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Singapore’s Coffee Culture: A Nation of Kopi Enthusiasts

Coffee, also known locally as kopi, is very well-loved in Singapore. The unique thing about enjoying your cuppa here in Singapore is the opportunity to try both Western gourmet brews as well as traditional Hainanese or Nanyang style coffee. We show you how to get started.
By · May 31, 2024
Singapore’s Coffee Culture: A Nation of Kopi Enthusiasts

Coffee, also known locally as kopi, is very well-loved in Singapore.

The unique thing about enjoying your cuppa here in Singapore is the opportunity to try both Western gourmet brews as well as traditional Hainanese or Nanyang style coffee. We show you how to get started.

Newly arrived in Singapore and wondering where you could get your much-needed coffee fix? Whether you prefer a smooth cup of flavoured cappuccino, or a robust cup of no-frills local coffee (commonly known as kopi), Singapore’s a great place to enjoy a cup or ten.

A true reflection of Singapore’s East-meets-West identity, our coffee culture is equal parts modern and equal parts traditional, and we’re definitely proud of it!

Co-workers will often ask “Do you want to get a cup of kopi?” at all times of the day; Singapore’s version of a relaxed work conversion over some coffee.

Coffee is enjoyed by people of all walks of life in Singapore: from students burning the midnight oil for their exams, to office workers relying on their daily cuppa to get through the corporate grind, to elderly folk at the local coffee shops (known as kopitiams) who gather to drink kopi at virtually all times of the day.

There’s no denying that Singapore residents love coffee: we drank a whopping 15,000 metric tonnes of coffee in 2021, and that figure is expected to keep rising.

Want to plug right into our unique coffee culture without batting an eyelid at the kopi-c, kopi-o, kopi siu dai, lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, and the huge variety of coffee beverages we have to offer? This little guide will show you how!

Overview of coffee in Singapore

Coffee is very much a beloved beverage today here in Singapore–just take a stroll to your neighbourhood town centre or into any shopping mall and you’ll see many shops selling coffee in all its different forms.

We have to thank the British for introducing coffee to us way back in the colonial era, when they first arrived in the 19th century.

Initially, Arabica beans were used to brew coffee, as those were the beans used in Europe. As time went by, the enterprising Hainanese immigrants had learnt to make coffee in local coffeehouses, to cater to the British tastes and make a living from their trade.

However, Arabica beans were expensive to obtain in Singapore due to their rarity in the region and the difficult conditions needed to grow them.

Fortunately for everyone, resourceful Arab traders had brought in another type of coffee bean–the Robusta bean, which were found plentifully in the jungles of Singapore’s nearby Southeast Asian neighbours–and the new immigrants quickly got to work making coffee with these newfound beans.

To counter the more acidic taste of the Robusta beans, the cooks began roasting them with butter and sugar, before straining them through a sock and sweetening the strong brew with creamy condensed milk. This was the birth of local kopi, which Singapore residents still enjoy till this day!

Today, local residents can get their caffeine fix equally easily at both local kopitiams which serve Hainanese-style kopi, or at coffeehouses that serve Western lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, Americanos and the like.

Local coffee vs Western coffee

Whether you crave a cup of strong kopi or a cup of smooth cappuccino, Singapore is truly an awesome place to get your caffeinated brew for the day.

There is definitely no shortage of coffee places in Singapore. In fact, the coffee industry in Singapore is booming, with new chains coming into the market every year in spite of the already-crowded coffee landscape.

These international coffee chains, such as Starbucks, Luckin Coffee, or Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf; or homegrown artisanal coffee houses, are where you can get your fix of frothy latte, balanced cappuccino, or refreshing cold brews.

These coffeehouses typically use Arabica beans from different origins, for unique cuppas that boast flavour profiles that differ from country to country. Singapore has truly no lack of coffeehouses and roasters to explore, so you’ll want to bookmark a few lists to start with, like this and this!

Local kopi can be procured at coffeestalls at hawker centres, kopitiams, air-conditioned mall food courts, and toast-and-egg outlets like Toastbox, Ya Kun, and Fun Toast. Kopi at these places are made in the same spirit as the cups of kopi from yesteryear, with Robusta beans roasted in butter and sugar, and strained in a sock.

There are lots of variations of local kopi now which involve the thickness of the coffee, the type of milk used, the sweetness, and the temperature–all of which are communicated by adding modifiers in the Hokkien dialect after the kopi. Don’t panic, read on to get acquainted with the basics.

Quick guide to variations of local kopi

If you want to enjoy local kopi to its fullest, you need to know how to order it to your preference. And you can certainly tweak this humble cup of coffee to your preference, we hear there are a whopping 54 unique versions of kopi that you can order!

A large part of ordering a kopi has to do with its specific and unique modifiers in dialects.

Remember to always start your order with the kopi, which is the Malay word for coffee, before trying to add any of the modifying words.

And when in doubt, just ask a local in the queue with you–Singaporeans will be happy to teach you the right terms for the kopi of your heart’s desire.

Ready? Let’s go!

  • Kopi: Good old coffee + condensed milk

  • Kopi Siew Dai: Coffee + less condensed milk

  • Kopi Gah Dai: Coffee + more condensed milk

  • Kopi O: Black coffee + sugar

  • Kopi O Kosong: Black coffee no sugar

  • Kopi C: Coffee + evaporated milk

  • Kopi C Siew Dai: Coffee + less evaporated milk

  • Kopi Peng: Ice + coffee + condensed milk

  • Kopi Poh: Coffee + condensed milk + water

  • Kopi Gao: Extra strong coffee + condensed milk

  • Kopi Di Loh: Coffee with no dilution

  • Kopi Gu You: Coffee + butter/margarine

Here’s a bonus for Milo lovers! Neslo or Mocha, which is coffee + Milo.

Top coffee spots to check out in Singapore

There are new coffee houses and coffee chains popping up in Singapore all the time, so do check them out on local blogs and sites–they’re definitely a delight. Visiting one of these new cafes will guarantee you a trendy cup, if anything.

(Just Google “New coffee places in Singapore” and you’ll be greeted with handy lists to check out!)

However, these spots we’ve rounded up below are timeless classics in their own right. Think of mainstays in the coffee scene in Singapore that are unlikely to be here today and gone tomorrow, serving up cups of quality, comforting coffee or kopi that are guaranteed to perk up your weary spirits.

Local Kopi

Best enjoyed with some kaya toast (that’s a coconut and egg jam that’s sweet and aromatic!) and runny half-boiled eggs, these local kopi outlets are well-reviewed to serve consistent cups of fragrant kopi over the years.

  1. Toastbox – Singapore’s largest local toast and eggs coffee chain with more than 70 outlets in Singapore which serves aromatic Nanyang kopi from their in-house blend of beans.

  1. Ya Kun Kaya Toast – with more than 50 outlets in Singapore, Ya Kun Kaya Toast outlets serve kopi made from a secret family recipe that Singaporeans have known and loved for decades now.

  1. Killiney Kopitiam – starting out as Singapore’s very first kopitiam in 1926, Killiney Kopitiam now has more than 30 outlets in Singapore and still makes comforting cups of kopi from scratch daily.

  1. Chin Mee Chin Confectionery – enjoy a hint of nostalgia with the comforts of today at Chin Mee Chin Confectionery, with its old-school bakes and delicious kopi brews.

Western Coffee

We’ve eschewed the large international chains like Starbucks, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Luckin, and Tim Horton; for these homegrown coffee houses that serve cup after cup of delicious coffee that have both stood the test of time and Singaporeans’ picky palettes. Many of these shops roast their own beans and have created their own signature blends.

  1. Nylon Coffee Roasters – homegrown microbrewery Nylon has been roasting artisanal beans since 2012, and is known among the tight knit coffee community for its authentic brews

  2. Alchemist – first powering the office crowd at International Plaza in 2016, this local coffeehouse has since expanded to more locales around the island, sharing its delicious, quality cuppas with more Singapore residents.

  1. Common Man Coffee Roasters – championing speciality coffee in Singapore since 2013 serving cup after cup of delicious signature blends, they also run a Barista Academy to share their expertise.

  1. Chye Seng Huat Hardware – known for their extremely yummy espresso shots, this refurbished hardware-store-turned-hip-coffee-joint is a gem that coffee fans in Singapore swear by.

Singapore offers plenty by way of food, drink, and entertainment. If you’re done with the hard part of moving and want to unwind a bit, we’ve got you! Check out our other guides to living in Singapore and making the most of your time here.

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