The history of Penang dates back to the 19th century when it was an important trade port in the Strait of Malacca for Europe, the Middle East, India, and China. Today, it is a booming tourist destination that retains the cultural diversity brought by merchants all over the world along with colonial-era architecture, especially since its George Town gained status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 2008.
Traditional coffee shops in Penang are called kopitiam: they mostly serve breakfast of Chinese-Malaysian cuisine with dark-roasted coffee. But in recent years, third wave coffee shops have started to take over the island, where you can enjoy specialty grade single-origin coffee after your treat of asam laksa.
Constant Gardener was the first stop in my cafe-hopping journey around Penang, I must admit I went there on purpose—as SK Leng, the shop owner, was a coffee professional famous for his continuous research to coffee science who held various workshops on pressure profiling and water system across Southeast Asia.
The cafe occupies the first floor of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce Building, right around the most northeast corner of George Town, Penang. It is small—I walked past the entrance twice before noticing the shop’s name engraved on the window. Inside, the place is filled with occasional plant pots that lend a touch of greenery to wooden tables. Constant Gardener’s menu is impressive, reflecting Leng’s commitment to traceability and sustainability, as everything from coffee to tea to chocolate is meticulously sourced with details provided on their origins. Coffee here is roasted by Cloud Catcher, Factory Coffee, Artisan Roastery, and The Roast Things, pulled from the heavily modded Kees van der Westen Spirit. During my visit, Constant Gardener featured an Ethiopia Guji Peaberry “Purple” from Cloud Catcher, which was best enjoyed as a long black or with milk. Matcha comes from a direct trade relationship with a farmer named Yamauchi in Aichi Prefecture, Japan.
You will notice Macallum Connoisseurs from very far away—while crossing through Gat Lebuh Macallum, I immediately spotted a very huge building with a Macallum sign on top of it. The cafe’s sheer size (8,000 square feet) comes from the fact that the space was once a factory, and although it was transformed into a coffee shop in 2015, Macallum still retains that industrial feel from the high ceilings and metal structure. A square coffee bar sits in the centre of the cafe, hosting a Victoria Arduino Black Eagle and Nuova Simonelli Mythos One grinder and bags of coffee to bring home. (Macallum Connoisseurs is the only shop in this guide that roasts its own coffee.)
Taking advantage of its huge space, the cafe also doubles as a coffee academy. And if you are craving a sweet treat after your caffeine fix, there is a small bar by Nippy Gelato at the left corner of the building, where they sell their daily-made ice cream and waffles.
Ome by Spacebar Coffee
A joint project by Joachim Leong and Shean Tan, Spacebar Coffee was founded in 2014. Initially, Spacebar Coffee occupied a space within Awesome Canteen before relocating to its permanent location on the narrow and quiet Lorong Toh Aka alley. I was surprised to discover Leong used to be a lawyer before he took on his job as one of the founding baristas at VCR in Kuala Lumpur. As for Tan, she got bit by the coffee bug during her time studying in the UK. The two met at VCR before moving to Penang to open Spacebar Coffee.
Ome, if you’re wondering, means “Home” (with the H omitted), as Leong and Tan wanted to create a space that felt like home to their customers. And they did. The duo has successfully formed a small coffee community here—Ome regularly acts as a location for coffee events in Penang, most recently a screening of the AeroPress Movie.
Ome, much like Constant Gardener, is a multi-roaster cafe. Joachim sources beans from roasters like Artisan Roastery and The Roast Things, along with occasional offerings from overseas roasters, notably Square Mile and Hasbean—Leong seems to have a thing for UK coffee professionals, “Buy it, it’s my bible,” he excitedly said as I pulled a copy of Colin Harmon’s “What I Know About Running Coffee Shops” from the retail shelves.
Komichi Tea House
You can already guess from the name that this last mention is not a coffee shop, but a tea place. I choose to feature Komichi as I believe coffee and tea have many similarities—we drinkers all look for a complexity of flavor and balance in the drinks. (And you may remember that Sprudge launched a tea week earlier this year!)
Located just a few doors away from Ome by Spacebar, Komichi was carved out of a humble old building in 2017. It specializes in green tea, which Komichi founders Akane Nimura and Joeyin Chua source directly from plantations in Toyota City, Japan. Through my conversation with Chua, I was introduced to different kinds of green tea, while sipping a matcha latte served with some matcha cookies. My stay at Komichi ended with a pot of gyokuro, which means “pearl dew,” one of the highest grades of Japanese tea used in tea ceremonies. It has flavor notes of green tea, seaweed, with a salty undertone and a lingering savory finish.
Tung Nguyen is a freelance journalist based in Vietnam. Read more Tung Nguyen for Sprudge.