Singapore is one of the smallest countries in the world, covering an area of only 733 square kilometers. It is famous for being a thriving global financial center, and among the most densely populated places in the world. It’s also home to a world-class specialty coffee scene, serving visitors and locals alike.
Some of the landmark third-wave cafes that serve specialty coffee there include Nylon Coffee, Papa Palheta, and Common Man Coffee Roasters, all of whom have been previously featured on Sprudge. Over the last decade the city-nation has experienced a bloom of coffee shops that serve high-quality coffee, and one of the most prominent of these is called The Community. It’s owned by Nor Aslam Bin Yusoff, who has emerged as an important leader in Singapore’s specialty coffee community, helping others to learn about coffee, roasting coffee for many brands around the city, and masterminding the annual Singapore Roaster Forum.
Bin Yusoff’s story is like many you’ll find in Singapore, one of connectivity and organic growth, fueled by the pace and energy of the city itself. Great coffee and Singapore are a perfect match, and at the center of this narrative again and again you’ll find the work of Nor Aslam Bin Yusoff.
This interview has been edited and slightly condensed for clarity.
Can you tell me about how you started your journey in coffee? Do you have any coffee mentors?
I got into coffee by chance. I was born in 1987. It was during my last year of tertiary school that one day, a friend asked if I wanted a part-time job working in a coffee shop. Back then, I had absolutely no idea that the cafe I was going to work at was going to be a powerhouse for specialty coffee in Singapore in the next seven years. It was Oriole Coffee Roaster, and to-be managers were the most influential my people not only in my life but also for the whole Singapore coffee industry in the last 10 years! They were John Ting (three-time Singapore Barista Champion) and Romeo Alfen. Working with them was a huge lesson in work ethics and professionalism. After six months of working at the shop, I told myself I could keep doing this every single day of my life.
I worked for Oriole for a few years. Then in 2011, after returning from mandatory national service, I worked for a cafe named The Plain, which was then serving roasted coffee by Ben Toovey, multi-time Australian Roasting Champion. Ben traveled to Singapore a few times to conduct training, and I owe most of my roasting knowledge to him.
In 2014, I accepted an offer from Romeo for a trader position at Oriole. Oriole was under a huge internal transformation back then, and a lot of the practices that I am doing now, including my preference for lighter roasts, were heavily influenced by this time at Oriole.
In 2016, I opened the first cafe of my own, namely VXX Cooperative, serving coffee from Nordic roasters, noticeably Koppi and Tim Wendelboe. The cafe closed after a year, and I learned a valuable lesson about balancing ideals and realities. Yet when one door closes, another door opens, and that was when I opened The Community.
For those who aren’t familiar, will you tell me about The Community? What’s your approach at this cafe?
The Community was opened in December 2017. It started with a genuine intention to host a space for a “community” to be built over better coffee. This intention required a concentrated effort among our team members to consistently engage with the guests that were coming into our cafe.
Coffee is an incredibly diverse product. Factors such as origin, micro-regions, and processing methods all contributed greatly to different taste profiles, and we sincerely believed that there was a kind of coffee suited for every single person out there. We wanted to do our best to find a taste you preferred within the confines of our sourcing and roasting philosophy.
Almost five years on, we are committed to introducing our coffees as cultivars first, explaining to our guests that, for example, two coffees can come from the same farm, yet their genetic differences will most likely yield different taste profiles. Along our coffee lines, we’ve introduced categories, namely “Classic”, “Modern” and “Experimental”. These categories are meant to reflect the current state of coffee production that is prevalent in the industry, rather than customer-driven profiles like “Comfort” or “Exciting”.
What are some of the best parts of being a coffee professional?
Being coffee professionals, we have the understated luxury of consistently drinking delicious coffee all year round, possibly the top 10% of all coffee produced in the world. Also, I think that, foremost, cafes are social spaces, so every single person walking through the doors of my cafe is an opportunity for us to build new relationships for our benefit.
How is the coffee industry in Singapore? Share some of your perspective with me.
The coffee industry in Singapore is incredibly dynamic. In the last five years, what has been most inspiring to see is the availability of higher-quality green coffee. I think it was the first step in affirming our commitment to the industry by being willing to pay more for better coffee, and trusting that our customers will believe in it as well. You know, there’s an absurd number of “boutique” specialty coffee roasters in Singapore right now, over 50 roasters for a population of 5.5 million, yet I believe there are still more opportunities for newer roasters to come along and attract their own demographic.
I know you are helping other coffee shops with their roasting and training. So, can you tell me a bit about your role in the recent developments?
Although we are not publicizing that we are a co-roasting space, there are currently 12 cafes sharing the same Giesen W6A at The Community. Most of the people roasting at The Community are close friends. We are very specific about the way other people roast at our facility; we don’t allow dark, second-crack coffee. At first, we do toll roasting for other cafes that don’t know how to roast but want to serve better coffee at their cafes. Then, as time goes on, people who want to start roasting coffee will undergo a three-month introduction period, during which they will learn to replicate and troubleshoot their roasts before operating the machine themselves. Currently, Joy of Maxi Coffee Bar and Sam of The Glasshouse are among the first people who started to roast their coffee.
I think I was pretty privileged during my earlier career that I met people like Matt Perger, Ben Kaminsky, and Ben Toovey. My coffee knowledge was not originally from me, so it’s natural for me to pass it on to others.
As the founder of the Singapore Roasters Forum, can you tell me about it?
Singapore Roaster Forum was inspired by the Nordic Roaster Forum. This year, 15 roasters will compete in two categories: Compulsory, where they have to roast the same coffee, and Open, in which they will have to roast a coffee originating from South East Asia.
At the event, we also hold discussion panels about business and industry outlooks. I want to curate an event with valuable topics for coffee professionals or even coffee enthusiasts. This year, we are having Will Frith from Vietnam, Mikael Jasin from Indonesia, Sierra Yeo, and Matt Winton from Switzerland as speakers. I hope the Roaster Forum will be a platform that helps new roasters to advance, especially with regards to sourcing and roasting. A lot of the knowledge about sourcing and roasting is still secret, but I sincerely believe if we want to get better, we have to share.
What do you think about the current generation of coffee professionals in Singapore?
I think that working in coffee is still viewed as a side gig simply for the reason that the career path within our industry is not as defined as in other industries.
Yet, I think coffee is a means of creativity, and the newer generation of coffee professionals is incredibly passionate and creative. These people are incredibly determined to express themselves, be it from an aesthetic point of view or a coffee-preference point of view. Also, I believe a lot of coffee professionals do hope to eventually be an entrepreneur who opens their own cafe, but they don’t realize that there are so many other roles to be filled within our industry.
Most recently, Elysia Tan of Homeground Coffee Roasters just placed 3rd in the 2022 World Brewers Cup. I hope her success will attract lots of attention locally and renew people’s interest in what coffee can be.
What do you think the future of specialty coffee in Singapore will look like?
What I’d love to see in 15-20 years is our local “kopi” culture but with high-quality Arabica. Like, when asked for a kopi, the guy at the hawker would ask me: “Do you prefer a natural or washed Ethiopian, or a natural Colombian?” That would show that we’re comfortable with accepting our roots and traditions, yet we care about coffee quality. I also hope that coffee professionals will continue striving to be regarded and respected because it’s what they are—professionals!
Tung Nguyen is a freelance journalist based in Vietnam. Read more Tung Nguyen for Sprudge.
Photos courtesy of Aslam Yusoff