I was a mere kindergartener when I had my first sip of coffee.
My mum had purchased a hot cup of kopi-o at a coffeeshop for her to savour as I had my after-school snack. “Sit here and wait for me, I’m going to buy something,” she said, leaving my 6-year-old self to my own devices.
When she came back, she found my lunch virtually untouched, while her initially-full cuppa was half-gone.
From then, she tried her best to keep me from the bean till I was in secondary school, and that was when my reliance on it fully developed to what it is now, when I cannot go a day without coffee.
Out of all the different types of concoctions available, however, I’m still a stickler for the traditional kopitiam kopi.
The brews that I got at cafés were also pretty much hit or miss, tasting ‘flat’ or ‘sour’ many times.
So when the whole cold brew trend came about, I was doubtful on whether or not I’d like the taste of it. I mean, how robust and fragrant could coffee grounds soaked overnight at low temperatures be, right?
When I was introduced to the cold brew coffee from local startup 1degreeC, I didn’t expect much.
But at the risk of sounding like a walking clickbait title – what happened next really did shock me.
Cold Brew: A Trendy, Healthier Choice
Expecting it to fully taste like an iced Americano, what I got was something more refreshing.
Speaking to its owners Richard Koh (55) and his wife Bee Yan (61), I found out that the cold brew method actually reduces the acidity (or ‘sourness’) of the coffee beans.
“When you use hot water on the beans, it produces an oil, and that creates the acidity. So when you use the cold brew method, the oil is not released,” explained Richard.
And it’s not just a better taste that the cold brew method can produce – it’s also a healthier option for coffee drinkers.
With a lower acidity, those who suffer from heartburn and have sensitive stomachs would be able to savour the joys of coffee without feeling uncomfortable after.
This was also the reason why the duo chose to do cold brew:
As you grow older, you worry about your health. So the low acidity is actually better for us, and we also don’t like coffee that’s too sour. So we created our own blends to cater to the millennial crowd, and also to the general crowd who may not like the acidic taste as well.
They also sell cold tea options, and their Blue Pea tea in particular is chockfull of health benefits:
“If we want to create something, we need to make sure that it has some health benefits,” shared Bee Yan.
So far, the duo’s concoctions have been a hit among both coffee and tea drinkers, and the 9-month-old startup has seen sales increasing multi-fold as they get more publicity.
“I’ve Always Wanted To Have My Own Business”
At 55, I wasn’t ready to just sit down, relax and play golf. That wasn’t my idea of how I was going to end my life and finish my career.
Last year, Richard was abruptly retrenched from his regional business manager role at Hewlett-Packard, a job that he held for around 10 years.
“I was in a bad state (after I lost my job), but my wife kept telling me ‘Get off your ass and go do something!’ So my wife was the force behind me to go into this,” he reveals with a smile.
That was when an idea struck him.
He now had the freedom and time to venture into something he always had on his bucket list – being an entrepreneur.
“I’ve always wanted to have my own business. I never had one – I had worked for companies for many, many years.”
The couple’s love for coffee was also a deciding factor in the business’ direction.
“We love to drink coffee, so we go to kopitiams to drink, and also cafés. But what’s unusual about the café scene here is that it’s always young people, so we’re the only older people who are always there!”
Their children (both in their 30s) were also very encouraging of their café adventures, frequently recommending them new places to try.
It was also through their daughter that they found out about cold brew coffee, and fell in love with it.
So we said “Ok lah, let’s put some money in. If we succeed, great. If we fail, at least we tried and I can check it off the list.”
With that, 1degreeC was registered in September last year.
Starting At The Tanjong Pagar Railway Farmers’ Market
As the resident ‘mixologist’, Bee Yan admits that getting to their signature blend required “countless” tweaks, as both didn’t have initial experience in mixing coffee grounds.
“We also had tasting groups – people from various age groups, those that drink coffee and those than don’t – to help us taste our blends.”
Added Richard, “We’re lucky because we’re targeting a certain segment (millennials), and our children and their friends helped us in becoming our guinea pigs and even brought our coffee out to let their friends try and drink!”
Their first public appearance was at the Farmers’ Market at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, which they got to know of from the People’s Association.
Response, however, was “lukewarm” for the brand new entrepreneurs.
“We were told that there would be 20,000 people, so we catered to maybe 3% of that figure. [But] we over-anticipated, so we brewed 600 bottles but sold 300.”
“But for me, I felt that it was a positive start, because [we were still unaware of how to gauge numbers]. So it was still very encouraging.”
Their Big Break: Singapore Coffee Festival 2017
They count this year’s edition of the Singapore Coffee Festival as their biggest breakthrough to date, albeit having been worried initially about the sky-high rental fees and less-than-ideal position of their booth in the sprawling exhibition hall.
We’ve never paid $1,000 to appear at an event before! And that fee only gave us that 4sqm space. We were told that we needed to pay for our electricity, for our own booth set up and decorations.
Tucked away at the corner of the event space, they wondered if they were able to get any attention amongst the rest of the competition, some of whom included big names.
This was when they decided to take matters into their own hands with a cheap, simple solution – by adding LED lights on their signboard.
This tactic, along with publicity from media coverage, helped them greatly in garnering interest from consumers, and they sold out their first batch of 900 bottles within the first 2 days.
Regular Customers, And Famous Fans
So far, a bulk of their customers are those from the ages of 18 to 30 (aka the millennials), but they’ve seen the demographic expanding, as more get to know about their cold brew and its benefits.
They can’t give exact numbers in terms of sales, but on average, their sales have “doubled or tripled, because of the awareness people have of the product”.
In fact, their sales in August itself had jumped 5 times!
1degreeC also has its share of famous fans – including Minister for Communications and Information Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim, and Senior Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat – a “nice endorsement” that they’re on the right track.
“Can You Get Someone Younger To Serve It?”
Considerably older than the ‘typical’ entrepreneur, the duo are very well-aware of one of their biggest challenges – targeting millennials when they aren’t ones themselves.
“How can we appeal to millennials if we’re not millennials? We had previous jobs where we targeted more general crowds, but what do I know about Instagram and social media?”
When I first started, I remember I tried to take some photos and Kevin (their son’s friend and social media ‘advisor’) said “Wah, this shot is so uncle!”
“Now, we more or less see the patterns, so we can say stuff like ‘Oh, let’s do this shot, let’s do that shot’,” added Bee Yan.
They also take the “I expected a younger person” comments in their stride – finding more a compliment than an insult.
There was once, however, when an organiser told them to “get someone younger to serve” the minister present at the event.
She said, “This is a hip, millennial drink. I don’t think they want to see an old couple behind this.”
“But we laughed about it, it’s okay. We just brushed it off.”
“Doors Keep Opening For Us”
Humbled by how far they’ve come in less than a year, Bee Yan expressed that she “didn’t think [they] were so smart to grow so fast”.
“Right now, doors keep opening for us.”
She keeps in mind, however, not to overstress themselves.
When we first started, I kept pushing him (Richard) to go to different cafes to sell our drinks! But now, we just let the products speak for themselves. I’ve always told him, “If there’s business today, good. If there’s no business today, it’s also good – just thank God for it.”
As compared to the rather impersonal nature of his previous jobs, Richard is happy to have taken up the challenge of entrepreneurship.
I used to run several million dollar projects, but I didn’t know who my customers were. I just saw the numbers – 1 million, 3 million – but I didn’t see who actually buys it. But I now know who my customers are.
When I asked them if they intend to eventually stock them at supermarkets, they said while it’ll definitely help in growth, their products might not be marketed in a way that’ll do justice to their brand.
“There are a few things that we’d like to retain – one of it is that our coffee is artisanal, and there’s a lot of passion that goes on behind what we produce.”
“We would hate to lose the artisanal feel.”
“This Is My Retirement Money, Am I Willing To Spend It?”
When asked about advice that they’d give older Singaporeans/retirees who aspire to start up, Bee Yan has this to say:
“For me, if I were to start up – this is my retirement money, am I willing to spend it? So you put aside a certain amount – an amount you are willing to lose – and once you spend this amount, don’t add anymore.”
Added Richard, “In the event that things don’t work out, don’t just put in money for the sake of running the business.”
The couple are looking to release at least 2 more flavours for their coffee and teas, but their larger dream is that 1degreeC will be a household brand.
“When they think of cold brew coffee, they think of 1degreeC. If it goes regionally, all the better! Then you know, we’re promoting a Singapore brand too.”
We’d love to thank Richard and Bee Yan for coming down to our office to share their story with us!