Small Batch, Big Dreams: Dockyard Coffee
All over the world, folks know Singapore for its towering skyscrapers, world-class shopping, and amazing street food. But soon, it may be just as renowned for something else: it’s specialty coffee scene. A boom in cafes selling high-quality coffee is well and truly underway – and one such coffeehouse contributing to the ever-growing trend is Dockyard Coffee.
Back to basics
“I was very inspired by the coffee culture in Australia and I wanted to find out more about the process that goes into crafting that fine cup of coffee. That’s how I started my journey in 2013,” says Riyan Lee. Back then, the founder and owner of Dockyard Coffee realised that appreciation for solid, quality coffee hadn’t peaked in Singapore, and he saw an opportunity to help grow the specialty coffee movement here.
But with little coffee knowledge, Lee knew he had to do some research. He spoke with certified experts in the industry, such as a “Q grader” and an even rarer “R grader” from Brazil. He picked up skills from roasters at Melbourne’s iconic Market Lane cafe and began experimenting with roasting on his own using a pan. Once he felt he had enough knowledge, he began marketing his offerings – mainly beans and automatic coffee machines – to food and beverage establishments, home consumers, and corporate customers.
“I think what differentiates us from other roasteries, and I will not be abashed to say this, is the quality coffee beans we serve to our customers. We pay attention to every batch of coffee we roast and cup the coffee beans for quality control,” explains Lee. He points out that Dockyard Coffee focuses only on supplying coffee beans, and because of that, they are able to tweak and fine-tune roasts and flavour profiles to perfectly match their offerings to what consumers want. “Another advantage Dockyard has is that we’re a one-stop coffee solution for coffee machine and beans. We service and repair automatic and espresso machines. Of course, other roasteries in Singapore offer this as well, but the difference is that we deal with the beans and machine in-house, meaning the person who roasts the coffee is the same person who knows the coffee machines inside out. Different roasts will react differently in different machines, so understanding the coffee machines well allows us to create suitable roast profiles that bring out the best flavours of the beans.”
Curating the menu
Whether it’s for specialty grade coffee or a gourmet brew, Lee considers the same factors when selecting the beans: acidity, aroma, balance, body, year of harvest, and the price. Dockyard mainly purchases beans from farm lots, and getting them from just one farm allows the consumer to know exactly where the beans come from. But the Singaporean coffee venture takes things up a notch by going on expeditions to places like Indonesia in order to better understand the product that they (and ultimately, the consumers) are buying.
“Understanding how the beans are grown is crucial. The climate, drying methods such as patio-drying, the soil, the distance from other coffee plants, the heat from the atmosphere, even the shipping process – everything affects the coffee beans we get. We learned that buying coffee from reliable sources is extremely important,” says Lee.
Coffee education is also key. Dockyard organises cupping sessions whenever new beans are available, or when customers want to find out more about how to tell a good cup of coffee from the not so good.
Toughing it out
Lee’s knowledge and experience has grown exponentially since he entered the industry in 2013, but he admits it’s no walk in the park – especially in Singapore, where the F&B scene is extremely competitive and operational costs are high. “This is why my business remains online … cafes, even well-known ones, have been closing down. But even then, there will still be newcomers entering the market to roast and supply. There will still be strong and stiff competition; but competition means there is still demand,” says Lee.
Other challenges Lee speaks about include the small segment of consumers that prefer the local traditional coffee, aka “kopi”, (to which Lee adds on with: “Taste is very much based on individual preferences, and the challenge sometimes is meeting the expectations of different consumers. But with the customer’s feedback, I will source the suitable type of beans to suit their preferences.”) He also addresses the inevitable: cafes that pay attention to how “Instagrammable” their beverages look, instead of ensuring that their coffee actually tastes decent. “But that’s one way to attract millennials,” Lee guesses.
“I hope to see greater attention paid to the quality of coffee [in Singapore]… What keeps me going is the sense of meaning and satisfaction I get from delivering good coffee, which is always appreciated by my customers. I have regulars who claim they are ‘addicted’ to my coffee. That’s a responsibility I take upon myself: to continue to supply better coffee to these loyal customers,” says Lee.