Last Updated: August 2, 2015
Have you ever wondered why a cup of your favorite kopi-o at the hawker center costs just a fraction of the price of your to-go drink from Starbucks – the espresso? Well, it all boils down to the cost of production: type of coffee beans used, the number of fancy ingredients thrown in during the process of roasting and the various machinery from which the coffee beans or powder are subjected to.
We went for a workshop at Highlander Coffee organized as a POSB Neighbours First gathering to learn all about the difference between old school Singapore coffee and the supposedly more ‘atas’ espresso coffees from overseas.
Even though there’s such a big price different, local sock coffee still has a charm that lattes will never replicate.
With this article explaining the 5 differences between local coffee and espresso, at least you’ll be able to justify why you’re spending so much on a drink the next time you find yourself in the queue for a cup of java at coffee places which costs in the $4 – $6 range instead of simply forking out $1 for a kopi at the hawker center.
Even though there are plenty of different varieties of coffee beans, you actually only need to know about two: Arabica and Robusta – they are the two primary types of beans which are commercially cultivated for the modern, caffeine-appreciating population.
Robusta beans are used in the kopitiams (hawker center) while the more prized Arabica beans are employed in fancy-schmancy coffee places for your espresso: basically, anywhere where you have to part with more than $4 for your drink. Some espressos might use a blend of Robusta and Arabica though.
It’s interesting to note that Robusta coffee has higher caffiene that Arabica as well, which gives you that caffeine rush many older locals prefer.
Easier to grow and cultivate, Robusta beans are significantly lower in costs than Arabica beans and are generally considered to be of an lower quality in comparison. Due to this very fundamental difference, you’ll find that your cup of kopitiam coffee will taste a lot harsher and stronger than your normal serving of espresso that is smoother and more complex.
The kopi powder which the kopitiam utilizes were much earlier pre-roasted at a lower heat, over a longer period of time in comparison to those used for making an espresso shot. Longer roasting is needed to blanket the off-flavours of Robusta beans.
Usually, you will find that the beans which are meant for the purpose of producing a cup of espresso will have been more freshly roasted for around 15 – 20 minutes depending on origin, over a heat of 200 degrees celsius. Arabica beans are more delicate in flavour and only require light roasting.
Most western coffee cafes will roast and grind their beans just enough to meet demand (some places even do it daily) – freshly roasted, freshly ground and processed coffee beans yield much better tasting coffee, which is more labour intensive t0 produce.
If you ever get the opportunity to take a look at what the barista is doing at the expensive coffee machine, you’ll find that the coffee powder used for a cup of espresso is much finer than typical Robusta grinds, although exactly how fine depends on the strength of flavour extract the barista desires.
Most baristas agree that only 25 to 30 seconds of extraction is needed for the coffee machine to produce two shos of espresso which measure roughly 30 ml in volume, including the crema (the thin layer of foam on top of the body of espresso).
Why such a short period of time? Because espresso is made by forcing hot water at an intensely high pressure through coffee powder. So, if your coffee powder is not fine enough, the hot water will merely seep through the gaps of the powder and there will be insufficient contact between the water and powder; which will result in under-extraction.
At the kopitiam, the uncles and aunties making your cup of coffee require less attention to detail about this problem: the coarseness of the coffee powder does not matter that much as boiling water is simply steeped with the robusta beans through a ‘sock’ filter for extraction and the subtle differences in extraction are muted by the strong punch of the Robusta kopi.
Due to the nature of how espresso is made, there has to be a dedicated espresso machinery for the extraction of the coffee powder which not only takes up space, but costs thousands of dollars.
An espresso machine will have a ‘pump’ which will deliver the intended 8 to 9 bars of high water pressure through the coffee powder. Kopitiam uncles and aunties will normally be seen wielding just a long snout pot and sock filled with coffee grinds to brew their coffee. A vast difference, eh? That’s why Starbucks’ frappuccino costs way more than a Kopi-peng.
Once the Arabica coffee beans has been extracted for espresso, that’s it: you normally just drink it as it is to experience the full flavours. Most people don’t add sugar into their espresso as it would change its original subtle taste too much. Fresh steamed milk is added to espresso to make a latte of cappuccino as well, which costs more than condensed milk or evaporated milk used in the kopitiam.
But over at the kopitiam, after the extraction of the coffee powder through a sock, the friendly uncles and aunties will tend to add in different condiments like sugar, condensed milk or evaporated milk depending on what you ordered – kopi, kopi-peng, kopi-o or kopi-c. This is also because the robusta beans used for our Singapore kopi has a very strong flavour and needs to be muted a little with sweetness and milk less it becomes too gao (thick/heavy).
Related Guide: Best Coffee Cafes in Singapore