Beans, Brews and Business: The Fascinating Story of Coffee in Singapore and Southeast Asia

By Kho Su Yian


If you think you’ve been smelling coffee while at level 4 of NUS’ Central Library (CLB), you’re not imagining things! Eagle-eyed (and sharp-nosed) library visitors would have noticed a self-service coffee station tucked away just after the CLB’s entrance. This is the result of a Field Service Project by an enterprising group of Business School students, in collaboration with Modular Labs. The students are studying the many facets of coffee consumers, from how they interact with the coffee machines, to gauging the effectiveness of an honour-based payment system.


Coffee & Libraries – What’s the Connection?

The library is an ideal environment for this experiment – after all, who needs coffee more than students mugging for their exams or assignments? And while NUS Libraries is happy to host this intriguing project, our support extends beyond providing space to set up shop. We are working with the group to provide crowd flow and footfall information for their coffee station, as well as help direct them to market research that can be gleaned from the databases that we subscribe to. Beyond market research, our resources and databases cover a plethora of information on the history, business and culture of coffee. Have a look!

Coffee’s history in Southeast Asia goes back centuries, beginning as a valuable cash crop grown by European colonial holdings in Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia, and eventually becoming a familiar daily drink for both the uncles and aunties ordering their Kopi-O Kosong, and the busy executives grabbing an Americano on their way to the office.

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) started coffee plantations in Indonesia, either in the late 1600s, as noted by Catherine Tucker in Coffee Culture: Local Experiences, Global Connections, or the early 1700s, according to Alberto Freenstra’s Requests from the Indies. Asian Agency in the VOC’s Currency Supply to Eighteenth-Century Java

Coffee’s Indonesian connection is also linguistic. Some coffee drinkers may still refer to their favourite beverage as a “cup of Joe” or “cup of Java”, which according to A Cup of Java, likely originated from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, that showcased Indonesian culture and products such as batik and gamelan performances. The Java Lunch Room served only Java coffee, which likely led to the close association between Java and coffee.


A Very Robusta Business

Given the pervasiveness of coffee across Singapore, from kopitiams brewing fragrant cups of local kopi, to pervasive chain coffee outlets, and scandi-chic third-wave specialty coffee cafes, it should come as no surprise to coffee lovers that coffee is big business in Singapore. Euromonitor’s latest report on Coffee in Singapore (courtesy of the Passport database) notes that Singapore’s coffee sector generated sales of over S$217 million in 2023 and is expected to continue growing. The report provides qualitative and quantitative analysis of coffee in Singapore and predicts that specialty and localized coffee have good potential for growth in the near future.


Cups for Your Cuppa

Much like the other similarly valuable and widely traded commodities tea and chocolate, coffee has also sparked a Renaissance in the dining and sitting rooms around the world with new and specialized utensils for the beverage. The book Coffee, Tea and Chocolate: Consuming the World provides gorgeous photographs of ornate cups, coffee pots, trays and other paraphernalia. The trend shows no sign of abating to this day, with an abundance of modern equipment for the avid coffee drinker, from Moka pots, pour-over kettles with their slim swan-like spouts, to glass and brass towers that drip water from ice blocks to produce smooth cold brews.


From Kopitiams to Café Culture

While the idea of communal enjoyment of a beverage is not unique to any specific society, there are many variations on the theme across cultures. In Singapore, coffee culture was historically centred around the kopitiam (a Singlish term for “coffee shop”), where workers would congregate and unwind after a long day of labour. One Kopi at a Time: Retracing Singapore’s Coffee Culture provides a concise and entertaining recap of Singapore’s coffee culture, from the early 20th century to the present day. While describing coffee and kopitiams over the decades, the witty text is accompanied by numerous photographs and illustrations. The book is peppered with interesting snippets of facts – for example, did you know that coffee was once grown in Orchard Road? Perhaps less surprising is the fact that coffee has always been a booming business, even back in the 1950s, with possibly as many as 500-600 kopitiams in Singapore.

Endeavours to set up coffee businesses in Singapore have seen mixed results. Some coffee chains have entered the market with a bang, only to exit quietly (or in the case of Flash Coffee, not so quietly). Still, this has not deterred new players from trying to find their niche here. One such new player that’s close to our librarian hearts is the Book Bar, a combination bookstore and cafe that opened in the Duxton area in mid-2023. Coffee loving bookworms who might prefer more substantial grub can also check out Book Café along Martin Road, which has operated since around 2001, giving hungry readers a place to cosy up with a book (the café offers a range of pre-loved books for patrons to browse) and of course, a steaming mug of coffee.

If you’re interested in finding out what interesting cafés have come (and possibly gone) in the past several years, check out Unique Cafes in Singapore, published in 2011. It would be an adventure to go through the cafes listed and find out how many are still thriving. That said, given the massive changes in the specialty coffee scene since then, it is probably as much of an adventure to visit all the cafés that have popped up since then, and are thriving today!

For a real home-brewed coffee success story, check out The Top Toast: Ya Kun and the Singapore Breakfast Tradition. More than a pean to the now ubiquitous coffee chain, the book dives into the nuts and bolts of Ya Kun’s success, analysing everything from leadership culture, organisational structure, branding strategies and human resource management. It’s a long in-depth case study of a local “boy” made good.

There are many more stories and analyses of coffee in all its aspects available for discovery at NUS Libraries. To help you in your coffee discovery, we’ve curated a list of coffee-related books, journal articles and more, ranging from how coffee has influenced cultures and economies, aesthetics and tastes, and even fiction involving coffee. So don’t wait – head over to Level 4 at CLB, grab a coffee (from Honesty Coffee), and settle down to find out more about this delicious dark brew.


Curated List

A Cup of coffee, or, Coffee in its colours. (1663). The Making of the Modern World.

Alagan, E. (2011). Beck and call: A business thriller set in Singapore. LCA Books.

Anonymous. (1674). A Satyr against coffee. Early Modern Books.

Balk, G. L. (2007). Archives of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the local institutions in Batavia (Jakarta). Brill.

Bilfield, A. (2022). Brewing sustainability in the coffee and tea industries: From producer to consumer. Routledge.

Biswas-Tortajada, A. (2015). Sustainability in coffee production: Creating shared value chains in Colombia. Routledge.

Brazil and Java, report on coffee-culture in America, Asia and Africa, to H E the minister of the colonies. (1885). W H Allen; University of California, San Diego.

Carpenter, M. (2014). Caffeinated: How our daily habit helps, hurts, and hooks. Hudson Street Press.

Chong, C., & Pillai, S. (2023, October 14). Flash Coffee exits Singapore, with S$14m in debts to creditors, staff. The Business Times.

Chrystal, P. (2016). Coffee: A drink for the devil. Amberley.

Clarence-Smith, W. G., & Topik, S. (Eds.). (2003). The Global coffee economy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, 1500–1989. Cambridge University Press.

Coffee: A comprehensive guide to the bean, the beverage, and the industry (c2013.). Rowman & Littlefield.

Coffee philosophy for everyone: Grounds for debate. (2011). Wiley-Blackwell.

Cowan, B. W. (2005). The social life of coffee: The emergence of the British coffeehouse. Yale.

Dawdle and browse in a cafe setting. (2023, August 31). The Straits Times. 

Descalsota, M. (2024, January 1). A retired banker in Singapore was looking for his next venture. He found it by reviving a dying trade: Traditional coffee shops. Business Insider, US Edition.

Dufour, P. S., Colmenero de Ledesma, A., & Chamberlayne, J. (1685). The manner of making coffee, tea, and chocolate as it is used in most parts of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. Printed for William Crook; The Making of the Modern World.

Ellsworth, D. (c2010.). Coffee shop: A business thriller set in Singapore. LCA Books.

Euromonitor International. (2023). Coffee in Singapore [Market Research Report].

Euromonitor International. (2024). Cafes/Bars in Singapore [Market Research Report].

Fancy an Indian, barbecue or coffee omakase. (2024, March 17). The Straits Times.

Feenstra, A. (2020). Requests from the Indies. Asian Agency in the VOC’s Currency Supply to Eighteenth-Century Java. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 63(5–6), 853–891.

Folmer, B. (Ed.). (2017). The Craft and science of coffee. Academic Press.

Fregulia, J. M. (2019). A rich and tantalizing brew: A history of how coffee connected the world. University of Arkansas Press.

Fridell, G. (2014). Coffee. Polity Press.

Heesterman, J. E. (1964). The taste of Liberia coffee and of instant coffee prepared from it.  Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen.

Heng, E. (2011). Unique cafes in Singapore. Ebenezer Heng.

Intel Tech, a Singapore coffee shop builds a robot barista. (2021). Communications Today.

Koh, W. (2015). The top toast: Ya Kun and the Singapore breakfast tradition (Second Edition). Cengage Learning. 

Lee, K. -S., & Ruck, K. J. (2022). Barista Diary: An autoethnography studying the operational experience of third-wave coffee shop baristas. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 102, 103182.

Loh, J. (2015). One kopi at a time: Retracing Singapore’s coffee culture. Invasion Studios Pte Ltd.

Manzo, J. (2010). Coffee, Connoisseurship, and an Ethnomethodologically-Informed Sociology of Taste. Human Studies 33, 141–155. 

Michelli, J. A. (2014). Leading the Starbucks way: 5 principles for connecting with your customers, your products and your people. McGraw-Hill Education.

Pendergrast, M. (2000). Uncommon grounds: The history of coffee and how it transformed our world. Basic Books.

Tan, H. H. (2001, July 6). Mixing lattes and letters. The Business Times.

Tan, A. M. (2017). La Kopi. Math Paper Press.

Tan, H. Y. (2023, February 26). What’s brewing in ChinatownThe Straits Times.

Tech-enabled coffee chains eyeing Singapore as prized battleground for supremacy. (2023, September 26). The Business Times.

Teggia, G. (2003). A cup of Java. Equinox Publishing.

The spice mill devoted to the interests of manufacturer and consumer. (1894). The Spice Mill Publishing Co.

Tucker, C. M. (2017). Coffee culture: Local experiences, global connections (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Wild, A. (2005). Coffee: A dark history  (1st American ed.). W. W. Norton.

You, Y.F., Hellman, M., & Saska, H. (2016). Coffee, tea, and chocolate: Consuming the world. Detroit Institute of Arts, Distributed by Yale University Press.

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