just exceptionally smooth. Better than (eek) Italy? Haven’t drunk much regular coffee in Asia as there are so many other interesting things to drink there–but I will check when I’m back. I wonder if it doesn’t have sth to do with a respect for ritual, willingness to do one thing very well, which is such a hallmark of food culture there.

  16. Coffee in Europe and Italy was the best then the America for the most part. Arabic bean does dominate the European area and is considered the best. Historically, Arabic coffee was the first coffee to be produce.

  17. As a Singaporean I’m not a coffee drinker, more of a tea guy. But everyone else I know seems to dig it…

  18. Look I don’t want to be too rude but if Starbucks is your starting point for good coffee its no surprise for me that you think coffee is good in Asia. For me Australia/New Zealand have the best coffee around (very few bad coffees to be found), Asia certainly has some good spots though. As someone notes above I think it’s about specialisation, good coffee roasters/barista specialise in doing it rather than being part of a franchise where its just a job or just part of what they do.

  19. @Steve who said Starbucks is a starting point for good coffee? I just made fun of the town I live in and the median coffee here.

  20. I do NOT like coffee in Asia (I live in China and have travelled to Viet Nam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore several times, planning Indonesia for next Chinese New Year holidays).

    Coffee tastes best in Lisbon and Vienna, Italian coffee is also OK and French coffee is just about drinkable. In the rest of Europe, you could make your own coffee and in North America you better drink some other hot drink, because coffee there is not for human consumption.

  21. The best coffee I’ve ever had was in Tanzania, brewed from fresh local beans. I never knew coffee could be that good.

    Gary, where do you buy your beans online?

  22. Your preference for the taste profile of robusta beans over arabica beans probably explains a great deal of your experiences. (Nothing wrong with that preference.)

  23. After spending time in Turkey and Italy and speaking with local, non-chain coffeshop owners there, we learned how important the type of bean in (robusta vs. arabica vs. other), how the bean is roasted, how how well the coffee is prepared; specifically, at what temperature the coffee is brewed and the method of brewing. Not only that, but incremental changes in temperature, the vessel of brewing (like the Turkish cezve), and the type of heat used–in Turkey, heated on charcoal coals–has an influence.

    Not only that, but the tiniest bit of difference in how the coffee is tamped down–or even if it is–affects the coffee taste. We had a cheapo Mr. Coffee espresso maker, and our visiting friends from Belgium always tamped the coffee down in the bowl, while the appliance instructions said to never tamp or press down. Our Belgian friends said everyone tamps once or twice in Europe.

    The US coffee market does not like “bitter”, while elsewhere in the world most coffees have a delectable sharpness not found in American coffee.

  24. Everything tastes better on vacation!!

    My favorite coffee is in Vietnam, followed by hong kong, and expresso in Italy! No chains either, only local!

  25. Coffee beans in Malaysia and Vietnam are often roasted with butter and sugar, giving the coffee a rich, carmelized flavor. It tastes sweeter and smoother, even before the addition of sweetened condensed milk.

  26. At the Thailand airport we bought several bags of Vietnamese coffee for our daughter–her favorite when she lived in Japan for 5 years. Entering Cambodia, I set the package down while filling out visa forms and, you guessed it–it never showed up in lost and found.

  27. It’s not really fair to make a blanket statement that coffee across any country/continent might be better than anywhere else. Is coffee in Pisa better than coffee in Portland? No. Is coffee in Rome better than in Wichita? Yes.

    No matter where you are, good coffee is just better than bad coffee, and that includes freshness, roasting skill, and preparation method.

    Starbucks coffee beans are too oily because they’ve been overroasted (it would be impossible to roast as much as they need to fill their orders at a lower temperature, so they have to scorch their beans). “Sweating” is an indicator of burnt coffee. Burnt coffee works well for milk-based drinks — which is the Starbucks model. But microroasts are a much more carefully cooked berry with greater rewards.

    And good coffee is not defined by its cream or sugar – that’s Starbucks’ marketing. It’s like the scene in Parks & Recreation where Amy Poehler licks the whipped cream off her coffee and goes, “Oh, you make the BEST coffee!”

    Yay coffee discussion. Great post, Gary.

  28. Gary – I love Sumatra coffee, too. Most people know that Amazon Subscribe & Save takes additional % off, but you might not know that if you have 5 S&S orders scheduled at once, plus you sign up for Amazon Mom (need not be a mom, and it’s free), it will take 20% off. Some Sumatra whole beans present in this search can be had for $7/pound *delivered* if done as described. http://goo.gl/zEsY8p I get the Coffee Bean Direct 5lb bags and use in a high end Capresso machine, as it sounds like you do. Love it!

  29. If you love Sumatran coffee, and are often in Asia, I highly recommend that you make a quick trip to Medan, North Sumatra to try it out. I was blown away by the quality of the coffee at Kopi Sidikalang. They have a branch in the basement of the Sun Plaza Mall in Medan. Incidentally, if you like Durian — or even if you think you do not like Durian — Medan is a must trip, as the Durian there are miles better than those from Thailand (which are sort of lousy and help give Durian a bad name) and significantly better than even Malaysian or Indonesian ones.

    I have my own theory why the coffee is so good in Sumatra and areas nearby like Singapore, which is buttressed by my observation that the local coffee in Brazil is also usually fabulous (though not always well made). I think it has to do with the fact that the green coffee is roasted relatively nearby to where it is picked. Coffee roasted in the US has usually sat as green beans for many months, while coffee you drink in Asia or Brazil is much more likely to be roasted locally. The US Coffee roasters have always said that green coffee doesn’t degrade until it is roasted, and then it degrades quickly. This seems more like wishful thinking to me, and I think that coffee roasted soon after it is picked is best.

  30. I go back to Hong Kong once a year to see my mom and I get great coffee there, and in Japan even Starbucks have good coffee. Not in the States, I cannot find any good coffee, even the ones from the top ten lists. I think in America, the coffee are over roasted. Someone else says Asian liked their coffee smooth. Not sure why the difference but coffee in Asia is definitely superior than in the U.S.

  31. Had some time to kill at Hong Kong Airport last week and decided to get a cup of their brew of the day. I always ask what is the brew and server indicated it was a medium roast…Columbian. I know how that taste like back in the states and I was not looking forward to it since I like my coffee full bodied.

    To my surprise, it was one of the best cup of coffee I ever had. I did ask if they have a different source of beans than in the states but the server could not tell me. The other factor might be the cream they use in Hong Kong is not half and half, but more of full cream. I do agree that coffee in general taste better in asia, and other parts of the world. Let’s not even talk about coffee served on airplane…

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