Leaving China in the 1950s to escape the war, 17-year-old Kiar Am Sai picked up the coffee trade to survive in Malaysia.
This was because, being an immigrant in an unfamiliar and ethically diverse land, he found that coffee was one product embraced by all races.
The day-to-day operations involved Am Sai getting up at dawn to chop wood and build a fire for roasting coffee.
To catch the morning crowd, he’d load his tricycle with grinding equipment and coffee to sell his beverages on the streets of Muar.
With the money saved from the trade, Am Sai bought land to expand his business, launching what’s still known today as Sai Kee Kopi in 1953, otherwise known to Muar locals as Kopi 434.
One call away
Founded in 1953, Sai Kee Kopi’s name pays homage to the late Am Sai, coupled with a message he hopes will humble future generations to come.
“The word Kee means ‘remember’ in Mandarin, where the late Mr Kiar used this word to remind all of his descendants that no matter how successful business [gets], they should learn to appreciate whatever they have and never forget the hardships that the ancestor (Mr Kiar) had been through to build the business,” states the business’s website.
In the 1960s, Sai Kee Kopi grew popular amongst Muarians, who ordered the coffee by dialling a phone number that had 434 as its last three digits. The numbers stuck with customers, who would affectionately refer to the coffee shop’s products as “Kopi 434”.
Sai Kee Kopi themselves eventually adopted the branding and now uses the name for their tea and coffee products, including the company’s locally grown elephant bean coffee.
Today, the original coffee shop still stands in its first location, and remains the only outlet under the brand.
Preserving the beans
Elephant bean coffee (AKA Liberica) is a name coined by Sai Kee Kopi’s second-generation Director, Kiar Juan Pooh.
The name is a reference to the coffee bean’s seeds that appear much larger and longer (resembling elephant tusks) than the common Arabica beans.
Despite its size, elephant bean coffee was difficult to plant and produced lower yields compared to its counterparts. To add, they were not easy to roast or extract either.
So, Malaysian farmers in the 1990s decided elephant bean coffee wasn’t worth planting, and favoured the more profitable palm oil instead.
Though he was aware of the lower economic viability, Juan Pooh still chose to set up a farm under his father’s company to produce domestic coffee beans, with the aim of promoting and preserving the coffee culture in Malaysia.
Spreading the seed
Now that 20 years have passed, Juan Pooh told Vulcan Post that his conservation programme has gained the attention of the Malaysian government who’d visit the farm annually. It is also open to tourists to visit and take a tour.
Juan Pooh reported that the sales of elephant bean coffee have reached a level where demand exceeds supply.
Taste-wise, it is said that the beans are complex, hitting your tongue with bitter notes and a sweetness that lingers in the mouth.
Sai Kee Kopi extracts this complexity using Italian Brambati technology to roast coffee, which Juan Pooh travelled to learn first-hand in Italy for the family restaurant.
He shared that on top of his company’s plantation in Muar, there’s now another coffee producer in Johor, under the name “My Liberica”.
“But they don’t use elephant bean coffee to make traditional kopi, [instead they make] speciality coffee. So I am very happy to see that besides me, there’s still got someone willing to plant and provide elephant bean coffee,” said Juan Pooh.
Malaysia’s coffee culture has grown exponentially over the years, which the team at Sai Kee Kopi are happy to see as well.
Other than running their kopitiam, farm, and supplying their coffee products B2B, Juan Pooh is hoping that the company will become a household name in the country and make it to a century.
Featured Image Credit: Sai Kee Kopi