Michael Wilson

Michael Wilson

Kim Choong talks to Michael Wilson, owner of the Artisan Roast Kuala Lumpur café (previously off Jalan Ampang, it has recently moved to Taman Tun Dr Ismail). Wilson also owns three other outlets in Scotland.

How do you source your coffee beans?
I buy them directly from estates or from very small cooperatives around the world, because then they are not going to be just a jumble of coffee from every farmer in that country. Coffee is sold by grade; even if you get grade one, that is just about how the beans look or the lack of defects. To get both high grade and great-tasting beans, these have to come from an estate with a good reputation. The only way I know a coffee is going to taste good is if I have tasted it or I know someone who has. So these estates are exactly like wineries, they do have their reputations and I will sometimes buy coffee based on an estate’s reputation according to recommendations from a small group of friends, all roasters themselves. But usually when I find one that I like, I just keep going back every year.

Do you buy from just one estate or several?
We follow the different harvest times around the world and the estates we buy from are located all over. We take freshness to the extreme and make sure that the green beans are as fresh as we can get them. Once we roast the coffee, for filtered coffee, I like to have it 10 days maximum, if it is vac-packed we can extend it to six weeks. For espresso, I like it to be at least a week or two old after roasting but no more than four to six weeks.

How do you ensure the freshness of your beans?
A new coffee bean is translucent, green and blue instead of faded and yellow. We store our coffee in air-tight containers in a purpose built climate-controlled bean store. We try to get the beans as soon as possible after they are harvested – we are talking within a few months though, as you can’t get them any quicker than that. With the village we are working with now, we go there and have the beans vacuum packed on-site, then sent to us as fresh as possible.

Does passion make a good roaster?
It’s not just about passion. You also have to be humble and not pretend to know it all, because then you will never learn. If you say that you know everything, who is going to teach you anything? To taste a bean and be able to distinguish whether it is a good one would be a good start. I’m fortunate to have been surrounded by people who are at the very cutting edge of coffee, so I’m constantly learning from them.

There have been comments that your coffee is expensive, do you have a reply to them?
We only buy from the top 2% of beans in the world. We’re paying 10 times more for our green beans than the coffee chains pay for theirs. Our cheapest coffee costs us four times more than Fairtrade, and our profit margin is not large. Our customers can taste the difference in the cup. Those who can’t taste it, should stick to cheap coffee.

Do all your customers like your coffee?
When someone says that they don’t like my coffee, I am not offended. I don’t want people going away feeling that they haven’t gotten a good cup of coffee and worse going out and talking about how bad their experience was in the café. I would rather they come to tell me that they didn’t enjoy their coffee and all I need to know is if they want it more acidic or bitter and I can rectify that. I am after a small group of the population who would agree with my taste. I think my coffee does taste good and I do everything I can to ensure that. Especially when it comes to acidity, I love the aromas that come with the acidity.

Do you think there are people who have ill feelings towards you?
Possibly, but if there are they probably haven’t met me and they’re like the people you sometimes overhear while standing in the queue to see a show who feels the need to say, “Oh, I heard the show is shit.” I don’t know why anyone should habour ill feelings towards me after they’ve met me, I’m just doing what I enjoy and don’t mean any offence.

You built this café with your own bare hands. That shows your passion, but does it make money?
Our cafés are an extreme hobby, we don’t make lots of money from the cafes. However, we make a decent living. All the money I’ve made from the UK has been re-invested into this.

What is the ideal situation for you and your family in this business?

Ideally I would like to concentrate on building cafés. I like the carpentry, the design – I spent a month designing and doing up this place and here it is! Some part of it just grew organically, thanks to other people’s input on top of my original design. Financially though, I think we don’t need that much money to survive, but I have spent a lot of money travelling to and from Europe in the last couple of years. Otherwise, we spend only on the necessities … I don’t drink, for instance.

But you drink coffee and you said the beans are expensive!

If you compare drinking coffee to alcohol, coffee is not expensive at all. I have to say that I envy these b*stards who put a lot of effort into crafting what they craft, and once they have done it they bottle it and send it off in a perfectly preserved condition until it arrives at someone’s table. When I roast coffee, I send it out to the café. It’s totally up to the café to store it and prepare it properly but if they don’t, it’s my beans that look bad.

Do you have plans to open another outlet?

We’ve just started this, blimey! We want to, but we will plan for it when we have made enough to cover this one first (manly chuckle).


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