November 17, 2015
By Jovita Ang
Singaporeans are a bunch of discerning diners; the sort who will very willingly wake up at the dawn of day for their favourite weekend breakfast even if it means a 40-minutes drive away. Our picky palates are not impossible to please, but are quick to identify café and restaurants that just don’t make the cut.
Since its introduction back in 2013, this particular café has gained a strong foothold within the competitive café scene.
Nestled along Martin Road, Common Man Coffee Roasters (CMCR) greets with warm invitation; its space a cosy yellow glow further adorned with wooden furnishings. The alluring aroma of fragrant coffee and the affable staff makes you feel almost at home, except you’re seated in a cafe touted for its specialty coffees, and one that easily nails a spot on the list of “Best Cafes in Singapore”.
This café venture stems from a partnership between Harry Grover of 40 Hands, Five Senses Coffee, and the Spa Esprit Group. Developed from a group of seasoned F&B players, it comes as no surprise that close to three years in, CMCR is still going on strong.
We spoke to Matthew McLauchlan, 28, wholesale general manager of CMCR and experienced barista, about all things coffee and also had him spill the beans on what would actually make him the happiest. You’d be surprised at what the humble coffee connoisseur answered.
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’ve been in Singapore for 6 months. Prior to this, I was working in Australia, with a background in food and beverage in hotels. I was working for a company called QT hotel, an upcoming hip, young and boutique hotel brand in Australia. My job required me to travel to different places around the country, opening up hotels.
And coffee has always been part of my role. I’ve always been a big fan of coffee, whether drinking or making it. But I’ve never been in the specialty coffee industry per say. I was in the barista end of things.
I had my first job when I was 13-year-old. I was making coffee in a small café back in New Zealand, with this great lady who was in love with coffee herself. She taught me a lot of things, and I just kept making it from there.
Pictured (left) with founder of CMCR and 40 Hands, Harry Grover.
2. What do you think of the coffee scene in Singapore?
It’s really exciting, moving really quickly. Even in the 6 months that I’ve been here, I’ve seen certain trends catch on and also changes in the way people perceive specialty coffee specifically. I think coffee has a long tradition in Singapore and that is translating to a really quick and easy shift towards more quality focused specialty coffee.
3. You mentioned “certain trends catch on”, what are some of these trends?
Cold brew coffees, and especially nitro cold brew. In these 6 months, I’ve seen many cafes and roasteries start to really explore that as a method of brewing, and as a product range. To see all of these happening within 6 months is all pretty quick.
4. Do you think coffee and tea are similar? If yes, how so?
There’re a lot of shared traits from farming quality, processing quality, brewing quality. The ability to accurately control parameters like the tea to water ratio, temperature of water and so on. And all these are variables that are crucial in coffee making as well, so yes, definitely there are some very tangible links between the two products. But I think as an idea both are similar in that they can offer a pause in your day.
5. What made CMCR agree to collaborate with Gryphon Tea Company?
We share a lot of the same values. Both CMCR and Gryphon Tea Company continuously produce and strive for quality products. Both companies like to engage in the community, to build a collective community to further the appreciation of coffee and tea.
6. When you think of Gryphon Tea, what is the first flavour you’ll think of?
Pearl of the Orient! It’s a little bit girly isn’t it. (laughs)
7. What is CMCR all about?
CMCR is really about engagement with the wider coffee market. We like to consider ourselves a café, wholesaler and an ambassador of specialty coffee. We want to engage, educate, inform and supply amazing all-round quality: from the beans to equipment to training.
8. There’s a lot of talk about the coffee you guys serve, share with us more about the kind of food served at this space.
CMCR is known for the solid brunch meals. But I think the way Harry has designed the menu with the chefs is that they try to explore different parts of the world through their cuisine, offering something different.
9. Much like fusion food?
I think “fusion food” is a term that gets misunderstood a lot. They tried to include a few different techniques and ingredients, but always still make it super accessible to people. Chefs in restaurants who try to do fusion sometimes approach it in a cutting-edge sort of fashion, which can be challenging for the diner. But at Common Man it really boils down to being accessible, something easy to understand.
10. Do you think Singaporeans are getting more knowledgeable about their cup of coffee?
For sure. We get more and more people coming for our curated cuppings every month, and also an increasing number coming for the weekly public cupping sessions as well. And that’s only a good thing.
11. Is there anything that you find most challenging about the coffee scene?
One of the challenges CMCR wants to overcome is the exclusivity of specialty coffee. People looking at it and say, “I don’t know anything so I won’t understand.” People not wanting to come near it and not knowing why certain coffees are acidic, why they taste fruit etc. We want to be able to overcome that and engage people in this area, have them understand why specialty coffee is different, what makes it the way it is and how it can be appreciated. With the perception that understanding coffee is scary and technical, this area is one of our biggest challenge, yet also one of the most fulfilling.
12. How do you usually take your coffee?
I used to take strong flat-white, that was my go-to. Growing up in New Zealand, that’s how we usually like to take our coffee. Everyone says the flat-white was invented by either the Australians or New Zealanders. I always say it’s New Zealand *smirk*. I grew up drinking that, up until last year or so where I tried to switch to long black. I wanted to enjoy the coffee a bit more. To be able to drink black coffee, the coffee has to be good. So if I’m in a place where I suspect the coffee is not great, I’ll do a flat-white.
13. Funniest coffee brewing experience?
Funny, hmm. I don’t know if I do but my fondest experience, well, I think I made a coffee for one of the Bee Gee, and also some drinks for Whitney Houston and Lady Gaga before. I can’t think of anything funny or embarrassing but I’m actually terrible at latte art, [the baristas here] always make fun of me.
14. Really? But you’ve been a barista for many years!
Yeah but latte art in Australia and New Zealand is only starting to become a thing now, definitely not as important as here in Asia. Latte art is like, “Ok yes great! It looks good.” In Australia, it’s a “Great if I have it.” They’re more interested in having good coffee. They’re not as good in terms of latte art as to over here, by a long way. Even now. So yeah, latte art was never my focus.
15. What are some misconceptions people have about you because of what you do?
Not me specifically but I feel a lot of people approach the industry as it’s a little bit gimmicky. People who aren’t in food and beverage, people who are completely removed, they probably don’t understand how deep and complex this product is, how big coffee wholesaling can be. The frustrating thing is how some people think it’s a lot simpler than this.
16. Is there anything that you would love to be able to experiment/incorporate someday at CMCR?
We’d really like to venture into high-quality retail level cold brew product. And in different formats of that, maybe say a fizzy carbonated version and sweetened with certain things.
17. If you could go to anywhere in the world for a meal right now, where and what would it be?
I would like to go to Noma when it opens in Sydney. I’d like to win the lottery to go there. But before I go to Noma, I’d probably like to go to Palmer and co for some drinks. It’s a really cool prohibition bar also in Sydney.
18. Complete this sentence, “It makes me the happiest when…”
When I beat one of the Common Man Coffee Roaster’s barista in a latte art throw down.
It becomes all very clear why they call themselves “Common Man Coffee Roasters”. At the heart of this establishment is a belief that coffee, in all its geeky glory, can be understood by the everyday individual. Their holistic services: monthly public cupping sessions, in-house barista trainings and wholesale arm are introduced with the intent to extend the world of coffee to well, the common man. And the staff themselves carry this responsibility well; a casual question to the barista about what a filter coffee is turns into a 15-minute learning session.
Coffee isn’t all that hard to understand. The next time you pop by, start by asking what’s that brew before you. You’ll soon learn it’s much less intimidating than what you think.