Brewing a new icon – The Singapore Coffee

Kim Guan Guan Coffee Trading Pte Ltd aims to globalise the traditional Singapore coffee.

(Mr Jason Soon, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Kim Guan Guan Coffee Trading Pte Ltd)

It may come as a surprise to many Singaporeans that the humble coffee (more affectionately known as “kopi”) that we find in our coffee-shops is as unique as any other global brand. What’s more, the preparation process of the Singapore coffee, which is a richer and more fragrant brew than Western-style coffee, is said to be a variation of the Torrefacto roasting method practiced in France, Spain, Portugal, and Argentina. That’s a heritage we should be proud of, says Mr Jason Soon, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Kim Guan Guan Coffee Trading Pte Ltd.

Kopi, which is Malay for coffee, is enjoyed by many Singaporeans throughout the day at coffee shops, hawker centres and even in higher-end cafes these days. It can be in the form of kopi-o-kosong (coffee black), kopi (with condensed milk and sugar), kopi-C (with evaporated milk and sugar), just to list a few.

Mr Soon gets passionate and a little hot under the collar when discussing Singapore kopi. He says, “There is so much talk about Starbucks or Ipoh’s Old Town Coffee and other Malaysian brands. What about our very own Singapore kopi? It is just as good, if not better, but no one talks about it.”

He explains that Singapore kopi is typically brewed from high-caffeine Robusta beans and not Arabica that is favoured by Western premium bistros. Robusta beans deliver a high-caffeine kick, and it is transformed into Singaporean kopi with the roasting of beans in margarine and sugar, to lend them an especially rich, dark character. The shells turn oily, aromatic and caramelised. It is this variation of the Torrefacto roasting method that sets Singapore kopi apart from the rest, Mr Soon adds.

The roasted beans are grounded into powder and then supplied to about 1,000 coffee shops and hawker stalls. There, the coffee powder is strained through a sock-like bag that acts as an infuser. Mr Soon estimates that there are about 6,000 to 7,000 such outlets in Singapore.

Keeping the heritage alive

Kopi is recognised as culturally significant and a part of the lifestyle of many Singaporeans. KGG is on a mission to ensure this tradition is safeguarded. The roasting and preparation method is meticulously monitored and staff members are issued with timers to check every stage of the process. Stringent quality control ensures the coffee beans do not turn sour or acidic or get burnt.

In everything the company does, it remains true to its roots. After completing National Service in 1988, Mr Soon and his cousin Kim Guan decided to set up a business supplying coffee. Back then, Mr Soon did not even like drinking coffee! Milo was his beverage of choice. When they applied to register their business, all the proposed names were rejected. The only one that met the requirements was Kim Guan Guan Coffee Trading Pte Ltd but it had been taken. Reluctant to delay the process and queue up again to register, his cousin decided to use the name Kim Guan Guan Coffee Trading Pte Ltd and it was approved. Two years later, Kim Guan left the partnership as he felt that the business had little future. Mr Soon persisted and as they say, the rest is history. He kept the name because he says it means “keep on rolling” and it has served him well.

Being in the market for more than 30 years, KGG is now an integrated company that imports, roasts, packs, and supplies traditional grounded coffee powder and tea dust at its ISO-22000 certified roastery in Singapore. To maintain superior quality, KGG roasts small batches of coffee daily. Once done, the beans are grounded, packed, and sealed within the same day to lock in the freshness and aroma. Besides coffee, its propriety brands include KGG Tea Dust, Premium Hot Cocoa Mix, Oolong Tea, Chrysanthemum, and Ginger Tea.

Exploring overseas opportunities

KGG’s new Kim Duet Coffee

KGG started planning to venture overseas when it moved to the JTC Bedok Food City in 2021. “At our previous premises at Defu Lane, we did not have space to increase output so our hands were tied,” says Mr Soon. To test the market, KGG took part in the 2021 Singapore Food Festival to meet and forge partnerships with potential partners that would be critical to expand its network.  

With larger premises today, KGG has created house brands for local coffee chains as an original equipment manufacturer (OEM). With the assistance of the Singapore Business Federation (SBF), KGG is currently negotiating with a distributor to provide its OEM products to China. Other countries on its list are Australia, the United Kingdom and Indonesia.

KGG has also ventured into the retail side of the business and expanded its product range with the creation of Kim’s Duet selection in 2021, which allows consumers to relish the authentic taste of traditional coffee and tea in homes and offices.

Recently, it launched Kim’s Duet Oat Milk Kopi-C Kosong. It is the first of its kind in the market, offering the rich aroma and robust taste of Singaporean traditional coffee and the guilt-free creaminess of oat milk without any added sugar. KGG is already working on plans to market these products to retailers    internationally.

Going the extra mile

Pushing the boundaries is what sets the company apart from other beverage suppliers here. Making coffee powder is hard work, so Mr Soon wisely invested in the latest machinery to make it easier while increasing productivity. He was personally involved in the complicated process of getting the equipment customised to meet his stringent quality standards.

Mr Soon’s son, Nigel is learning the business as a Brand Partnerships and Growth Manager. He shares his father’s overseas vision, saying, “Singapore is known for its chilli crab and chicken rice and if we succeed in educating foreign markets, then Singapore kopi will join the ranks of these icons.”

For now, father and son are committed and proud to be serving as ambassadors of Singapore traditional coffee. Their aim is to bring it to the next level so that the world can also enjoy and appreciate the taste of the Singapore coffee.

SBF is proud to support KGG as well as other local businesses in their overseas ventures through the formation of deep strategic partnerships. Mr Gary Lim, Country Head (Cambodia, Laos & Myanmar, Southeast Asia & Pacific) of SBF said, “GlobalConnect@SBF champions the interest of Singapore businesses looking to venture into overseas markets. As a home-grown coffee roasting company, KGG has a unique value proposition and ambition to scale overseas. We hope to partner KGG in their overseas expansion journey, which led us to work closely with Jason and his team to explore growth opportunities in potential overseas markets. Through our extensive business network and outreach, we were able to help KGG match with suitable overseas distribution partners which provided them with the market access support needed.”

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